Written by Paul Wojciak Monday, 03 June 2019 00:00
Central Pennsylvania, just east of State College, hosts old hardwood forests teaming with wildlife. Perhaps more interesting for the mountain biker are the technically demanding single track trails running like veins across the musculature of slumbering giants. Nestled on a hillside within Bald Eagle state forest lies a boy scout camp that plays host to the annual Transylvania Mountain Bike Epic.
Five and three-day versions of the TS Epic beckon hardy riders to pit themselves and their bikes against a variety of trails over the Memorial Day weekend. Each day offers up 25-35 miles of flowing and rocky rollers, suspension pounding descents, all interconnected with gravel grinders and fire roads climbs. The trails become even more interesting when rain and weather have their say like they did this year.
I was happy to see the TS Epic returning after a hiatus in 2018. Under the new leadership of Ryan Fulton, the race took on fresh yet familiar, to prior epic racers, format features, e.g. camping and cabins onsite and nearby, laid back and friendly vibe, evening awards and stoke session, and epic racing. My schedule permitted me to enter the three-day event in the Men’s 50+ category. This year saw a return to R.B. Winter state park for day 1, riding Tussey mountain in the opposite direction from prior years on day 2, and finishing up on day 3 with the familiar trails of Bald Eagle forest. I opted to score a camping site with electric and water at Seven Mountains Campground.
2019 was my fourth time racing the TS Epic. Prior visits had been good to me. Based on my current form, I kept my expectations in check. Turned out I was rewarded with more than I could have hoped. At Moab Rocks back in March, I rode my Kona Process. For the greater climbs of Pennsylvania, I chose my lightweight Trek Superfly. I managed to forget to bring my Camelbak that I use for hydration and tools. So, on the morning of the first race, I found myself mulling over how to fit all that on my bike and back. Fortunately, my tool box had tubes, CO2, tire lever, and a pump so I taped them to my frame. Two water bottles and gel fit in my back pockets. Problem solved; I’m all set to go racing!
R.B. Winter, Saturday, May 25
The R.B. Winter state park is about 35 miles from the TS Epic base camp so riders must get themselves and their bikes to the stage start. The state park and surrounding forest have miles of wooded and fern bordered trails. The climbing was modest at 2200’ on the day. When riders were warming up, we learned that a milk truck had broken down blocking the road and forcing many cars to reroute. As a consequence, we would start 30 minutes later. That’s fine, a little more time to cool my heels. We finally were at the start line and rolling the neutral. We were cut loose and the field was riding like they already have two days of racing in their legs. Oh, wait, they do! That didn’t deter folks for long and soon we were bombing through the woods and singletrack. The pace was high and I felt really good. My taper into the weekend was just right. I found myself in among the lead single speeders. I figured this was a good group and managed to hang with them most of the day. The terrain rolled and did not punish. There were plenty of rocks on the trails, but my full suspension was eating them up. When we got to the fire roads, I pushed the pace. My body and bike were holding up well. In what seemed an unexpectedly short time. the finish line was in site. I rolled through in two hours, thirty minutes. As it happened, I was also the first finisher in the three-day Men’s 50+ field. Woah. That’s a welcome surprise exceeding my expectations by far.
Tussey Mountain, Sunday, May 26
Saturday night brought extensive rain that let up about five in the morning leaving everything, including the trails, soaked. This will make for interesting riding as the rocks are smother in this part of Pennsylvania. As a result, your tires tend to bounce and slip over rocks when they’re wet. Of course, there’s the mud, we can’t forget about the mud! Tussey mountain has some of the most popular and best known trails in the Rothrock forest. Typically, prior events have approached Tussey from the west and then ridden east and down the enduro section. This year we’re riding up the enduro, east to west over Tussey ridge, looping around till we come back up from the north, then back down the enduro section. There’s also a great loop around Colyer lake that’s like a three mile pump track. This’ll be fun.
We rolled out and were soon racing hard down the fire road to the big climb. I split off from the fastest riders and again found myself among the lead single speeders. The climb was pushing them to the limit. The rocks were slippery as expected, but the views from the top of Tussey were amazing. I’m feeling really good and my second day legs are strong enough to be racing with some five-day event yellow jerseys. There’s some ridiculously challenging rocky trails but they reward you with fast and flowy downhills. The climb back up Tussey was a bit of a grunt, but the enduro descent was awesome. Down the road and round the lake. Doh! Three creek crossings and wet feet.
I’m into the homestretch now and the sky is markedly darkening. The rain begins to spit but the last mile is down the fire road. There’s the finish line: two hours, thirty-eight minutes on the day. And the sky opened up two minutes after crossing the line. Better now than when I was back in the woods. The evening awards session brought confirmation that I had won the three-day Men’s 50+ stage retaining the general classification. Nothing to do now except keep my bike under me and try to win tomorrow’s stage too.
Bald Eagle Forest, Memorial Day, Monday, May 27
Final stages are often easier so event participants can still bring the intensity but over a shorter distance. The Bald Eagle forest trails offer fast flowing singletrack interconnected with fireroads. Notably, it also sports one of the most technical descents of the whole event. The day dawned sunny with temps in the 50’s. The rain of Saturday night was sure to have left some surprises on a handful of trail sections. My yellow leader’s jersey was just one of a crowd but it did get me a spot near the front as we launched up Sand Flats Road.
As per usual, I was in among the single speeders and this time also fellow 50+ competitors as we hit the double-track and then singletrack. Tight rhododendrons, loamy earth, and some slick rocks were sucking and grabbing. I was feeling pretty good and kept up with the high pace being set. We hit a boggy section and riders began to separate. I was glued to a back wheel until we entered the first of two descents. The fast flowy switchbacks took us through stage midpoint. No sooner had we stopped descending then we turned right back up hill. The climb was steady leading us to the top of the day’s enduro section where no prisoners were taken. The greasy, muddy, off-camber, rock strewn descent, well, holy crap! Yeah, I had to walk some of it. As far as you know. At least I didn’t go over the bars like the shirtless single speeder that scorched past me. He flew none too gracefully into the bushes and brambles. Leaving all that behind, I finished the enduro on the wheels of the top three single speeders (imagine that).
We hit a road section, but I needed someone with gears to work with. Low and behold, two riders came stroking along and I jumped on their wheels. We rocked on up the road taking turns on the front. Up the final climb and who do I see but Joe, my campsite neighbor, looking to take a flyer on his single speed compadres. I was willing to oblige and we burned our final matches all the way through to the finish in one hour and forty-three minutes. He won the day on his single speed and I won the men’s 50+ three-day.
Taking home the Transylvania Epic three-day Men’s 50+ GC was not on my schedule. I am grateful that fortune deigned to grant me the wins. The TS Epic has a great new promoter in Ryan. An informal poll showed the turnout to be 60% first timers and 40% returning racers including yours truly. The timing and scoring, the organization of activities and schedule, and the trails were all top notch. The dinners (included with the entrance fee) were underwhelming but that’s one low note on a series of highs. I strongly encourage you east coast mountain bikers to consider the TS Epic in 2020. Heck, I’d love to see you there, since I’ll definitely be back.
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