Racing the Trans-Sylvania Epic

Week-long mountain bike stage racing comes to Pennsylvania in 2010

Every year, more and more mountain bike stage races pop up to satisfy the ever increasing demand. One of the newest is the Trans-Sylvania Epic, which will debut in May of 2010.  It joins two other relatively new American events - the Breck Epic and Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race - on a crowded international calendar. Cyclingnews' Sue George met with Trans-Sylvania Epic promoter Mike Kuhn and checked out some of the trails that will feature in the inaugural edition of the race.

State College, Pennsylvania, is already the host of several epic races like the Wilderness 101 and the Stoopid 50, 101 and 50 mile events, respectively.  The borough also played host to the 2005 Singlespeed Worlds. However, the Trans-Sylvania Epic is the first stage race to be based near the Central Pennsylvania town.

While most Americans know State College as the home of Penn State University and its popular football team under the now 43-year guidance of Coach Joe Paterno, mountain bikers know it as a favourite off-road riding destination on the East Coast. With much public land nearby, the area boasts plenty of miles of trails, including many rocky, technical tracks that will test the most experienced riders.

"Pennsylvania has some pretty incredible trails. There are tons and tons of places to ride," says race promoter Mike Kuhn. "It's well located geographically to two-thirds of US population. It seems like a great place on the East Coast for this sort of multi-day event."

What's on tap at the Trans-Sylvania Epic is a seven-day stage race at venues around State College including Rothrock State Forest, Bald Eagle State Forest and Raystown Lake. The stage race is scheduled for May 30 to June 5, 2010.

Until 2009, there were few mountain bike stage race options within the United States. 2009 saw the first editions of two events: the six-day Breck Epic in Colorado and the four-day Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race in North Carolina. A proposed event for the Catskills, north of New York City, never materialized.

"We felt like the East Coast is ripe for this kind of race. There is nothing of this scope east of Colorado. It's a good geographic location for people to get here easily and inexpensively. If you live in New England, Chicago, Atlanta, it's worth the commitment to do a week-long stage race. It's a one-day drive or less from so many places. Because no one was doing this yet, we wanted to come out with something that is a strong contender to be the event on the East Coast."

The birth of a stage race

The seeds for the Trans-Sylvania were planted with the formation of a team, not a race. Mike Kuhn and partner Ray Adams are the men behind the successful VisitPA.com mountain bike team, which has featured racers like Ryan Leech, Wes Schempf, Rob Lichtenwalner, Mike Yozell, Mike Hebe and Nancy Adams. After seeing success off-road the team also began racing cyclo-cross and it may add some triathlons to the event calendar for 2010.

Unfortunately, the team's primary sponsor, a tourism organization for Pennsylvania, has felt the effects of a deflated economy, so PAvalleys.com will take over title sponsorship for next year. "We drove a lot of traffic to the website through the team. They would have stayed on if it weren't for massive budget cuts," said Kuhn.

Kuhn says he has been thinking about the Trans-Sylvania stage race for at least five years since the start of the VisitPA.com team. "I think it's been an evolutionary process. I'm sure I got the idea from the TransAlp or another event like that. I thought it'd be something great to do here."

"It has taken a lot of time to bring together, and we've been committed to working on it for two years. There's been plenty of work behind the scenes to get it to where it is. Ray Adams and I work very well together. The team, our first collaboration, proved to be a good partnership."

Kuhn, who resides in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with his family, promotes mountain bike races throughout the Mid-Atlantic that are part of the Mid Atlantic Super Series (MASS). Adams, who lives in Harrisburg, has been in cycling since he was a junior. "He and I met each other through racing when I was at school at Bucknell University. We stayed in touch and we raced each other for a few years after that. While he was not serious about [competing in] the sport, I was serious about it and then I became less serious and he became more serious."

Starting a seven-day stage race during a recession hasn't been easy. "'Tough' is probably an understatement. We've run the gamut from having something in place to announce a year prior to when we did and then sponsorship went away and we had to start all over and re-determine how to make this all work," said Kuhn. "That was frustrating, but it's been something we've been able to work through. We think that we can make this work without a major sponsor onboard, but of course, we'd like to have one." The pair continues to recruit a major sponsor for the race.

Expectations

"We are hoping to have 200-300 riders in our first year," said Kuhn. "Based on what we've seen at Pisgah and Breck, in their initial years, they didn't have quite that many people. But we're hopeful. It's a good value. If you look at stage race as a week-long event, it's less expensive than most - whether you look at it as total price or average price per day. The travel will also be less expensive for more people."

Every stage race that succeeds seems to find itself a niche. Some have catered to teams, some to individuals, some to both. Most also feature a uniquely beautiful setting, whether in the jungles of Costa Rica, the Alps of Europe or the northern Rockies of Canada.

The Trans-Sylvania will be run through the Appalachian Mountains of the East Coast, with its lush, green, sometimes mossy deciduous forests. Anyone who's spent the spring and summer in Pennsylvania will realize that the race will be run at the same time that the white and pink mountain laurel are starting to bloom throughout the woods.

"It's a beautiful time to ride in Pennsylvania. We're through the wettest part of the year. It's not hot and humid yet. It's comfortable." Kuhn scheduled the race around the other major stage races plus he wanted it to overlap with a holiday weekend – in this case, Memorial Day – when many Americans will already have at least one day that week off work.

The Trans-Sylvania has a few other things going for it. Unlike the Breck Epic, the race is not at altitude. It also feels like it in a remote area, but it's easy to get there on major highways or via air travel, and finally, it will run a full range of solo and team categories to suit just about everyone.

"We're offering a tandem category - coed and male. We also have open and corporate team categories, too. You can have three to six people on a team, but you have to have three people finish each day to count," said Kuhn. "The team is not penalized if all riders don't ride every day." The team option is for any group of friends, bike clubs or corporations. "If you live within a few-hour drive, you can go back and forth – do a few days and take a break. That makes it more family friendly, too." Unlike some stage races, team members do not have to stay together during the stages - each racer can compete at his or her own individual pace.

Kuhn, who has a young son, intends to make the entire event more family friendly than most stage races. To start with, the race will be hosted at the Seven Mountains Scout Camp, just outside of State College. Camping in tents and staying cabins and bunkhouses are options and all stages will start from the camp or within an hour's drive, so there will be no accommodation transfers between stages.

He is pitching the race as a vacation opportunity for the whole family. "Sure, we'll have good racing, but we'll be pulling out all the stops to make it feasible for someone to bring their family. We want to make it so that if you take a week of your life to do a bike race, you can bring your family, kids, spouse along and they can feel part of it and enjoy themselves."

"We'll do that through kids' activities, day care opportunities, shuttles to various locations on the course, and shuttles for those who want to spend a day being a tourist in State College," said Kuhn.

The host camp includes a pool and places for RVs to park, and options for accommodation or meals will be priced a la carte. "There are some kitchen facilities so you can cook your own or you could have someone else prepare your meals."

It will be Kuhn's first time promoting such a long stage race, but he's not new to the multi-day format. "I've promoted three-day, four-stage events in the past with camping on site, in particular a small version of this, the Mid Atlantic Super Series Festival and Race Weekend in Marysville, Pennsylvania."

However, the scope of a week-long event is much bigger, and both Kuhn and Adams have stepped down the hours they work their non-stage race jobs in order to concentrate more on the Trans-Sylvania planning and execution.

The trails

Wilderness 101 race veterans will be versed with the State College area as a mix of fireroads and tight, mountain-laurel-lined singletrack, with the occasional rocky outcrop. With seven days of action, the Trans-Sylvania will be able to cover more and different terrain. Sure, there will still be plenty of rocks and singletrack tied together by fireroads – it's Pennsylvania after all – but there will also be some unique venues and features in the race.

"We'll do our best to make the course variable. We won't make it just about climbing or just about rocky, technical riding. We'll mix it up and have different stages. In our mind, ideally, the same person doesn't win every stage," said Kuhn.

The race will kick off with an approximately 10-mile time trial directly from the campground. As part of this interview, Cyclingnews previewed some of the trails in the Bald Eagle State Forest that will comprise the course. Although our ride was slowed by significant debris following an early October snowstorm that dumped seven inches of snow and wreaked havoc on all the trees that still had their leaves, the mix of singletrack and fireroads we cruised promises to be both fast and technical.

There will likely be at least three other cross country stages based out of the campground. The other stages will be run at RB Winter State Park and either Cherry Run or Black Moshannon. All are within an hour's drive or less of the race headquarters.

While we didn't have time to preview the RB Winter trails, Kuhn related a story that makes Cyclingnews think it will feature a rocky, technical stage. "One time I promoted a race there, and this guy came across the line and said to me, 'I don't know whether to shake your hand or punch you in the face,' after he was wowed by the difficulty of the terrain."

On the other hand, the Allegrippis Trails at Raystown Lake will provide a completely different racing experience. The trails, which recently opened in the summer of 2009 on Army Corps of Engineers land, are smooth, fast and undulating as they dip toward and away from Raystown Lake.

"What did you do with all the rocks?" I asked our rider leader and IMBA Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Frank Maguire mid-way through our ride on just part of the nearly 40 miles of singletrack trails available.

Maguire said the farmers had removed the rocks decades ago when the land was in agricultural use prior to the Army Corps of Engineers taking over to build a dammed lake. "It's like riding at Tsali," said Maguire of the machine-built ribbon of trails networked through the second-growth, mostly deciduous forest canopy.

Yet another stage will likely take riders through Rothrock State Forest, including trails like the Tussey Mountain singletrack ridgeline trail that was featured in the Singlespeed World Championships, or the relentlessly rocky, but almost dead flat John Wert trail, which runs through giant hemlock groves.

A unique feature of the Trans-Sylvania will be a Super D stage during which the racing will take place only on the descents. "In between, we'll regroup and ride to the next one," said Kuhn, who's also contemplating the inclusion of night-time stage like that in the TransWales.  The Super D stage will occur at RB Winter State Park, thus making the otherwise very technical venue less intimidating as only the downhill portions will be raced.

The Trans-Sylvania will be the sort of event that intermediate and advanced riders will have no problem completing. "We hope that even novices have a good time, too, but the preparation is not something to be taken lightly. Put the time in on the bike, work on technical skills, nutrition and hydration," Kuhn advised.

"Most of the stages will be 25- to 40-mile range with two that will probably be about 60 miles."

The long term plan

In its first edition, Kuhn expects a largely American field though he has fielded inquiries from Canada, England and Western Europe. He declined to indicate which pros may be attending the race, but noted that the event does not conflict with the UCI cross country World Cup schedule for 2010, which leaves the door open for many top national and international competitors.

Kuhn would be elated for a first-year field size of between 250 and 300, though he said, "The biggest indicator of success will be if everyone who comes out of it enjoys it and has experienced good Pennsylvania riding."

Kuhn and Adams had originally considered a point-to-point style stage race format, but converged instead upon a general plan of hosting the event in different parts of the mid-Atlantic state.

"We see establishing the event in State College, making sure it works and then maybe after three to five years, we could move to another location in the state, based on a similar style. We feel like the mountain biking here in Pennsylvania is as good as anywhere. The people that work on the trails and ride are as good as anywhere in the world, too, and we think more people need to be riding in Pennsylvania," said Kuhn.

"We see the event is a way to give people an initial taste of Pennsylvania riding. We want it to drive tourism, and we've formed a non-profit as part of the event. That's the mission of the organization - to promote outdoor tourism as well as to expand and develop multi-use trails in Pennsylvania through whatever means we can."

For more information on the Trans-Sylvania Epic, visit www.transsylvaniaepic.com.

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