A Survivor's Guide to Trans Savoie: How to Train & Prepare for an Enduro Stage Race
October 11th, 2016
October 11th, 2016
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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As of 2016, I became a Trans Savoie survivor. Why 'survivor' and not 'finisher'? Well, because to ride the Trans Savoie is to ride a wild animal; you never quite know if you're going to make it or not. Each year nearly a third of the pack fail to complete the race. The fittest of riders can get caught out by some of the most technical of trails, and the most skilled of riders can suffer from the effort of the transition climbs and distances, not to mention the odd hike-a-bike. Plus Shimano technicians famously called it "a bike breaker" of an event when supporting it in 2015. "I’ve been out in the Alps searching for great trails on and off since 1998, although back then I had no real vision or plan as to why I was doing it other than for my own personal adventure and excitement." says organiser, Ali, "Fast-forward nearly 20 years and the Trans-Savoie quite simply, is a showcase of what I personally believe are some of the world’s best big-mountain trails you can ride, period." While organiser, Ali, may seem to have a slightly sadistic take on the alpine stage race by making his events, bigger, longer and harder than any other enduro stage race on the planet, he has, in my opinion, awoken a sadistic part of ourselves to tackle the beast, and has made my surviving this event all the more of an achievement. This is not just an alpine suffer-fest, it is a 6-day long adventure with some of Europe's, and probably the World's, best descents. Cramming 25,000 metres into those 6-days means more miles for your money, but training and good preparation will ensure you have more smiles for your money too, so here's my top tips:
This is the bit we all want to know, and probably the bit we're all dreading. If you're looking for a training plan, I'm not going to spell it out for you. Sorry. The fact is, we are all at different levels already, and we all want different things from the event; those racing for the front spots will differ from those wanting to simply complete the event. Plus, not everyone can devote six days a week to training. Personally, I managed to survive on three days a week of training. So do what's best for you. The type of training required depends on how serious you want to take the event, but everyone should be capable of tackling at least one day (or better still, two days in a row) similar to those in the event. Generally, entrants are expected to have had Alpine or stage race experience. If you have, you are already ahead of the game in knowing what to expect and what to work on. For the rest, the good news is that you don't need to go to Europe to train, and you won't need to book another Alpine holiday to practice (although I can strongly recommend a guided tour by Ben Jones' MTB Adventures, who uses similar trails and distances), but you will need to find elements that resemble a day in the life of a survivor and put that into a plan. Mimick the intensity of the event and work on your weaknesses, but break each individual tasks into categories, for example, work on strength, riding endurance and skills separately so that you can really concentrate on each. Here's a few things you can do:
1. Familiarise Yourself with Mountains
Descents can be anything from 4km to 9km long. This is not your average 2km UK enduro, and you'll be surprised how much muscles start to scream when you go past your comfort zone. There will be times when you'll need to walk sections too, both up and downhill. Pride aside, it can sometimes be faster than riding. The important point to note here is that you'll need to get used to descending for a long time; like mountain long. Go to somewhere like Wales, Scotland or the Lake District, find big hills, ride up them, hike a bit of it with the bike on your shoulders too, and then ride down them. Imagine doing that 3-5 times in one day and you'll be close to the level of effort needed for the Trans Savoie. Need to spend time with the family one weekend? Take them hiking, but you carry all the sandwiches. Hill and mountain walking with a hefty bag on your bag will be good training for some of the transitions. Ali says; "the most important thing, I think, is coping with big, long days on the bike, day after day. Real big-mountain experience is way more important than being super fit and super fast around your local trails."
2. Skills Training; Make it Awkward
The descents vary from smooth trail centres, to mad, rocky, walkers' trails. Riding downhill tracks on your enduro bike will be a good start, but being able to ride awkward trails that weren't really designed with bikes in mind will bare more resemblance to the event. Try riding down hiking trails or off-the-beaten-track sheep trails. Obviously try to stay out of busy walking times, and make sure you're actually permitted to ride there. Mount Snowdon, in North Wales, unofficially allows cyclists on the trails, providing they are respectful of walkers. Also, try some proper 'black' downhill trails too. Not the fast ones with jumps, the awkward rooty or rocky ones. If you can't get abroad, go to places like Antur Stiniog and play around on the all the rocky bits. Oh, and forget using the uplift of course. You're training now. If you really want to be fast, or just don't want to be stopping and carrying your bike every 2 minutes, my big skills tip for you is to learn how to ride switchbacks. They're everywhere. Some tracks had tens of them back to back. Now, switchbacks may not be easy to find in the UK, but that doesn't stop you faking it on a hill with some cones or a jumper. Seriously, it may feel stupid, but if you can tackle a hair pin turn or learn to endo-turn awkward corners, then you're going to have a much smoother, more confidence inspiring run, and a massive advantage over the majority of the pack. Ali says; "Riding techincal trails, on first sight is also a skill that is essential, but kind of hard to train for. At the very least you need to learn to wind it back to 70% of your usual maximum and have the discipline not to get carried away. You can’t hold out at 100% on a 25-minute blind descent, well, not if you expect to complete all 6-days and 35 stages in one piece."
3. Match the Mileage
Check out the course preview and try to match the mileage. If you can't match the ascending and descending, and that's quite likely in the UK, just make sure you get as many all-dayers under your belt as possible. Fitness, stamina and endurance will be your strongest ally on the Trans Savoie. Try to cram in your long rides back to back at the weekend as well. Dedicate as many full weekends as possible to long rides on your enduro bike, and if you can afford a holiday to train in similar conditions (like Ben Jones' MTB Adventures), then do so. This will familiarise yourself with your bike and highlight any changes that need to be made. You will also learn how much food and water you will need. Top tip; if you're getting grumpy on long rides, you're not eating enough! Simple. You wouldn't drive a car without any fuel, would you?
4. Strengthen Up
One of my descents took around 20 minutes to get down, the rest were never much shorter than 10 minutes either. Have you ever stood in that position for that long? Well, if not, things are going to hurt. Strengthening up will minimise this. If you can't go to the gym, it doesn't matter, buy a couple of kettle bells and a start a YouTube workout for 45 minutes at home two or three times a week. If you want to go to the gym and pump some iron, then you want a 'strength endurance' style work out. We're looking for low intensity and high volume here; medium weights with say 15 reps and 4-6 sets. You don't need outright power to survive, you just need to sustain a certain level of effort to keep you upright. Plus, big muscles are just more prone to cramping and forearm pump anyway, and they weigh you down on the climbs, so don't worry about 'getting hench' just yet. Muscles are not enduro. Whatever you do, just try to use moves that mimmic riding, or use similar muscles, like a kettle bell 'squat and swing', which works the legs, arms and core. Or if you're really pressed for time, just try and do some push ups at home, perhaps a plank for as long as possible, or some single leg squats on the bottom step of your stairs with your own body weight a few times a week. Don't get caught up stressing about what's wrong or right if you're just starting out, as something is better than nothing.
It's fair to say that nothing will prepare you for Trans Savoie, or indeed any similar event, than the event itself, obviously, but the above will certainly give you a good idea of what to expect. If this all seems like a lot of work, then just pick out one or two weaknesses and work on that. I have a good level of fitness from cross-country and mountain bike marathon racing, so I survived quite well on the odd long bike ride and full weekends of downhill riding on the enduro bike, as the latter was my weakness. Find yours and work on that, but trust me, the more you train, the less effort it will be, and the more energy you'll have to enjoy the ride when you're out there.
The Kit List
Most events, including the Trans Savoie, will send you a kit list prior to the event, but we all have our little quirks and individualisms. Trans Savoie is a camping-only event, so you need to think about camping comforts as well as riding comforts. Here's my insight:
Well obviously you need a bike, and an enduro bike no less. Hardtails have been known to tackle the Trans Savoie, but whatever you choose, as long as you are comfortable descending very technical terrain on it for tens of minutes, and climbing on it for hours on end, then you're good to go. Personally, I'd recommend something slack with 140mm or more of travel in the rear, and 150mm or more up front, but you need to be your own guide here. Either way, what you really want is a dropper seat post, tough sidewalls on your tyres, and strong wheels.
Take as many spares as you can fit into your bag; chains, chain rings, cables, handlebar grips, rear mech, mech hangers, brake levers, maxles, and anything specific to your bike. I saw every one of these items broken during my time at the 2016 Trans Savoie. The mechanics will be on hand to help you fix things, and they can bleed brakes if they have time, but if you can bring your own kit, that would ensure it gets done. My rear tyre was shredded after a fews days, the sealant had dried out after one day, and I bent my mech, my rear disc rotor and the mech hanger. I also used a quick link in the chain. If you're running a single ring on the front, I'd strongly recommend the addition of a good chain guide too.
You will be advised to bring your own pillow and sleeping bag. I took a three-season sleeping bag, but as we were camping close to valleys on regular campsites, I actually found that a tad too thick. A summer bag would have done, with a silk liner and thermal base layers for pyjamas in case it got chilly. This would save space in your designated luggage bag too. I would strongly recommend some earplugs, and a head torch as well, and some wet wipes and anti-bacterial hand gel wouldn't go a miss either.
Riding and Eating
You'll be given a kit list for riding; summer clothing, wet weather clothing, and all the tools and spares you can fit in your backpack. Check the compulsory kit list too; Trans Savoie insists on full-face helmets, knee pads and back-protectors. On hot days, temperatures exceed 30 degrees, so you won't want to ride in a full-face helmet. Think about a removable jaw protector, or bringing a spare half-shell for transitions. If you're buying new, try to buy a light colour, not black, as it'll reflect the heat better. Water and feed stations are very limited, so take as much as you can carry. I insist on bringing my own energy bars so that I know I'll be able to eat whenever I want to, and so I know my digestive system is comfortable with them. You can't rely on the feed station or a local shop popping up when you need it. You're likely to want around 3 litres of water too. If you're a sweaty rider, and you're likely to be in body armour and 30 degree plus heats, then you'll want to look into electrolyte tablets or carbohydrate powder with electrolytes for your water. This will keep you hydrated and feeling more attentive.
My big tip in preparing your kit is to lay out everything you think you need and do a dry run packing. Buy or borrow a bag that is the same size as your designated event kit bag and make sure everything fits. There's nothing worse than arriving and having to make snap decisions about what to keep and what to leave. Remember; the only things you'll need to pack in there is everything you won't be using during the day, so you won't need to be putting things like your helmets, body armour, back pack and riding shoes in there. Just everything you won't be riding in; spares, camping stuff, toiletries and clothes. Ali says; "Pay attention to eating and drinking properly, and pack the right kit. Build your bike for comfort and reliability, over lightweight and performance. Its heavily uplift assisted after all, and the physical effort you need on the downhills will depend on how much you choose to attack the trail."
You've trained, you've packed the right gear, and you've prepared your bike for some of the toughest riding it's ever done. The worst thing you can do is throw all of that away in the first day by getting caught up in the race and smashing yourself, or your bike, in the first 10 minutes. During our 2016 briefing, we were told that most crashes happen on day one, and we were the first year to not have someone taken to hospital or have to search for a replacement bike (although one guy who turned up on a cross-country bike did put himself out of the race). So with all this in mind, my race day advice would be to take it steady. Even if you're aiming for the top spot, the fastest person will still be a person who doesn't crash. Ali says; "You need to ride sympathetically for your steed, else it aint going to last the week. Lets not forget, in 6 days you’re riding more trail in the Trans-Savoie than an entire season of the Enduro World Series, but without the option to strip down and rebuild your bike after every round. And if you are not going for a top ten placement, then don’t kill yourself pedalling out of every corner and taking huge risks. Just chill out, and enjoy the ride!".
Now, don't make me say the "fail to prepare" phrase. Chances are, if you're mad enough to enter, then you're probably already prepared to ride the Trans Savoie, but collating a few camping comforts, some extra riding food, plenty of spares for your bike, and putting in some training will increase your chances of completing the event, and may even give you the edge to properly compete in your category. 2017 will be the 5th anniversary and Ali wants to make it a special one. "The ultimate goal for me would be to get all the 'legends' of our sport together again for one week." says Ali, "I’d love to see Peaty vs Voullioz vs Barel vs Wildhaber vs all the other past winners of Trans-Savoie and the after-party would be epic! Watch this space. I don’t tend to give up on these crazy ideas too easily!". And we're glad you don't Ali. Keep an eye out for Ali's new pairs-format weekend race; Enduro2. By racing in pairs, the whole thing becomes a lot more sociable and good fun, and a lot less serious. "I’m currently planning a brand new Enduro2 in September 2017, at a brand new secret location outside of France" says Ali, "I can’t wait to show people the awesome new trails and terrain that I’ve found there. I’ll be releasing more details about that on our website and facebook page over the next month or so.".