A conversation with Trans-Sylvania Epic promoters

After a successful inaugural year, the week-long Trans-Sylvania Epic (TSE) mountain bike stage race is preparing for its second running on May 29 to June 4, 2011. The race is based out of a Boy Scout camp just a few miles outside of State College, Pennsylvania, and it highlights a range of terrain from classic, old school rocky to smooth, fast and furious.  The first edition was won by Jeremiah Bishop and Selene Yeager.

Cyclingnews chatted with Trans-Sylvania Epic co-organizers Mike Kuhn and Ray Adams about the first year of the race in central Pennsylvania, lessons learned and how the race will evolve for 2011 and beyond, especially in light of other trends in mountain bike stage racing.

Kuhn and Adams announced the 2011 route in late fall, and ever since, detailed preparations have been underway.

Cyclingnews: Tell us generally your impression of the first year's race and what will change for the second edition of the TSE?

Kuhn: I think the whole thing went well, and the feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive. We're were almost surprised it went so well our first year. We had people say they couldn't believe it was a first-year event. The food was an eight out of 10. Lodging was an eight of 10. We're striving to make that a 10 out of 10. Generally, looking at last year, we'll do what worked and make it better and ditch what didn't work.

Adams: We'll also do some touching up of the course. We'll use the feedback from riders to improve upon aspects that weren't as much of a hit.

Cyclingnews: So what does that mean in terms of specific changes might racers expect?

Adams: We'll be eliminating some remote starts from last year. The racers won't have to get up as early and transport themselves and their bikes. We'll still have two remote stages - at RB Winter State Park and at Raystown Lake - but those will have both remote starts and finishes.

By having the remote stages start and finish in the same place, it facilitates transportation for those racers who want to drive their own cars to the remote stages. They can show up and leave when they want. We saw a vast majority of people drove themselves to the remote stages last year.

Kuhn: More stages starting and finishing from the campground will build the community atmosphere of the event and people will have more time to hang out in the morning before the stages.

Cyclingnews: From where did the TSE draw its entrants?

Kuhn: We had people from all across the US in year one: California, Oregon, the South East, the mid-Atlantic and New England states. We also had a few from Canada. We hope to draw people from even further afield this year. We've seen some interest from overseas, and we hope to draw a few riders from there this year.

Cyclingnews: When we pre-rode some of the course for the Coburn stage, you mentioned that we were on some private property. Tell us more about how trails on private property came to be added to the second edition of the race, which is otherwise run on public, State Forest land.

Adams: Matt Spiegelmeyer was a key individual last year and he really helped us with lots of course marking and sweeping. He's got a vocal interest in both the mountain biking and the motorized use of the forest.

Kuhn: Spiegelmeyer owns acreage that almost borders the camp [which serves as race headquarters - ed.], and we connect to it via State Forest trails. He's given us the opportunity to access his trails and make them part of our event.

Cyclingnews: There are a lot of mountain bike stage races out there. Some have come and gone and some have stuck around. What makes your event stand out?

Kuhn: We want our stage race to be the most fun. We designed the week to have each successive day build on the one before. We try to mix it up and show the variety of terrain covered and how the stages operate. A lot of people told us they haven't seen anyone else doing what we're doing. As they got into days 5, 6 and 7, riders said they could see what we had intended to do.

We're trying to make it an event that is unpredictable. It happened in last year's race. There were different people on the podium each day and while first place in the men's category was decided early, places two through five were up for grabs until the last stage. They even shuffled places on the last stage. We want that because it's exciting.

Adams: We use different courses and different formats to mix it up. Time trials, cross countries and mini cross countries.

Cyclingnews: Tell us more about the mini cross countries stage.

Adams: The mini cross country we had been calling the super D stage in year one, but we changed what we were calling it because we didn't want to give people the impression that it was all downhill or that you needed a special bike. Yes, the majority of the mini cross countries are downhill, but you race on cross country bikes - you don't need a different bike than the one you use the rest of the week. The format is fun - you start off as a group, usually with a little climb and then a descent. You regroup and ride together onto another timed section, doing about three or four timed sections in total.

Kuhn: It was a big hit because everyone got to regroup after the short efforts. People could hang out and have fun. You had guys like Cannondale's Jeremiah Bishop (eventual winner - ed.) riding at the back of the group between sections and talking to people who'd normally take twice as long as him in a regular stage. For those guys to have that experience was really cool. It also meant we could cherry pick the best trails at the RB Winter State Park without having to race up a bunch of long climbs.

The stage showcased riders who could be explosive off the start and maintain a high intensity. For example, it was the only day of the week that Blake Harlan of Jamis was on the podium. For people doing this race just for fun, I think this stage was a big hit. Those riders got to spend more time with their buddies.

Cyclingnews: Why late May and early June?

Kuhn: We think the race is well positioned in the year calendar-wise. It's late enough that just about anywhere you live, you have time to get in some good training to get ready for it. It's well positioned for pros because as far as we know right now, there aren't any conflicting events and it can be a great training block for them at that time of year.

Cyclingnews: What will make the 2011 edition a success?

Adams: Some growth in the number of participants and more positive feedback, like we had this year. We had 55 racers in the first year. 100 this year would be great, but 75 would also be awesome.

Kuhn: We're not big enough to consider ourselves big players on the international scene, but we are easy to access from Europe and everywhere in the US. The transportation in and out is easy by car or plane. Long term, that will be positive.

Cyclingnews: Growth can be good, but there are also downsides? How will you manage the growth?

Adams: As we grow, we don't want to lose focus on the individual aspect of the race. It's about customer service. We don't want the race to become so big we can't make everyone happy. We want to run a quality event.

It seems to me that the driving force in stage racing is the enthusiast-level racers. It's important to cater to them, too. I want to balance fun and challenge. I want to err on the side of fun while still keeping it interesting for the pros.

Cyclingnews: Some stage races are adopting three or four-day formats in addition to the week-long format. Are you considering this option, too?

Kuhn: We get asked about three- and four-day events. It's a possibility at some point - we haven't ruled it out, but we want to make the seven-day event work really well. It's an incredible experience to do it for seven days. We had people from middle of the pack sport racers to some of the most elite guys in the country come out. Before we're willing to introduce anything shorter, we're going to nail the seven-day event.

Cyclingnews: Some stage races offer a duo category. Have you considered this option for the TSE?

Kuhn: The duo option is great from a safety aspect. For events that are really remote in nature, it's safer. It's a plus for promoters because it's an extra person for each entry.

We offer a duo category although logistically, it's hard to find another person to commit to the same time off and racing the same speed. Offering the solo made sense to us, especially with the format of our event not being to destroy people day after day. The TSE is well suited for us to run it with solo or duo racers.

We have as many as 20 medical staff out on course each day. We feel confident that if something does happen, we'll know about it quickly and be able to get to them pretty quickly. We mitigate our risk with good planning. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) also helped us out with course safety and design.

Cyclingnews: Prior to the running of the first edition, you told us that you'd consider running the TSE out of locations other than State College in the future. What is your thinking now?

Adams: In terms of changing the home base location, it's hard for me to imagine that in the next two or three years. I think we'll see a bell curve pattern in numbers of racers who enter and once we're on the decline, we'll look to other avenues to re-spark the interest. Right now, we're still on the upswing, and it's so hard to improve upon what we've got here. It's not out of the question, but it's not on the near term horizon.

The scout camp with its lodges, food, pool, pond, tent sites is our current headquarters. It would be tough to beat that, and it can house 300 or 400 people if we ever get to that level, though I don't know if we want to get to that level. It'd be hard to find another place as good as State College and the Alleghenies.

Kuhn: The Nittany Mountain Bike Association (NMBA) and the cycling community in State College are phenomenal. They are really active in building trails in the Rothrock State Forest. The work done at Raystown Lake has been incredible - it's been touted as some of the best purpose-built trail. In addition, there is an active moto community, and the leader of that community is interested in working with the mountain bike community to create more trails that are sustainable and can be used by mountain bikes, too. They want to build a long-term relationship. This area is a fantastic place to be hosting a mountain bike event.

Cyclingnews: In a few words, why should racers come compete in the TSE?

Kuhn: What we learned last year is that the reason to come out and do this is to ride these fantastic trails. It's an incredible array of trails and different conditions. If you're looking for a fun, week-long riding experience, you can come to Trans-Sylvania and we'll lay it all out for you. Our focus as organizers is on fun and customer service for the racers.

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