It’s all smiles at the start of Stage 4 at the Transylvania Epic.

At Camp Seven Springs, riders crisscross in front of their cabins on mud-splattered mountain bikes with towels over their shoulders headed for the pool. A group huddles together and tries to remember what time to be at the mess hall for dinner, while others hang up dirty clothes to dry. This would be the scene of a typical teenage summer camp, but it’s not. These are, in fact, grown men and women, some professional mountain bikers.

The Trans-Sylvania Epic is one of only a few mountain bike stage races in the country, and possibly the most eclectic. Located in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, the race brings together a smattering of professional, amateur, and international riders in one place for seven days of riding some of the best singletrack in the mid-Atlantic.

Putting on a race of this scope and caliber lies in the hands of race directors Mike Kuhn and Ray Adams, both of whom have been promoting races in Pennsylvania for over a decade.

“Mike had been bothering me for years to do something like this,” said Adams. “When we found this venue, it finally became more attractive in my eyes because it really offers a ton of great trail options right from one central home base.”

Home base is Seven Mountains Scout Camp outside State College, Pa., a 230-acre facility reminiscent of every summer camp you’ve ever been to, complete with bunkhouses, cabins, bathhouses, a pool, and mess hall. The camp lies adjacent to most of the trails ridden during the event, in fact five of the seven TSE stages start and finish right from camp headquarters. And because most, if not all, of the racers stay on site in the bunks or camping, a community develops over the week, brought together by a shared love of mountain biking and suffering.

Basically, the TSE is like summer camp for adults who love to mountain bike. This is no accident, according to Kuhn.

“This is a whole summer camp atmosphere, we’re just older,” he said. “It’s a lot like you remember when you were a kid: just hanging out with a bunch of people who do what you love to do.”

The riders who participate, some of whom hit the summer race circuit with their sponsors and see each other every weekend or know each other from other races, only enhance the summer camp vibe.

“We get these incredible athletes like [Cannondale pro Jeremiah] Bishop and [Kona rider Barry] Wicks who just love coming out, and they absolutely love the racing. It’s top quality. It’s as good as it gets,” said Kuhn. “But then we’ve got all these other people who are here for the sheer fun of it because it’s a vacation.”

Just ask Matthys Buekes. He got off a plane from his native South Africa on a Friday and was racing by Sunday. He knocked off the jetlag just in time to battle Jeremiah Bishop to the line in a close Stage 4 loss.

“I can recommend it to anyone,” he said. “This is some of the sweetest riding I’ve ever seen and it’s also a challenge. It’s so much fun and afterward with the people, it’s amazing.”

There are many different ways to enjoy the TSE if you don’t want to enter the elite category. You can race as a team of two in the duo category, just be sure to stay within 30 seconds of your partner. There is also the Epic Team category, in which a team shares the responsibility of finishing the stages. Or, if you are not into racing at all, you can enjoy the TSE vibe while riding a shorter version of the same trails as the pros in the experience category.

“I think the variety of riding levels is the key,” said Joanne Abbruzzesi from Philadelphia. “I don’t have to feel like I’m racing, but I get to be out here with these great riders and get to see them do their thing.”

Instead of nightly ghost stories and s’mores, these campers gather for race results, awards ceremonies, video stage recaps, and the occasional adult beverage. Instead of homemade dream catchers and arrowheads, cabins are strewn with spare bike parts, chain grease, and soggy chamois. Campers are more likely to sneak out of their cabin late at night to bribe a mechanic for a brake cable than to row across the lake to the girls’ side. That does not mean you can’t get a pen pal out of the deal, however.

“By the end of the week you’re all good friends and unlike when you’re a kid – or maybe not – you’re drinking beers,” Kuhn said laughing. “At least there are no camp counselors looking over your shoulder here.”

That may be the best part of the TSE, reliving the freedom of youth with the actual freedom to do what you want as an adult.

“We want this to maintain the feel of a summer camp, of a mountain bike vacation, of something where at the end of the week we pretty much know everyone’s name and face,” Kuhn explained. “We want to continue that. It’d be hard not to have a good time doing this thing. If you love mountain biking, this is the place to be for a week.” •

Trans-Sylvania Epic from Summit Publishing on Vimeo.

Other Stage Races

Pisgah Stage Race

This 5-day mountain bike stage race takes place in the famed Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina. The full course runs 195 miles and has over 28,000 feet of total elevation gain. Using Brevard as its base, this race is fully supported and attracts some of the best mountain bikers in the country.

Breckenridge Epic

The Breck Epic is the premier mountain bike state race of the Rockies, encompassing six days of riding around Breckenridge, Colo. Almost 90 percent of the race course is 10,000 feet or more above sea level.

Moab Stage Race

This one is new to the scene in 2012. Taking place over three days in the Utah mountain biking mecca of Moab, this race will cover 100 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Plus, it’s in the desert.