The Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic (TSE) is a 220-mile, 7-day mountain bike stage race held on the rocky trails and leaf-strewn gravel roads of central Pennsylvania. The 2014 edition marked the fifth anniversary of the event, and hosted over 175 racers ranging from seasoned professionals to eager novices. The race has grown in popularity every year and has become one of the distinguished mountain bike stage races in North America. This year was touted as the “most competitive” in the event’s history due to the long list of accomplished names lining up in the elite women’s and men’s fields. Some went so far as to call it the “National Championships of MTB Stage Racing”. Regardless of any competitive hype, TSE is undoubtedly one of the most challenging (and rewarding) multi-day off road events in North America.
The Kona XC boys (Kris Sneddon, Barry Wicks and myself) all signed up for a shot at rocky Pennsylvania glory. Barry, who was slated to race the 200 mile “Dirty Kanza” road race the next weekend, opted to ride in the abbreviated 3-day version of the TSE aboard his trail-devouring Process 111. Meanwhile, Kris and I were lined up against a strong field in the 7-day version of the race aboard their svelte Hei Hei Supremes.
The TSE is known not only for its unrelenting rocky singletrack, but also its dynamic sequence of race formats. The stages consisted of:
1 – hot-lap time trial, 15 miles
2 – monster marathon XC w/ 6,000’ of climbing, 41 miles
3 – 5-segment enduro, 25 miles
4 – gravel-grinder tactical road day, 40 miles
5 – primitive trail XC in the land of the Mennonites, 31 miles
6 – queen stage ridge-top marathon epic, 42 miles
7 – glory lap XC, 26 miles
At over 220 miles, and roughly 40%-50% singletrack, it’s fair to say that on any given trail, there are approximately 1 to 2 large, embedded rocks for every twelve inches. In some places it is even more extreme. With additional smaller rocks in between (i.e. these trails re-define “small rock” to anything less than 4” protrusion…), that makes at least 1 million big bumps in the road. Smooth bike handling or not, it’s just ROUGH. There’s no letting up. It was a testament to engineering of our equipment that none of us experienced a single flat or mechanical for the entire event.
By mid-week, Barry had wrapped up a relatively straightforward win in the TS3, meanwhile Kris and I were sitting in 2nd and 4th in General Classification (GC), respectively. Kris had been animating the race all week, riding valiantly at the front in an attempt to draw out the other GC-contenders into chase-mode while I could monitor for an opportunity to counter-attack. People started referring to the Kona boys as the “singletrack-enforcers” for the way we would charge down the rocks. The rough trails played to both our advantage, however I would consistently start to fade beyond the 120-minute mark. I would do my best to play it smart on the faster gravel segments where drafting was key. With the type of training I’ve focused on for the last couple years, my battery is pretty darn good at anything <2hrs, but anything longer (not-to-mention the first stage-race of the year) can pose a big challenge while riding against other leading riders with larger batteries. Going into the last day, Kris had surged up to 3rd in GC, and had been making headlines in the cycling-world press for his beastly efforts in the race. Meanwhile I was doing my best but had hemorrhaged time on the Queen Stage and faded to 4th. We were still very motivated to put two Kona riders on the podium alongside the other fantastic racers. Kris was even within 90-seconds of 2nd place, so day 7 was slated to be a race to the finish to see what we could pull off. That was until around 2AM when I awoke to what sounded like the Samsquanch lurching around outside the cabin. But it wasn’t actually the Samsquanch – it was Kris wretching his guts out, having caught some gnarly stomach bug. By morning he was completely drained of energy…and everything else. A testament to his toughness, he still kitted up and attempted a start, but could only make it through the start-loop before he was minutes behind, and decided to pull out of the race entirely. Mishaps in the heat of battle are one thing, but being suddenly taken out of a race due to other issues just before an otherwise illustrious end is a serious blow for any rider. I was bummed for Kris, but did my best to put in a strong finish and defend a humbled 3rd place overall. In the end, Jeremia Bishop (Sho-Air Cannondale) punched his stamp of authority on the race for the third consecutive time. I ended up 3rd place overall behind Nick Waite (Pro-Tested Gear), and ahead of Ben Sontaag (No-Tubes) and young upstart Cole Oberman (Team Rare Disease). By the end of the week, the sense of camaraderie throughout the racers was very high, one of the special things about mountain bike stage racing. We had all endured the same challenge in our own way. We all celebrated our last meal together, packed our rock-beaten bikes, and sent our weary selves back home for a well-deserved rest.