Photo by Devon Balet Media
Stage 2: Cooper’s Gap – 41 miles
To veterans of the TSE, this year’s Cooper’s Gap stage was regarded as the most punishing in TS Epic history. I sure as hell hope so. This stage was brutal, and quite possibly the most technical day of racing in my life. Twenty five miles of the 41 mile stage with nearly 6,000 feet of climbing was tooth-chattering, rock-strewn singletrack that beat the mind and body into oblivion.
The first section of singletrack was a conga line of riders getting bumped and bounced 10 ways to Sunday on impossibly long rock gardens. You couldn’t let your attention wander for a second or you’d be on your face with a line of 50 riders running over the top of you like just another rock in the garden. Thankfully there were short sections of fire road in between the senseless beatings of rocky singletrack to grab a drink and some food, because trying to do it on the rocks was out of the question.
On a super high-speed, narrow, off-camber downhill enduro segment, I went to pass a slower rider when his rear wheel got bumped off a rock and back into the trail, hitting my front wheel and sending me careening off the hillside and ending in a spectacular 15 mph flip over the bars. I immediately got up and looked around. The other rider and I looked at each other for a second in amazement. How both my person and bike were unscathed I have no idea. It was the hardest fall I’ve had in years, but somehow I suffered nary a scrape. “You lucky, lucky bastard” was all I could think.
After the second aid station at mile 31, the final ten miles was a combination of rock garden power moves, a high-speed enduro segment over a bed of baby head boulders that made your eyes bounce in your skull, and a crushing fire road ascent that gained about 1,000 vertical feet in just over two miles. Adding insult to injury, we finished on the dreaded Fisherman’s Trail. Upon crossing the finish line, there were battered and bloodied bodies strewn everywhere. Dreams were thoroughly crushed.
How hard was Stage 2? Consider this. Fellow singlespeed scribe, Rich “Dicky” Dillen has done more than 30 TS Epic stages with a rigid fork and non-drooper seatpost. After Stage 2, Dicky was found strapping on a 140mm Fjox Fjork and drooper post, and was heard to proclaim, “There’s pride and there’s stupidity. I’m done being stupid.”
Clearly Stage Two had taken its toll. If this was a sign of things to come, I was beginning to wonder if survival was even possible.
Photo by A.E.Landes Photography
Stage 3: Tussey Mtn. Enduro – 22 miles
As a relatively new format in the TS Epic, Tuesday was a much needed “day off” from the clobbering we received on Monday. With only five timed downhill segments and a leisurely pace uphill in between each segment, Stage 3 was a great day for the gravity-oriented folk like me. Although it was supposed to be a casual pace, the beginning was far from it, as everyone wanted to race to the top in order to avoid a log jam at the first segment.
The approach to the first downhill segment was a gradual uphill singletrack lined with a seemingly never-ending procession of wheel-eating rocks. Stuck in the middle of a conga line of riders I tried powering through the rocks to keep the front wheel from getting swallowed alive, but my bike finally succumbed and sent me over the bars at barely walking speed. From the bottom of my diaphragm I unleashed a string of expletives that made everyone stop in their tracks. These rocks. These goddamn rocks. We’re not even at the first segment yet and I’m already bleeding. Some guy passed by me and said, “Welcome to Pennsylvania”. Yeah, no shit Sherlock.
Thankfully that was the only mishap I had all day. The five timed stages were rocky yet manageable, however there were plenty of flat tires and wrecks to be had. Even superstars like Jeremy Powers fell victim to the rocks, double-flatting on the third enduro segment.
Everyone talked about segment four, better known as Wildcat. Allegedly it has a mega rock garden at the bottom where everyone spectates, waiting for inevitable carnage. Having never seen it, I was ready to plow right through it with brute force and ignorance. It started out ignorant enough, but then my pedal came unclipped and the mission was over before it began. I had to do the run of shame through the boulder field as the spectators stood by and shook their heads in disappointment. Dicky, with his freshly installed 140mm Fjox Fjork and drooper post raged like a little man through the garden to great applause.
Photo by A.E.Landes Photography
But the Wildcat segment was nothing compared to Segment 5. Wildcat was a short, steep, rocky kick in the groin that was over painfully quick. Segment 5 was like being held down and beaten senseless by a gang of drunken thugs with a wellspring of anger and hatred. The rocky abuse simply never seemed to end.
The highlight of the day wasn’t the rocky beatdown however, it was the realization that Dicky and I have an entourage. At the rest stop, a new friend by the name of Don Breon III had pizza waiting for us courtesy of Lone Wolf Cycling. At the top of the final timed beating, Dicky and I commiserated over the fact that neither of us had beer waiting back at the van. But then we crossed the finish line of segment five to find another interweb superfan, Jason Novack, waiting with a six-pack of beer for us. Dude sat in the woods for hours waiting for us to finish just so he could give us a fist bump and say “good job, brothers. Here’s a beer.”