Transvesubienne - The Race

I have two questions.

Question one: Is it possible to complete what is widely regarded as the world’s toughest one-day race on a 13yr old bike?

The race in question is of course the Transvesubienne. I had already secured my entry to the 24hr World Championship in northern Italy. I was messing about one the internet one day when I came across the details of this race, ‘from the Alps to the beach in Nice.’ That sounds fun and oddly enough I shall be in the area anyway, it’s right on the Italian border, so I entered it, not really sure what it was all about. I had actually never heard of it before so I started to do a little research, every article I read about it started with either ‘the world’s toughest one-day race’ or ‘the hardest race in France’ or something very similar, and this report has just added one more to that list for anyone doing the same next year. Normally I would relish the challenge, but a week after a 24hr? This could all go a bit wrong. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

The bike is not the obvious choice for a race like this. I do have a garage full of exotic modern carbon-fibre machines, but they are all lightweight race bikes, and all have ISPs, which could be a liability on a course like this. All of them would be even less suitable than the old DH bike and the two I was taking to Italy probably wouldn’t be in very good condition after that race anyway, so the big-bike was pressed into service, with a bit of encouragement from the guys over at Retrobike. I was quite surprised how much attention it got at the race, much more than most of the modern bikes, and a couple of people even asking me if they could take photos of it.

I did make a few concessions to modern technology. [Nerdy bit] I upgraded the rear shifter to an XTR SL-M970, the same as my other bikes to prevent me running on instinct and pressing the wrong button. It would be an ideal match for the M972-SGS rear mech, although this had been working perfectly well with the retro M950 shifter. I upgraded the brakes, the idea of attempting Alpine descents with a set of closed-system Hope C2s didn’t really appeal, the potential for overheating was just too great. I had acquired a set of 203mm Formula The Ones from Germany and had spent a few days at Afan Argoed earlier in the season getting used to them. I did swap the pads for a set of Alligator sintered hard-compound pads, supplied by Mt Zoom, I already had a set of their gear cables fitted. My final alteration was the installation of a big red panic button on the bars, dropper posts were pretty much ubiquitous for this race. They are overkill on most descents in the UK but I was very pleased I had mine here. [/Nerdy bit]

We were to start in three waves. The top 300 riders would be off first at 6:30am, the next 350 at 6:45am and the final 350, which was mainly composed of novices like me, at 7am. I had been dragged out of bed at 5:30am as we had to be on the line half an hour before our starts and I was expecting that a fairly substantial breakfast would be required for this race. Porridge really confuses the French, they don’t know whether it’s a soup or a pudding or something else entirely. Very good with maple syrup though.

Starting in the final group was an unfamiliar experience for me, but following the 24hr race the previous week I knew that I would be tired and would have no chance of a decent result so I had said that I wasn’t taking this one seriously, just a bit of fun, enjoying it, having a look at the scenery and just trying to make it to the finish.

Yeah, right. Try telling a racer to take it easy.

We started by racing down a ski-slope, complete with slalom course. Although in the final group I made sure to get a front row start, over on the right hand side. Having watched the faster groups go I knew this to be the better side for entry into the first turn. I’m sure you can imagine how fast the start was, certainly the fastest start I have ever done, and rather intimidating with 350 riders trying to force their way passed me, one slip up from any of us could bring the whole thing to a rather sudden end. We reached the bottom unscathed, turned right and headed up the hill, riding up next to the ski lift on which we had ridden to the start of the prologue the day before.

The climb seemed to go on forever, just getting steeper and steeper. We passed the top of the ski-slope and continued to climb, the ground getting more and more rocky as we went. We did eventually reach the summit and then plunged down the next decent. This began wide and fast but quickly narrowed into a little ledge, a rather substantial drop to our right, getting more and more difficult to ride as we went along. The next climb was just as brutal as the first one had been.

I did comment to someone that I hoped they had thrown us in at the deep-end, trying to break those who wouldn’t make it early on, rather than easing us in gently. I was wrong, very, very wrong. This opening section was just a little teaser. The course was like nothing I have ever ridden before, I was scared for pretty much all of every decent, the riding was far more technical than anything I had done before, racing or not, and I’ve spent some time living in Scotland and riding the Highlands. If one includes the previous day’s prologue, and I do, then the total descent was around 20,000ft and the total climbing around 12,000ft, all in 86km. It doesn’t sound far, and it isn’t, but the hard bit wasn’t the distance!

Like with most long races the full story of it escapes my mind, but certain sections remain, although I don’t think that I can do the terrain or the views justice in mere words here.

Eventual winner Francois Bailly-Maitre
Photographers seem to loose interest in me if I'm not near the front, so I'm
having to use pictures of other people.
 We bunched up fairly quickly, riding in such tight formation, line astern, on terrain like this was actually rather infuriating, one person fluffing a turn would bring dozens of people to a sudden halt. This wasn’t helped by the fact that those of us near the front of my group had caught the stragglers from the group ahead of us, despite their 15 minute head-start over us. There were so few overtaking opportunities that a few people were taking silly risks, that high up a mountain any slip could have been disastrous, possibly fatal. I didn’t see anyone hurt on this section though.

The first feed stop was about 2 hours into the race, I grabbed a cup of water and a banana and carried straight on, I didn’t want to stop to top up my own water supply despite the heat as this was too good a chance a miss to leapfrog a load of stragglers from the group in front.

Actually, the heat was quite peculiar. The day had started chilly, a combination of altitude and early morning but it had very quickly warmed up, and it was quite a dry heat. We were above the snow line a couple of times but it didn’t feel cold.

Anyway, plunging down the hill from the first feed-stop I realised why there aren’t many mass-start downhill races, it would have been a tricky enough descent had I been on my own. It was very narrow, very twisty, all switchbacks and drops off various rocks and roots, the ground quite loose under our wheels. A certain amount of speed was required in order to negotiate the drops successfully but not so much that one would collect the rider in front when he braked for the next turn. It was on this section that I had my first crash, coming into a tight left-hander the rider in front of me ran a little wide to allow me passed, I tried to get up the inside of him, cutting the turn quite tight. It was a switchback, quite steep down. As I turned back on to the racing line my big ring dug into a huge tree root. My own weight launched me over the front of the bike, I flew across the track, landed between the two trees on the opposite side but my momentum carried me down the hill, across the next bit of track, fortunately without bringing any other riders down, and then to rest rather abruptly against a tree on the far side of that track. I climbed back up to retrieve my bike and carried on, although it had cost me a few places.

There were a lot of sections which it was simply impossible to ride, we were climbing up with the bikes on our shoulders, which is harder than it sounds. The weight of the bike was unbalancing me and of course holding on to that meant I couldn’t use my hands to help me climb the rocks, which were rather slippery in SPDs, it was little nerve-wracking in some places. I don’t know for sure if any of the drops have killed anyone but pretty much all of them looked as if they could.

I had a bit of a problem with my front brake around 4 hours into the race, and stopped to fix it, another modern part not working properly. Jen Hopkins came passed me at this point and stopped to check if I was OK. She had started in the group in front of me, but I hadn’t seen her when I had passed her, obviously concentrating too hard. I sorted the brake and rejoined the race.

This next section of the track was much more open, fewer trees and some stunning views across the mountains.

We continued down to Le Brec and the next checkpoint and feed stop before the big climb up to Madone de Utelle. There was a lot more climbing with the bikes on our shoulders before we eventually reached the summit and set off down the other side.

That man Maitre again, leaving the top of Madone de Utelle. I have no idea
who that is chasing him, it isn't me, I was miles behind. 
While climbing down here I heard a lot of shouting from somewhere way above me, in French unfortunately so I didn’t get the warning. I turned to see what the noise was about just as I was struck on the ankle by a head-size rock, just on the sticky-out bone on the side, luckily glancing blow before it continued it’s journey down the mountain. The pain was unbelievable and I must confess that I did scream like a girl. I had a sit down for a few minutes to wait for the pain to subside. Pedalling afterwards hurt, and climbing on foot hurt a lot. I’m not sure exactly when it got better but when comparing injuries after the race it occurred to me that it was no longer hurting, so no damage done.

There was another urban DH section, similar to the previous day’s prologue as we neared the Pont de Cros, the lowest point on the course before the finish. It was very tight, very twisty, lots of stairways and alleys. I had a very quick pit stop at the Mavic van to re-lube the drivetrain, I think it was quicker than any of the pit stops going on down the road at Monaco that weekend!

Heading down towards Pont de Cros.
We had been racing for nearly six hours by this stage and I actually thought we had passed through Levens. I was somewhat alarmed when I verified this with one of my fellow competitors (after spending some time trying to find the correct words in French we realised his English was far better than my French). We were about half way through, and I was knackered, the previous week’s 24hr was really starting to take it’s toll.

The climb from there seemed to go forever, a relentless succession of false summit after false summit, over 2,000ft up, mostly with bike over my shoulder again. It was nearly an hour before I reached the top and began the decent. It was well worth the climb though, the decent was like riding through some sort of Martian landscape. The rocks were a very peculiar shape and texture, although quite grippy. The track swooped down several hundred feet through what appeared to be an old quarry of some sort, despite being downhill it was very slow, just keeping the bike under control was hard enough, without worrying about racing anyone.

It eventually leveled out and I was able to pick the speed up again, although this was short lived as we soon began the next climb.

Daniele Troesch heading for second in the women's race.
I had to stop again to give a little attention to my front brake, Vik came passed me this time and checked I was OK. It took about 10 minutes to get it sorted and then I set off in pursuit of him.

However, the first person I found was Tim, he was at the next checkpoint, looking absolutely drained, trying to get as much flapjack into himself as he could in an attempt to revive his legs, although he said afterwards it was the many mars bars which did the trick, no substitute for a bit of chocolate.

We knew Vik was right in front of us, and possibly Mark too, the thought did cross our minds that it would be nice to be the first Brit home but more to the point, that the checkpoints were becoming an issue. I had sailed through the first one with over an hour to spare, the next with around 30 minutes and had cleared this one with 14 minutes in hand. I knew I was getting slower and the next one was still some way off, this wasn’t going to be easy. Tim put the hammer down and began to pull away from me.

Half an hour later we had reached the top of the next hill and we felt the first few drops of rain. Within 20 minutes we were riding in a storm like none I had ever seen before. We were still at about 3,500ft and the cloud base was well under 5,000ft, when it’s that close the thunder is probably the loudest thing I have ever heard! I couldn’t really see any lightning, there were no forks or even sheets of it, instead the whole sky would flash with it, a stark contrast to the black it had suddenly become.

The rain was becoming more and more intense, just seeing where we were going was a challenge. It was painful to attempt to look forwards, I was trying to see where I was going by turning my head side-on to the driving rain and hail and attempting to see out the corner of my eye. Not ideal on a downhill section pushing 30mph. Didn’t stop me reaching for the big ring though…

It was during this storm that I quite unexpectedly came across the final checkpoint, a quick dab on the timing system, I don’t want to stop for a drink when the weather’s like that, and anyway I had hardly drunk anything in the last hour. It was a huge relief to clear this final checkpoint, all I had to do now was keep going, it didn’t matter how long the rest of the race took.

I have  no idea who they are.
The storm did eventually clear and the sun re-emerged, drying everything surprising quickly. From the top of this hill I could see a city on the horizon, tower blocks rising up with the sea behind them. Nice! Must be almost there now.

Not quite.

From this summit we plunged down into yet another valley and then climbed back up to the final ridge overlooking the city. It was here that I found Vik, absolutely exhausted but determined to finish. The descent from here was quite surreal. We were plunging down a very steep hill, it would have been interesting but not too difficult under normal circumstances but this far into the race my shoulders and elbows had no strength left and I was fighting just to hold onto the bike. What made it interesting was the undergrowth, well above head height we were all pushing through it as fast as we could, literally unable to see more than about 3 feet ahead, heads down, using our helmets to bash a way through, hoping there were no nasty surprises around the next corner, and sudden drops or huge boulders.

I made it to the bottom unscathed and into the north side of the city. My upper-body strength had completely deserted me, there were two substantially gullies to cross which ended up as team effort from myself and the man just in front of me to get both of us and both bikes through and up the other side.

Even as we neared the finishing line the race still had a few surprises for us. We crossed a lot of the city by racing along a dried-up riverbed and then entered a network of tunnels under the city, emerging back into the daylight almost within sight of the line.

The locals were out in force to cheer us we finished, as indeed they had been for the whole race, even at the most inaccessible places, the French are excellent spectators.

I had been expecting the race to take me about 8 hours, it was in fact just 10:54:03. I was completely wrecked, both body and mind, although it appeared that the bike was still functioning better than me. 1,000 started, exactly 400 finished. I think anyone that survived deserves a huge round of applause.

I will give a special mention to Jenn Hopkins, 3rd place in the women’s race is a great achievement and makes her top Brit. It nearly didn’t happen, she cleared the penultimate checkpoint with 10 seconds to spare. The whole race took her 11:41:09, it just goes to show that even in one that long every second counts!

So to answer the original question, is it possible to complete what is widely regarded as the world’s toughest one-day race on a 13yr old bike? Yes..

Question two: Is it a good idea to attempt this the week after a 24hr race?
No. It will hurt. A lot

Top five and other British riders

1         Francois Bailly-Maitre                France
2         Gustav Wildaber                        Switzerland
3         Frederic Frech                           France
4         Henn Ojala                                Finland
5         Florian Golay                             Switzerland

219     Tim MacKley                             Great Britain
293     Andrew Howett                          Great Britain
366     Vik Chaudhuri                            Great Britain
DNF   Mark Neill                                  Great Britain
DNF   Gary Hill                                    Great Britain
DNF   Martin Gee                                Great Britain

1       Nadine Sapin                               France
2       Daniele Troesch                           France
3       Jenn Hopkins                               Great Britain
4       Sandra Rudel                               France
5       Masse Feuillard                            France

DNF Mona Petri                                   Great Britain

Gratuitous bike picture for the Retrobike guys, before and after shots.


I know a few of you have stumbled across this website while searching the google for information about the Transvesubienne. Don’t worry, I can see where you have come from but not who you are! I would guess some of you would be like I was a few months ago, looking around trying to see if entering it is a good idea. Actually, I entered it first, then looked around to see if was a good idea… Yes, I would definitely recommend it, it is an amazing experience and an excellent way to get to parts of the Alps you would not otherwise see. However, if you are a novice, don’t treat it as a race, you will starting so far back you will have no chance of a result, once you have proved yourself you can start at the front. It will be much, much harder than you think it will be. Yes, I know you think it will be hard, but it will be harder than that. Just do it to enjoy it, and you will.

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