Words and Photos by Bruce Buckley
Memorial Day weekend serves as an unofficial start to summer in the mid-Atlantic states—as temperatures finally hit a point where we are no longer reaching for long-sleeve tops or extra layers before we head out to ride. Since 2010, the start of the season in western Pennsylvania has kicked off at “singletrack summer camp” – otherwise known as the Trans-Sylvania Epic. After being postponed in 2018, TSE returned May 23-27 with five-day and three-day stage race options on some of the finest singletrack and gravel roads in the region. Each day also featured one-timed enduro section where riders could send it for an individual stage win or overall race glory.
Pennsylvania-native Ryan Fulton of Transylvania Productions took the reins of TSE to revive it this year, working with the original race creator Mike Kuhn to maintain the “epic” but fun spirit of the event. What resulted was a thrilling and diverse collection of courses that Kuhn called “our greatest hits.”
The five-day stage race kicked off with an introduction to Poe Valley—the area just east of race central at Seven Mountains Scout Camp. The 34-mile route sent riders rolling over ridges, into some rocky lowlands, and along multiple fast gravel sections. With a lot of gravel and doubletrack early in the route, groups of riders stayed largely together in the early portions of the race. By the second half, the front group of elite men was breaking up and it soon whittled down to a selection of past winners Jeremiah Bishop and Kerry Werner, along with first-time TSE racer Bryan Lewis. Although it’s his first time in Poe Valley, Lewis isn’t an unknown, especially to Bishop. The two live near each other and regularly throw down in the Shenandoah Mountains. Lewis—a former road pro—put in some big attacks on the final climbs, pulling away up Summit Trail. Bishop eventually reached Lewis, while Werner remained gapped. It came down to a sprint finish, where Bishop took the win by half a wheel at 2 hours 8mins and 54 seconds. Werner pulled in 27.7 seconds later.
In the women’s field, Carla Williams made a strong early statement, indicating that she was a clear favorite for the 5-day title. As she churned across the laurel-coated ridges above Poe Valley, she continued to pull away from her competitors, finishing with a gap of more than 11 minutes. Behind her, Colorado-based Marlee Dixon and mid-Atlantic powerhouse Julia Thumel were in a tight battle for the remaining podium spots. TSE is a mixed-field mass-start race, so Dixon was able to slot in with some teammates and gain a bit of draft advantage on the roads. At the end of the day, she’d spread the gap out to 54 seconds over third place Thumel. Britt Mason rolled through in fourth after a nearly 10-minute mechanical put her out of contention for the podium.
Stage two served up another 34-mile route, this time heading west of camp into the Coopers Gap area. Like most stages at TSE, singletrack is strung together with long gravel sections. However, Coopers Gap features a number of steep climbs and descents that made it one of the most challenging days of the entire event. Heading up Long Mountain Trail, Bishop was the only elite who could clean the climb. For everyone else, it was hike-a-bike time. On the long grassy descent, Werner gapped his competitors when Bishop got a stick caught in his rear wheel and Lewis dropped his chain.
Williams had her own issues on the downhill, crashing hard and slicing open her knee. Mason passed her, but Williams remounted, pushed through the pain and caught Mason on the next gravel section. The two battled it out on the clear-cut open areas of Dutch Alvin Trail heading to the midway aid station. As the elite men pulled out of the aid station, Lewis punched it up Peep Trail and it looked like he might get enough of a gap to win the stage and take the overall. But coming off a fast downhill, Lewis blew a turn and lost several minutes. Bishop didn’t see Lewis go off course and continued at chase pace. Williams met a similar fate as Lewis, getting away from Mason on a climb, but missing a downhill turn.
After a fast drop down No Name Trail and over a marshy stream area, riders hit a mix of gravel, pavement and a long doubletrack climb to the finish. Bishop held a 1-minute 36-second gap at the line, while Mason put in 4 minutes and 35 seconds on Williams. After a trip to the emergency room and some stitches, Williams made the tough decision to pull out of the race.
Following a strong stage 2 performance, Mason now held a slight lead in the overall standings ahead of Thumel and Dixon. After being gapped again by the leaders, Werner gave up on the pursuit of the overall, choosing instead to go all in for the race’s enduro classification.
Day 3 sent racers east for a remote start at R.B. Winter State Park. While the 5-day racers were hitting the mid-point, the 3-day racers were just beginning their TSE adventure. After a tough day two, the flowy race route was a welcome stage for tired legs and a good warm-up for new racers. The 30-mile route started with a bit of climbing to help spread things out, then riders bombed down some well-groomed gravel and onto smooth pavement. Eight miles in and it’s time to climb up Fallen Timber Trail to get to the start of the enduro section on Yankee Run Trail. With an enduro early in the stage, riders were still a bit bunched up in spots, making it hard for some to open it up on the enduro descent. Werner got trapped behind Bishop and Lewis who were marking each other and trying to stay safe. Werner’s main competition, Cody Phillips, didn’t have the same problem and managed to get a wide-open run that earned him the fastest time of the day.
After some flat and fast trail riding, racers hit the aid station and began the gradual climb up Hall Mountain. On the other side, they were treated to a beautiful descent down Black Gap Trail into a stream-side area that’s packed with moss-covered baby head rocks, ferns, a few splash zones, and some wooden bridges. With three miles to go, Lewis saw his best opportunity to gap Bishop and he charged up the two-mile climb on McCall Dam Road before the finishing descent on Boiling Spring Trail. He managed to pull away and hit the finish with a 40-second lead.
In the women’s field, the race was also tight. Mason started strong but had to dial her effort back around the midway point. That’s when Thumel kicked it into gear, passing Dixon and Mason with a strong climb up Hall Mountain. But Mason was able to ramp her effort back up toward the end, eventually winning the stage by 54 seconds over Thumel. Dixon rolled in 1 minute and 31 seconds behind Thumel.
Day 4 treated racers to one of the most highly anticipated stages of the event—Tussey Mountain. But this year, organizers mixed things up, racing in reverse of the conventional direction. After 8 miles of mostly gravel roads, racers hit the bottom of the Tussey Mountain Extension Trail, which is designed as a downhill run with lots of switchbacks and bermed corners. It’s the steepest route to the Tussey ridge, but it’s also a smooth track. From there it’s a mostly downhill 3-mile run across the ridge. Dense singletrack is interrupted in the middle of the ridge by a tree-free burn-zone from a past wildfire that offers some expansive views over the neighboring valleys near State College. Rocks litter the entire route—sparse in some sections and piled high in others.
After fixing a flat near the start of the Tussey climb, Lewis had to chase hard, but managed to catch the leaders before the end of the ridge ride. Mason also suffered a flat, but hers came near the end of the Tussey section. Dixon reached Mason just as she dismounted and was able to scream by and open a gap. The route then shot down the techy Lonberger Path trail and into the fabled Three Bridges area—a damp fern-covered section with loads of wet rock gardens, roots and, yes, three wooden bridges. After a road section, racers took the gentler approach to the high point of Tussey Mountain on Dylan’s Path. At the top, the same trail used to first climb Tussey was now a fast descent that served as the enduro section. A quick trip around scenic Cloyer Lake and riders headed back to the finish at Seven Mountains camp. Lewis again used the one trick in his bag that seemed to work well, setting a brutal pace on the final climb to gain more time. He held a 15-second gap that earned him the win, but it was a bit too little, too late to regain significant time on the overall.
In the women’s race, Dixon had her best ride of the entire race and managed to hold off Mason for the win. The course was a good fit for Dixon’s riding style, but she admits that loading up on pizza, ice cream and other much-needed carbs the previous night definitely helped. The course also played to the strengths of local rider Amelia Capuano, who managed to overtake Thumel and nab third place 52 seconds behind Mason.
Much like after the tough Coopers Gap stage, Tussey was followed by a faster and less-taxing route to finish off the event on Day 5. The 18-mile Bald Eagle stage, which incorporates some of the same gravel and doubletrack as the Poe Valley stage, was a barnburner that elites torched in under 1 hour and 30 minutes. The stage highlight was a trip over Sand Mountain and down into a private track that was covered with acres of ferns. At the bottom, the route passed through portions of a moto course with whoop-de-doos and some half-buried truck tires that a few riders braved—in some cases regrettably. After a long climb back up the mountain, the riders hit the final enduro section, which, in addition to being the longest of the race, featured some of the tightest, loosest and steepest pieces. Once again, Lewis and Bishop stuck together for most of the race. In the end, Lewis put in another late attack on the final climb, earning him enough time to take the stage win, but not enough to overcome his 40-second deficit to Bishop in the overall standings. Nine years after he earned his first win at TSE, the smooth and strategic Bishop made all the right moves to gain time when he could, while doing just enough to hold his lead. Werner again dominated the enduro, while in the women’s field Miki Razo sewed up the enduro title with a blazing run that was 28 seconds quicker than the second fastest time logged by Marlee Dixon. At the finish, Mason, who was competing in her first ever stage race, maintained a 25 second lead over Dixon to take the stage and the overall win. Emily Werner had her best ride of the event, taking third.
With the final racers across the line on the final stage, it was time to close up singletrack summer camp for another year. The revived TSE kept true to the mission of showcasing some of the best riding in Pennsylvania and, really, the east coast. Unlike in the past, the stages were shorter. Elites finished most stages in around two hours. For them, the format resulted in a series of shorter and faster stages rather than grueling endurance efforts. Perhaps more importantly, it meant that back-of-the-pack racers weren’t out riding for 8 hours every day. Even if the stages aren’t as long of a grind, the routes are no less amazing. The new TSE provided a fun and challenging format that pushes top riders to drill it every day and allows more recreational riders an approachable event that is still an epic experience.