As if France didn’t already have a reputation for hosting the world’s greatest races, the Trans-Savoie is a 6 day Enduro mountain bike race in the Savoie region of France that falls nothing short of epic.
In recent years, the word “epic” has become rather exploited when describing places and events that, while they may be great, fall short of it’s true meaning. Because of this, the impact of the word has somewhat tapered. However, the Trans-Savoie can truly be described as “epic.”
The Trans-Savoie is a 6 day Enduro mountain bike race in the Savoie region of France. It’s a hell of a race, and the following stats say so themselves:
~300km in length (~180 miles)
~32,000 m of descending (~105,000 ft)
~7,500 m climbing (~25,000 ft)
Some of the most insane terrain you’ve ever seen.
A map from day 1 which consisted of 2000m of climbing (over 6000 ft) and just over 2500m (around 8000 ft) of descending. We were not eased in gently.
With these types of massive statistics, it’s clear this race is not for everyone, but if you’re fit, have a true sense of adventure, and enjoy pushing your limits, this race should definitely be on your bucket list.
A few lines from the Trans-Savoie website stood out when I first looked into the details. These lines are what made the race attractive to me, and ultimately made me decide to sign up. Now that I’ve completed the race, I wanted to take a look at those lines that drew me in, and evaluate their truth, while at the same time sharing the story of this experience.
Statement #1: “More of a high alpine expedition than an mtb enduro”
According to a quick Google search, an expedition is a journey or voyage undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, scientific research, or war.
I’m going to go ahead and check the box next to “expedition.” 130 mountain bikers, from 22 different countries, with incredibly varied backgrounds and lives, assembled in France with a common purpose. As we huddled under the tent on day 0 to listen to the race briefing it became apparent that despite the varied paths that had led us to this point, the goal as a group was clear: Make it through the next 6 days without serious injury to bike or body, while trying to have some fun. Some would try to finish near the top or on the top of the box, others simply wanted to survive the week. Some, like me, were pretending they just wanted to survive, but secretly held onto the desire to place well.
A rider drops into the boulder field that was the beginning of, in my opinion, one of the best stages of the week.
If we look at the most common reasons for an expedition from the definition above, I like to think that at least in a figurative sense, we hit all three over the course of this event. We weren’t purposefully engaging in scientific research or war, but we were testing our bodies, minds and machines, which could be considered scientific research, and at times we were at war. Whether it was with fellow competitors, the terrain, our bikes, the weather, or our emotions; at some point in this event, most of us engaged in battle. Exploration is the more obvious purpose that you could apply to this voyage. We were travelling through unfamiliar territory, learning as we went, both about the Savoie region itself, and about our skills as mountain bikers.
…after my worst stage of the week, a flat, at least 2 downpours, and a wrong turn, day 2 had me wanting to go home.
From my perspective, it certainly moved more towards the expedition side as the days progressed. On day one, I still had illusions that I could treat the week like a race. I was knocked down a peg by stage 2, where the awkward rock gardens near the top and the slippery waterfalls near the bottom ensured that I became closely acquainted with the granite mountainside. However, the last stages of the day made me feel like I could still push it. On day 2, those illusions were smashed to smithereens by more incredibly challenging terrain and wet conditions. Thankfully, that day ended on a high note, because after my worst stage of the week, a flat, at least 2 downpours, and a wrong turn, day 2 had me wanting to go home. By day 3, which would end up being one of my favorite days, I was realizing that the best course of action was to take it back a notch and keep the rubber side down (even if that rubber was sometimes on the soles of my shoes instead of my tires). I realized it was more about enduring the journey, about survival, and about trusting my abilities while knowing my limits than about going top speed at all times. To me that sounds more like the description of an expedition than a race.
The trails were out of this world, and the views before dropping in weren’t bad either…
Statement #2: “truly levels-the-playing-field between the technically brilliant, the athletically fit, the mentally determined, and the mindful strategist”
Check. You need to be all of these things to win this event. The trails are the most technical trails I have ever ridden. Imagine the most root laden, the most rocky, the steepest, the slipperiest, the fastest, the most awkward sections of trail you’ve ever ridden. Now string them all together, and sprinkle in a mammoth sized dosage of gnarly, tight, steep switchbacks. Combine that with some of the most fun and flowing sections of trail you’ve ever ridden. Mix thoroughly. What you have is 6 hours of bone jarring, rough, fast, slick, awkward, tight, incredible racing. That’s the recipe for the Trans-Savoie. Oh wait, that’s just the timed bit. Also add the icing on the cake: anywhere between 2500 and 6500 ft of climbing/hiking per day, and every type of uplift imaginable to link together these stages. We were usually gone from the campsite by between 8 and 10am and didn’t typically return until between 5 and 7pm. You can’t complete this without being technically savvy, and fit.
As for the mentally determined bit, I have to reiterate the above. Fun as it may be, this race was hard. Your mental capacity tends to start to wane as much as your body after that many hours working hard on your bike. Racing blind also required adding a whole new skill necessity to an already full quiver of bike handling skills. Reading the terrain quickly enough to choose the best path and execute it was the key to this event. Staying sharp mentally after so many hours is not an easy task. I got to the point during the latter half of the race, where I knew that on a good day, I could go faster on certain sections of trail, but I had to hold back because I knew my reaction times had slowed (not to mention the hand cramps). Those who weren’t mentally strong would crumble, and strategy came into play in speed vs. safety decisions.
In between the gnarly stages, transfers included stops for cokes and pastries at mountainside cafes, as well as stunning views, trips through historic villages and some serious hikes.
Strategy also came into play in a few other ways. The race has no start order, or necessary time between each rider starting. As you might guess, this leads to a good deal more passing than in your usual enduro race. I had several runs where I was passing rider after rider in various forms of distress. I also had several runs where I was passed by multiple people. Placing yourself in the appropriate spot in the lineup could have a major play in how much time ticked by on the clock. I feel that Russell and I put each other at a bit of a disadvantage by riding together. It seemed like no matter where we were, either I was being passed a ton, or he was having to pass a bunch of people. We got it right a few times and snuck in between just the right groups, and those were the runs we both did best on.
The race also allows for one Wildcard for each racer in case of a mechanical on course. I, for example, flatted on a stage, and thinking I was close to the bottom, decided to run with my bike to the end. I was not near the end. So after about a kilometre of trail running, I changed my flat. This cost me a good 20 minutes. So I asked to use my wildcard. Now, how I understood a wildcard, was that they would calculate your average placement so far in the race, and give you a time that reflected that average place. However, what ended up happening was that you just got the time of the 20th rider to cross the finish line for the day. So, this could be either good or bad. Do you use your wildcard? What if it’s the beginning of the week? Might something else go even more horribly wrong? Do you hoard it and potentially not use it later, and then wish you’d used it for that mechanical on the first day? Strategy.
Statement #3: “the two wheeled challenge of your life”
I’m not going to lie, I came into this event thinking I was a bit of a badass. I’ve done long days, I’ve done world cup and world series races, I’ve done technical trails, I’ve done 30,000 ft of descending in one day, I’ve done 12 hour races solo. I was pretty sure this couldn’t be THAT much harder than what I’d done before. Humbling is a word I regularly use to describe this race to my riding friends. I was humbled on a daily basis.
I’m sure there is room for argument here, from xc style stage racers, from Leadville competitors, from Tour de Whatever roadies, but certainly for me, this was the two wheeled challenge of my life to date. I intend to sample some similar races in the future, so I’ll try to keep you posted if any end up being more challenging than this. I think it’s the sheer variety of skills you need that makes this such a challenging race format compared to the other types of races I’ve listed. It goes back to statement #2. You can’t win this race simply by being the most fit, you need to excel at all the facets of your riding.
Team Brennan had some highs and lows during this race, but the highs always won.
This race however, was not only the challenge of my life, but also one of the best experiences of my life. My husband and I entered together and rode each and every stage in train formation. He quickly dropped me for the majority of the descents, but we suffered together through the climbs and the mental trials and tribulations of each day. We each endured at least one mental breakdown after particularly bad stages, but the highs and lows came quickly, and we also shared in the triumphs. “That was the best trail I’ve ever ridden!” and “I felt like I was the best rider in the world” were exclaimed after multiple stages, and high fives were abundant. What’s funny is, now that it’s over, the highs are all I can really focus on. For each stage where you felt like you must have forgotten how to ride your bike, for each stage where you felt like they were trying to punish you with the relentless steep, rooty, rocky, often unrideable switchbacks, there was a stage that would blow your mind with it’s awesomeness to balance it out. Finishing the race with a train ride on a historic tramway, followed by a 10km, full speed, singletrack descent (with no running required!) down Mont Blanc was a sure fire way to ensure a good review and return customers. I didn’t see a single person come down after that final stage without a huge, brimming smile on their face.
The final day ended with a rowdy charge down 10km of incredible trail in the shadow of Mont Blanc. The historic Mont Blanc tramway, and a specially commissioned railcar for our bikes took us to the top.
Trans-Savoie beer at one of our most scenic campsites met us at the bottom. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the event.
Before I finish, I should give huge thanks to Trail Addiction and the volunteers that make this race possible. There was so much organization and hard work on their side to make things run smoothly. It’s hard to keep so many moving parts moving together, and they did a great job. Shimano also deserves huge props. Every night they had a line of bikes at their tent, and they addressed all the problems with a smile and a few tips for next time. The race was incredibly hard on bikes and if it weren’t for Shimano’s support, there would have been many of us who would’ve struggled even more to finish.
I’ll come back to my original point. This is a hell of a race. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.
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