The staccato of the heavy rain plays like a sloppy drummer in the background of a churning dishwasher and clinking dryer. I have a full mug of coffee doused with some cream I borrowed from my downstairs neighbor Natalie. It’s the day after I got back from Transylvania Epic, and reentry into life is underway, slowly.
For those who don’t know, TSE is a 7-day mountain bike stage race located out of Seven Mountains Boy Scout Camp near State College, PA. It consists of an individual time trial, an enduro day, a “roadie” day, and four long cross-country-style stages for a grand total of around 18 hours of racing for me. Within the race for the overall GC title, there is an enduro competition and an “East Coast Rocks” competition, for which there are timed segments almost every day.
In contrast to the one other mountain bike stage race I’ve done, TransAlp in Europe with 1200 competitors from across the globe, TSE is far more close-knit and friendly with just about 150 total entrants from the US and Canada. Friends who have done this race in the past had great things to say about TSE, and with the support of Riverside Racing, my teammate Dan Timmerman and I were excited to check it out for ourselves. Dan and his brother Matt opted to stay in their family’s RV for the week, so I made plans to room with Bryna Blanchard, a friend from NY I know through racing.
Bryna and I chatted on the phone while scouring the TSE website for housing options; we honed in on the words “bed” and “shower” and opted for Eagle Lodge. However, unbeknownst to us this was not like picking a table to match the size and decor of your dining room but rather like picking a table in the high school cafeteria. People are curious where you’re staying, and each location has its reputation. “If you want to sleep, stay in Rimmey.” We were told unhelpfully after the fact. The other inhabitants of Eagle rolled in laden with coolers, and more and more coolers, and bikes that were derailleur-free.
When we showed up, it became more evident why “extra sheets” were recommended on the packing list:
Sheets were used to make private forts of our individual bunks:
In quick order, Eagle Lodge was filled with the veteran single speeders, Bryna and I, two CTS athletes from North Carolina, two Canadians, and a brave rider who had done just one enduro race, and by that I mean one solitary race ever, in his whole-history-of-racing ever. Then there were Chris and Libbey, the savvy couple who reserved the private room in the lodge and were celebrating their 20th anniversary this week.
Now veterans of TSE had an interesting habit of following “It’s such an awesome event” with various iterations of “You will probably die.”
“Change your tires immediately.”
“Oh, you really need a DH bike for this.”
“I hope you know how to ride rocks.”
“Even pro riders crack on Day 2.”
So when I arrived it was time to unpack not just my suitcase, but also the various opinions on the terrain and race features.
Day 1 - 1st
Stage 1 was the 15-mile time trial. Fortunately, this is marked the day before for pre-riding, and I was startled to ride the entire course without flatting, crashing, or meeting some other demise. It had a bunch of twisty single track, a major dirt road climb, a rocky but manageable enduro descent, and another paved road climb through a construction site. What was tricky was going in blind in regards to the competition! Since the start order was determined alphabetically, Anthony secured me the disquieting position of going first for the women. Vicki Barclay started 30 seconds behind me, and I knew as both a local and 4-time veteran and podium finisher of the race she would be a top contender. Mical Dyck who I know from cross racing but have never raced in a mountain bike event was also a strong contender, as well as Selene Yeager, but both would be starting minutes down from me. There was nothing to do but attack the course with everything I could muster.
I could see Vicki behind me maintaining her relative position until we entered the technical trail sections of the course, at which point I crashed because I was turned around trying to count the gap back to her. My heart rate was alarmingly high due to the heat and the bulls-eye I could feel on the back of my jersey! Much to my ex-triathlete surprise, I increased my gap on the techy sections and finished several minutes ahead of Vicki to win the stage. Mical took 2nd and Vicki 3rd.
Silence descended upon Eagle around 9:30pm and with everyone hunkered down in their bunks, I tiptoed over to the light switch and plunged the room into darkness, feeling uncomfortably like the scrupulous older sister. But no one protested, and apparently the party had drifted down the hill.
Day 2 - 4th
After winning the TT, and earning my first leader’s jersey ever, I was feeling pretty darn good, and in no way prepared for the suffering commenced on Stage 2.
We staged in a tunnel, and set off up a long dirt road climb in a clump of probably 50 riders with the lead men. It took everything I had to stay in contact with the group, but Vicki and Mical seemed to be effortlessly keeping up with them, so I pushed it to stay with them as well. By the time we all funneled single-file into the first single track, my legs would have collapsed altogether had they not been attached to the pedals. Within a few moments, we were all off our bikes hiking up a steep section, then whizzing down the first enduro section of the day in a steady stream. Mical was just in front and Vicki a bit behind in the train. As we approached a sharp right turn, I consciously saw the warning arrow but instinct ruled and I followed the wheel of the errant rider in front of me straight into the woods. Mike Wissell and Matt Timmerman tumbled in behind me. As we all untangled from the thicket, Vicki sailed by on the proper course. From then on, I was in a state of survival just to keep pedaling for the 3:45. Selene passed me later on in the day and I finished 4th, more importantly 15 minutes behind Vicki. In just two days of racing, I had felt such highs and lows; with very little stage race experience, I was pretty perplexed, but my coach encouraged me to trust my training and fitness and to just keep attacking it each day. Also, my new single-speed friends offered a turn in the Squeezy Legs which are a favorite recovery tool of mine.
Now sitting 3rd GC and having lost so much time to Vicki in yesterday’s long stage, my goal for the Stage 3 enduro day was to simply cut my losses. For those who have not done an enduro competition—this was my first—the idea is that there are a few timed segments, largely downhill and technical, adding up to maybe 20-30 minutes of total racing, with non-timed riding in between to get to the next segment. Most of this non-timed riding is uphill, incidentally. In between segments, riders chit chat and spend copious amounts of time at the aid stations. Everyone seemed in good spirits while waiting in line to start the segments amongst the foliage and arachnid population of Pennsylvania. If the warnings about TSE in general were disconcerting, the warnings about the enduro day were downright terrifying. There was talk of “rock chutes,” “rock drops,” and an evil place on segment 4. According to witness statements, segment 4 ended with a rock precipice over which we lemmings would follow each other to horrendous ends, while crowds gathered to watch and document the wreckage. IF you survived segment 4, segment 5 was not to be trifled with, and odds were, should you make it through the savagery of 4, 5 would more quietly yet just as surely make mincemeat of you and your machine. My kind sister had some words of encouragement:
However, segments 1, 2 and 3 went by smoothly. Prior to segment 4, I lowered my seat, and set off with every intention of cyclo-crossing any section I pleased. It was actually one of the steep smooth dirt sections that got me; my butt was touching my rear tire and some hasty physics calculations in my head ended unacceptably, so I decided to walk that section. As the segment proceeded, I was battening down the hatches in advance of the lemming cliff when I pedaled over a few small boulders and saw the finishing dot on a tree just before another rock that was maybe a foot off the ground. “Stop!” A spectator yelled, and another shouted “It’s over it’s over!” Confused, I kept pedaling down the trail toward the next segment. Apparently, those who had invoked the terms “rock chute” and “rock drop” have never ridden the Ancient Line trail. Segment 5 was very, very rocky, and took some solid concentration. However, I was pleased to have ridden everything cleanly except for the one steep section of 4. I had kept my 3rd place GC and gained a little over 4th even.
Day 4 - 2nd
This stage is known as the roadie stage because it is about 3/4 on dirt or gravel roads. Due to this, I had a long conversation with my coach and other riders about switching to a hard tail for the day, seeing as it was 4 lbs lighter than my full suspension. With all the climbing, I figured it was worth having to be a bit more cautious on the descents for a lighter rig and confidence on the ascents. At the end of the day, I’m not sure I would make the switch again, as some of the descents were pretty gnarly with loose pointy rocks, but it worked out in the end. Rather than dig myself into a hole trying to stay with the lead men at the start, I started at my own pace. Once things shook out after the first, early enduro section, I got into a group of 4 including Selene. She and I and a team rider Simon took turns pulling while the 4th rider insisted upon free loading on the back, “You’re going to drop me on the climb” he protested. Over the top of a hill and into a descent I followed Simon to a small gap over the others, but just after we entered the second enduro segment, he went over his bars on a rock hidden in the grass. I stopped to see if he was ok, but shortly another rider came up and told me to go ahead and that he’d stay. The enduro transitioned into the largest climb of the day, and the free-rider had caught up and mentioned that another woman was just approaching. Hearing this, I started to pick up the tempo on the climb, at which point he got irritated “Oh so you’re going to take off now?” I considered various verbal responses but decided to reserve my energy for later. At the aid station at the top, Colt gave me a splits: 5 minutes back of Vicki but just 2 behind Mical. I ended up trading off with another rider down the next enduro segment, which never ended. No really, it actually didn’t end. We went by a rattling rattlesnake in the meantime, and the disgruntled racer of before came charging by on the next climb.
Things got tricky after that ascent into a long, screaming fast gravel segment. I had to be so delicate with my hard tail and the thinner tires. Selene caught me, and we rode a good bit together just before approaching the aid station on the climb back. We spotted Mical ahead, and I made an effort to bridge, only to myself tumble over the bars after hitting a rock in the grass. Once having collected myself, I tried to slowly but steadily gain on Mical, and I caught her just before the last climb leveled out a bit. It was everything I could do to stay on the gas. The reserved energy came back to reward me as I also caught and passed the now fading rider who had yet another comment to the effect of he “would help if he could” to get me to the finish line. Defying those odds, I did manage to hold onto second.
Day 5 - 1st
Stage 5 started off site, and was said to include “primitive” single track and looked to tally up its elevation in more constant, smaller doses, both aspects resembling the terrain I ride at home more than other days. Again, I paced myself, riding in 4th place just behind Selene, with Vicki taking off well ahead and Mical just behind her. After a bit Selene dropped back and i bridged up to Mical in some of the opening single track; after the East Coast Rocks section, we saw Vicki up ahead. Emerging onto the road, I felt I had enough gas to make the jump up to Vicki. Mical didn’t follow. I rode with Vicki until about 7 miles to go. We were on a road climb, and according to my little profile sticker, were approaching the top. It can be tricky to attack on a course you don’t know against a local rider who is also exceptionally fit! However, almost without even thinking, I stood up and went for it.
I got a gap and hammered over the top of the climb (which indeed did come shortly) and down the short descent to the single track. From what I could tell, I probably had a minute as I went into the final climb, which seemed to go on forever, circling around the camp we started from! I caught up to a few riders who helped set the pace up the climb, but I noticed that my fork was completely bottomed out, and the cables were rubbing against my tire. As we entered the final enduro that led to the finish line, my front and rear suspension were completely locked out, so it felt like riding a cross bike over the rocks. However, I hung on for the win, and closed to within 4 minutes of Mical for 2nd GC. We had some fun with the podium today!
That night I brought my bike down to the race mechanics who quipped: “I hope you brought another bike.”
Fortunately, the TSE RV camping field in the middle of PA was in the one spot in the country where my Lefty could indeed be fixed on the spot! Matt Timmerman had the spare parts in hand.
Day 6 - 4th
Trying to string together two strong days in a row is incredibly hard. Therein I suppose is the appeal, albeit misguided, of all those things that have scandalized the cycling world. In any case, Stage 6 was about equal to Stage 2 in terms of duration, elevation, time gaps between riders, and terrible performance on my part. In the opening climbs, I couldn’t match the pace of Vicki, Selene, and Mical. Tussey Ridge was beautiful and fun technical riding as advertised, but I ended up about 9 minutes down the leaders.
Day 7 - Parade
I was facedown on the massage table in the dining hall after stage 6 when Selene came up and asked what I thought about having a parade. In that scenario, just about any suggestion sounds great. But in all seriousness, since the final GC was pretty locked up for 1st and 2nd, the women were up for doing a celebratory group ride for Stage 7. Selene was in fact within striking distance for 3rd, at 5 minutes behind, but said she was all for doing the parade. I was a bit torn, on the one hand wanting to feel that I had indeed completed the full challenge, but also very relieved given how fatigued I was. Ellen Noble wished to contest the final East Coast Rocks section, so it was agreed we would race that ~10-15 minute segment and chill the rest of the time. Now, one of the best aspects of the week was how great it was to hang out with all the riders. We enjoyed the delicious breakfasts and dinners provided by the meal plan together, and all in all the group was one that raced until their legs shattered but shared laughs over oatmeal and blueberries. However, I arrived to the start line with just the slightest of fears that I might have been the brunt of a rookie TSE-er joke, and all of the friendly faces I had gotten to know might suddenly have become cruel and devious. However, Selene showed up in a skirt so it seemed the parade was in fact in order (though a skirt would hardly slow her down at all I’m sure). At the rocks section, Ellen and her male pacer set off and I followed shortly behind. About 2/3 of the way into the segment my legs completely exploded. “I can’t pedal anymore!” came out, aloud I believe, as I also actually stopped pedaling. Sue Haywood witnessed this hissy fit and yelled something at me; it doesn't even matter what it was. Obviously, I needed to get over myself, and more importantly, over the next little rock garden and to the end of the segment. Which I did. Vicki ended up securing the GC win. She's clearly worked extremely hard and it's great to see so many aspects come together for her this year. Mical finished 2nd GC, and I 3rd. Sue won the enduro competition in commanding style. And I won the East Coast Rocks competition.
Day 8 - Millstone
Stage 8 of TSE for most folks is … well, let’s put it this way: you signed up for it with a sharpie on Cody Phillip’s bare abs. Extrapolate as you will. And yes, you will have to extrapolate because I wasn’t there. As disappointing as it was to cut out early and miss the shenanigans and fun, I had some math to take care of. We’re lucky up in the northeast to have a new mountain bike series this year, the Kenda Cup East, which is fantastic because we get to race on sweet trails that aren’t in Colorado or California. I had won the first two events, but if I missed the 3rd—the Millstone Grind in VT—that took place the day after TSE ended, I’d lose my series lead and would be in the position of having to win the last two races to win the series. Steve laughed a little at me but was on board with the crazy scheme, and Bryna offered her place to crash near Albany, which was a perfect midway point. She and I set off about 6:30pm, once podiums had ended, sad goodbyes had been exchanged, and our Eagle companions had protested adamantly. I think they had actually accepted the Incredible Sulk with her early dashes to the light switch.
Within short order, torrential downpours, barreling semis, one-lane highways barricaded on both sides with cement construction barriers, and glaring safely lights transformed travels into an enduro race in our little Fits.
After a few hours of exhausted sleep, I set off to Vermont, only to arrive to 45 degrees and rain. I won’t lie, this was terrible. I bundled up in some heretofore unused leg warmers, shoe covers, long sleeve jersey, and double rain jackets and went off to pre-ride, but circled back after 30 minutes with a bike completely gunked with mud, leaves, and sticks. I considered stripping down to more race-appropriate attire, but opted to stay as is. The race started and I promptly settled into last place. I knew I needed to just get 5th to maintain my lead, but even this was looking more grim than I had expected. Joanne thought I was drunk the way I was floundering through the mud. TSE had inflicted a 3D fatigue. I wasn’t just sore and tired pushing the pedals in a forward direction, but every stabilizer and supporting muscle that usually prevented falling sideways was fatigued as well. Anyway, I did my best to get out of the way of the stream of riders passing me, and did manage to eke out 5th.
Lest you wonder if there were any character building lessons to be learned, there were not: it was simply about supporting the series and gaining points to JUST keep the lead.
As I mentioned, I’m working with a new coach Steve Weller and so far training and working together have gone really well. Big thanks to Steve for helping me get ready for TSE and navigate the race as it went along. Of course, like any relationship dynamic, things are tested when someone’s crazy comes out, like when I wanted to drive 8.5 hours to race the day after TSE.
Clearly, that crazy didn't even phase him so I'll have to try harder next time ;)