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Interview with Trans-Sylvania Epic Organizers Mike and Ray

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |September 12, 2010 9:03 PM
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The Trans-Sylvania Epic is a 7-day mountain bike stage race around State College, Pennsylvania. In it's first year the TSE hosted some of the country's strongest riders and put up a healthy cross section of deep-woods, East Coast singletrack. 

 Riders were challenged and impressed by the racecourse but most of all they commented on the fantastic organization of the race. Race directors Ray Adams and Mike Kuhn were responsible for the day-to-day operations of the event and we wanted to learn a bit more about the way things went behind the scenes at the inaugural Trans-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic.

Question- Why try to put on a 7 day stage race?

Mike - It is something that was brewing for a long time.  I’d been thinking about a week long Pennsylvania MTB stage race for 6 or 7 years before we launched this (which is partly why it went as well as it did the first time through I think).  Plus we’d already done some 3 day/4 event race weekends - we put on "The Festival” every year which is now a Night ITT/TTT + Team Relay/Enduro + Short Course Relay/Solo + Fun event + Beer that is a riot so we had some experience with a shorter stage race that gave us some confidence we could put this together.  There is so much great riding in PA and I really want to show off what we have because I think the east coast gets a bum rap for mountain bike adventure style riding - and it is plain kickass here.  Long term I hope we can move this around the state and showcase more, but boy is State College/Alleghenies/Union County/Bald Eagle and Rothrock State Forest riding sweet!  Somehow or other I was able to convince Ray this was a good idea and tricked him into co-promoting it!

Ray - Yup, the riding here is great.  Seven days is long enough to get a pretty good taste of the various flavors our region has to offer.  Additionally, I think that the week-long stage race format is cool because it really is an epic experience.  Your life adapts to the rigors of racing and you really bond with the people you are with.

Question- What racer would you most like to see at your event next season?

M - How about any type of racer - or better yet participant?  We have designed this whole event with the guys and ladies who just love riding a mountain bike and love the mountain bike culture/experience in mind.  Our stages aren’t just about beating the living daylights out of yourself each day, but give a real mix of terrain and technicality and duration and style that is great for the professionals who came out this year, but just as much fun for anyone ready for a week of killer mountain bike riding. I think if folks read the blogs from this year’s participants you can get a real sense of what we did and how it came across.  Having the SSers all make the last stage a big rolling party - a la le Tour - with the race leader acting as the beast of burden for the beverages is a perfect glimpse of what we’re after with this thing and who we want to bring out.  

Let me be clear, this is a tough week of riding.  If people ride once a week this is going to be over their head, but we think most sport riders are going to be able to get through the week.  Yes, they’ll be pushed to make it, but the memories they make from the week of riding incredible trails and having fun hanging out at the camp and the euphoria from the accomplishment of making it through the week will far outlast the sore legs and bumps and bruises during the week!  Based on this year, I think most people forgot about the tough parts by the end of the last nights party!  (Though it may have taken a few of them a week to recover from the party itself!).

R - I think it is so important to find the balance of difficulty and fun for our courses, and so far it seems we’ve done a good job.  The pros found it hard enough, while the recreational folks had a good time.  The pros are an important source of feedback, but the weekend warriors are the lifeblood of any event like ours and we want to be sure they are happy.

Question- Most important lesson learned from 2010?

M - That we have something really good here, and that as long as we keep giving people the sort of experience they had this year, this thing will take off.  It is all about making this thing fun for people with great courses and a great setting.  We got some fantastic feedback from participants and volunteers this year that we’re working on implementing for 2011 that will only improve what we’re offering.

R - I believe that the camaraderie of the stage race format and camp style lodging that we’re offering was a huge part of our successful first year.  To see folks smiling over dinner together after a long day in the saddle encapsulates what we’re trying to provide for our participants, and I want to build on this as we move forward. 

Quesiton- Any changes you would have in mind for 2011?

M - We’ve already been out scouting some new trails and we’re in the process of submitting updates to the courses based on what we’ve seen.  We’re also planning to work with the Dept of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Nittany Mountain Bike Association and some other local moto and hiking groups to access and re-open some old trails through our Outdoor Experience Organization.  This isn’t just about putting on a race for us.  We want to improve riding in the state by putting money and time back into trail development in PA.  The first official efforts from this will be in the Rothrock and Bald Eagle forests and we’ll be expanding from there.  One of the big things we’re working on is making two more of our stages start and finish from the 7 Mountains Scout Camp we use as the TSE base for the week.  Everyone loved the camp aspect and the group lodging and by having two more of the stages loop from camp we can give people even more of what they want.  

R - As Mike mentioned, we’re working on simplifying the logistics of the week by starting and finishing more of the stages at the Scout Camp.  Along with this, we’re working to make sure that our courses, lodging arrangements, and food service providers can handle the larger number of participants we’re forecasting for 2011 and beyond.

Question- Were you satisfied with the racecourse this year?

M - Yes, definitely.  It was sort of funny for us because, as I mentioned, we went into the design of this race with a specific plan in mind and it was great to watch participants’ reactions through the week as one course built on the next and each day offered new and different features because folks expressed some doubts along the way.  The courses were all laid out with particular goals and then fit together in a specific way and we were really happy to see it play out as we’d planned.  It really gave us confidence that we were on the right track.  We’re confident that the 2011 course updates are only going to satisfy folks even more.

R - I am proud to say the our courses were a hit amongst participants.  A big part of our concerns was to make sure that the course were well marked and safe, which they were.  The week saw only a couple of missed turns by a few folks and no serious injuries, so we are quite satisfied with that.  

Question- Any behind the scenes fires you had to put out during the race?

M - There always are.  I’ve never run an event where there isn’t something that happens that needs attention that wasn’t part of the plan.  The key is always making sure the participants are having a fantastic time and reacting to the situation in the appropriate manner.  There is definitely a theater aspect to race promotion where you have the "show” that is the racers out on the course and then all the stuff that happens behind the scenes to make it come off smoothly.

R - Miraculously, or maybe because we had such a great staff, no major issues came up during the week.  There were a few minor situations we handled, but most aspects of the race went flawlessly.

Question- What is the key to making a first year event like yours run so smoothly?

M - Three things; planning and execution are key and we put a ton of time into this - we both left full time jobs for part time gigs so we could put the time we needed to into this event (yes, our wives are pretty supportive...most of the time any way), and the other piece is surround yourself with people you can count on to get things done and do them well.  I think the number one thing that made this event run as well as it did was the support and effort that we got from every volunteer who was part of the event.  Those people worked their butts off.  "The crew” was up and at work before racers were sitting down to breakfast in the mess hall and didn’t wrap up their days until most participants were sound asleep.  Ray and I were incredibly lucky to have this sort of support from family and friends and we can’t thank them enough for making us look so good. There is another piece too I guess - Ray and I make a pretty good team.  Not only does working together allow for two people to know everything that is going on and keep things running smoothly, but our individual strengths seem to cancel out each other’s weaknesses and that allows us to accomplish a lot more than either of us could on our own.  The other things that’s great about this is that we both had some opportunity to be a little less plugged in from time to time and that was huge and likely contributed to a better experience for everyone.

R - I can’t put enough emphasis on the importance of our staff.  Bill Leech did an awesome job getting course marshals to the keys locations every day.  Our pre-riders made sure the courses were all marked adequately.  Our checkpoint and scoring staff were also key in running the event.  The scout camp’s staff was helpful and friendly.  All around, we had such a great group of people helping out in our first year!

Question- Most entertaining story from the communal living facility on site?

M - Perhaps the bit where the Team CF ladies duo team of Nikki and Kristin had to continually reassure everyone in their bunkhouse that they in fact were not a couple - which Blake may still not believe.  To hear them tell it was particularly amusing and led to the suggestion that we need a little "Real World” style confessional booth for some videos next year.  We’ll see if we can pull that off.  Ray actually got to live in Eagle Lodge with some of the kids so he probably has some better stories.

R - One thing I won’t soon forget is returning to Eagle Lodge after a long day of running around getting ready for the next day’s events.  As I walked onto the porch, I see that my cabin mates are blowing soap bubbles, sporting glow-in-the-dark necklaces, and one of them is playing the banjo.  Awesome.

Question- Early in the race Jeremiah Bishop used a bike change during a stage to address some mechanical problems. Subsequently, you decided to ban bike changes during a stage. Tell me about your thought process and why you made that decision.

M - That was definitely one of things we learned this year.  We certainly weren’t going after a "UCI stage race” sort of approach to this first TSE - we were thinking more grass roots and fun focused and we didn’t really have appropriate rules in place to address concerns of athletes as well supported as the Cannondale crew and other elite racers.  Really we’re still a little amazed by the caliber of field we attracted in year one and we’re incredibly happy that not only did some real world class racers trust us enough to take part, but that they gave us stellar reviews after the event.  What we found out in this instance is that we’ll need to put down some rules for competition beyond the basic stuff.  It was our fault for not being more precise and one of a few administrative sort of things we’ll be addressing for 2011.

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