Written by Rachel Brown Thursday, 05 June 2014 17:08
Bike time: 25+ hours; miles: 220; challenge, camaraderie and fun: priceless (well, actually the whole thing costs somewhere in the region of $1,000, depending on when you sign up, but who’s counting?). That, in a nutshell, was my Transylvania Epic (aka “TSE”) experience.
*** Warning: this report is really 7 reports with a prologue, so it’s longish. Take breaks. Have a beer. Pace yourself. It’s all good preparation for the TSE. ***
The TSE is a 7-day mountain bike stage race in the heart of Pennsylvania. Riders live in a Scout Camp for the week, so it’s aptly nicknamed Singletrack Summer Camp. It’s actually much better than summer camp, at least in my experience, because instead of being surrounded by angst-ridden, judgy teenagers, you’re in with a group of mainly chill, adult mountain bikers, relieved of all responsibilities for the week other than to ride, eat, sleep, repeat. This makes them extra friendly. I’ve done this race once before, two years ago, and that time I camped. Camping was ok, but difficult in the many rains, and sometimes a little lonely after dark. This time I opted for "Eagle Lodge", and signed up early enough to snag a private room with my friend Liz Allen (DAS). The lodge is far from luxurious, but it had on-site bathrooms! electricity! a kitchen!, and sometimes it even had hot water.
Home base for the week – at Eagle Lodge with Liz Allen.
I was racing in the "Open Women" category, which I knew would be a stacked field ranging from national pros, to local pros, to me. I’m a pretty solid mid-pack expert rider, but I’m definitely on the low end of this race field. I think this makes the race a bit less inclusive than other stage races, but on the plus side it really is legitimately hard and an achievement just to finish. For any sport-ish level folks out there who may find this a bit daunting, there is also an “Experience” category for people who want the experience without the racing. They start about an hour earlier every day, and sometimes their miles are a bit reduced. I didn’t do it mainly because I really, really hate all things early, but it’s a great option for someone who wants to do this but is concerned about cut-off times.
And without further ado, here are the stages.
Stage 1: First up is a time trial of 15 miles. My friends and I had arrived the day before, and my start time for the TT is close to 3 p.m. This means a whole day of waiting, inventing things that need doing, driving into town for small, random items, getting nervous, waiting, getting more nervous. By the time I start I really can’t wait to be pedaling. A whole cluster of very fast people (men and women) are scheduled at 30 second intervals after me, and for a while it’s a constant stream of passing by people moving several machs faster than me. Things settle down though, and I even enjoy myself a bit. It’s a microcosm of things to come: dirt road climbing, some sweet rocky singletrack, and a couple of crap-your-pants descents. The TT also features the first of the "Enduro" and "East Coast Rocks" segments – over the week there would be several such segments where you swipe a card in and out with your time for that segment going toward sub-classifications of enduro (downhill) and east coast rocks (rolling singletrack, often, though to our surprise not necessarily, rocky). I try with some success to “hold back” a bit from an all out effort on the TT, which puts me fifteenth of sixteen. I’m ok with that. It’s a long week.
Stage 2: This is the hardest stage of the week, but it’s one of my favorites. This year it’s 41 miles, with almost 6000 ft of climbing. There are some awesome, real legit mountain bike trails in those 41 miles (also some gravel road), and there are some of the scariest, steepest enduro sections of the week. The stage starts on gravel roads, not my favorite thing, and it’s a bit discouraging to see so many people vanish from view so quickly. I know it’s not going to do me any good to time trial the road sections though (even if that is possible in my repertoire of tricks), and sure enough I catch up to a good number of people in the singletrack. I finish the stage in 6 hours feeling pretty strong, and ahead of 3 people in my category. Pretty much a victory!
Stage 3: Enduro day! This is a new stage from last time I did the race. On Enduro day only five downhill segments are timed, and you can “soft pedal” up the hills in between. Or sort of. My only gripe with this stage is that I think it might work better with staggered starts. Instead we all set off together, and I take my soft pedaling up the first big hill – there would still be 22 miles and 2553’ of climbing for the day, even though only a fraction is timed – very seriously. But that means that pretty much everyone gets to the entrance to the first enduro run before me, and because we all have to scan in and apparently have some sort of gentleman’s agreement not ride on one another’s tails, there’s a looong wait. Like maybe 45 mins of standing around. Still, after the waiting, the actual downhill runs are super fun. Riding down is SO much better than up!! Wheee and whoosh. Though, the downhills are also completely exhausting. I discover that about 4, maybe 5, minutes is all I can really hold the “attack” position for. After that my focus is fried, my legs buckle and cramp like lockjaw, and my arms feel like they were run over by an 18 wheeler, and then stomped on. Some of these sections were 8 or more minutes and I was hallucinating the happy chequered flag (where you clock out) by the end. Going balls-out downhill is NOT easy, my friends. Also, midway through my last enduro segment an epic thunderstorm opens, bringing darkness, blinding rain, crashing thunder and scary-close lightening. That puts a bit of a dent in my time (or so I say), but puts the EPIC properly into the TSEpic. That day I finish ahead of 4 people in my category! Woohoo!
Stage 4: the “Road” stage. I like this stage the least. There’s a reason I switched from road bikes to mountain bikes. The reason is I don’t generate all that much power, but can fake it in singletrack by not letting myself use the brakes too much. Anyway, this stage is 41 miles, with about 4,500’ climbing, and much of the route is dirt road. Apparently this stage is exciting in the front because people draft and attack. Eh. I draft a bit, but never attack. Instead, I hide and suffer, and am then demolished on the last, never-ending gravel road climb, where my alleged friend Cissy puts almost 15 minutes into me. (We started the climb together. Briefly.) The stage is altogether just ok for me. I survive it. I even finish ahead of one person! I think.
Hangin’ with Cissy. (Not actually on the road stage, but let’s not fuss about the details…)
*** Interlude: By this time, I have been going back and forth on GC with my local friend Leslie Timm (Riverside), who now leads me after 4 days, due to her road stage prowess, by a mere 2 minutes! We are very excited about this! Girl fight! But then, sadly, a stomach bug (which I did not launch, and which in fact will eventually overcome almost everyone at camp, though most only when they get home) sidelines Leslie for two days and she’s out of the GC. ***
Stage 5: RB Winter. 31 miles, 4,000’. Our “bible” describes this stage as “primitive” mountain biking. I’m not really sure what that means, but I think it means the trails aren’t buff. I remember liking this stage two years ago: there are small-to-medium sneaky rocks, and I like them. Since Harold Parker is my BFF I know how to tame that sort of rock. Unfortunately, this year is “R.B. Winter lite” – there are still a good number of rocky trails, but IMO there aren’t enough; they are replaced with long sections of ROAD, and we all now know how much I enjoy that. My Eagle lodge housemate Canadian Alan rides with me much of the day and pretends he needs to draft me on the road, but it’s fun to have some company. I sneak past him on the final enduro segment, since it’s only fair that a Brit should ultimately conquer a Canadian. The stage goes decently well for me – I beat at least two of the open women, and it’s looking as though I can hold onto a stellar 12th place in the GC. Well, I think it’s stellar!
Stage 6: The Queen Stage! Tussey Ridge! 42 miles and almost 5,000’. This stage is legitimately fantastic. I harbor a vague memory that it does take about 19 miles to really blossom into full awesomeness, and that proves about accurate, but blossom it finally does, and all is forgiven. This stage has the best singletrack of the week: some really, truly rocky “east coast rocks” and the inimitable Tussey ridge trail. Pure sweetness (in sharp, rocky form). And, they have added some waaay fun swoopy enduro. The only unfortunate part for me is that I suffer a flat on the second enduro segment, and then panic because I am so unused to this circumstance since going tubeless that I hardly remember what to do. I try for a while to get the Stans to seal. It refuses to seal and just spits vicious white globules at me. Then I remember that tubes work. Unfortunately I’ve blown all my CO2 trying to get the Stans to seal, so have to inflate the tube with my teeny-tiny emergency pump. It all works out in the end, but it isn’t speedy. I’m playing chase all day wondering how far ahead my usual riding buddies are. Unbeknownst to Cissy, we are engaged in a full-on battle on GC. I’m ahead of her, but she has taken to floating up climbs the last few days and I feel my lead is insecure. Thankfully, I don’t lose that much time and hang onto my hard-won 12th!
Me and Leslie are vampires by Stage 7.
Stage 7: the Party Stage. 26 miles, 2,500’. Sometimes this is raced, sometimes it is just ridden. Occasionally adult beverages are consumed. I cunningly persuade Cissy that it’s pointless to race, and she agrees. In fact by this point my race pace and my friendly ride pace are pretty much the same thing. So we ride together just ahead of the single-speeders. The single-speeders pack many said adult beverages in their Camelbaks, and hard riding is punctuated with even harder chugging. I don’t have the stamina for that, though I admire them. My buddy Liz shows her mettle by hanging with the single-speeders. Stage 7 is really fun, with some happy, twisty trails. I loathe everything going up and rejoice when we go down. And then we are done. Done! They don’t even make us go through the heinous swamp at the end. 12th place is mine! And I am 6th in the Enduro GC and 4th in the East Coast Rocks!
It feels sooooo good not to have to ride the bike anymore. All that’s left is a truly fabulous dinner – the kitchen staff here REALLY ROCK – awards and medals, and then Stage 8. Stage 8? Stage 8 is perilous and foolhardy, and details are supplied on a need-to-know basis. This year it involves less beer and more whoopie pies. To learn more, you’ll just have to come to Singletrack Summer Camp yourself!
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