From over the hill in the distance they emerge out of the fog in small clumps, leaning heavily on their bikes, flecks of mud dotting their faces and caking their legs and spandex uniforms. Top-shelf mountain bikers, some of them professional, embroiled in a tussle for the lead in the Wildcat 100 race, part of the elite National Ultra Endurance series. Having descended from the ridges of the Shawangunks, they zoom through the road along the Wallkill River and cut into a back street of sleepy Gardiner. At an aid station, they clench their brakes and stock up on water, sports drink, PowerBars, and bananas. And then, not 15 seconds later, they tear away again, setting off on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, cutting a shallow track into the gravel. Their back wheels spritz a watery, airborne trail into the morning drizzle as they thank the kindly volunteers from afar.
This is all the doing of Gunter Spilhaus, an amiable 40-year-old South African who moved into the area five years ago with his Newburgh-born wife Laura, two kids, and four dogs. He’s the kind of guy who owns a handful of kayaks, stacked outside of his garage, greets you barefoot and invariably has a pair of wraparound Oakleys poking out of his curly hair, whether he’s outside or not. And he has a vision for the mid-Hudson Valley. He hopes to turn the area into a hub for outdoor sports, capitalizing on the beauty and entertainment potential of the Catskills.
After a first career as a diver in South Africa’s Navy, Spilhaus got involved in the event planning of outdoor action sports in his native Cape Town, putting on races and corporate team-building activities. After a few years, he found himself hitch-hiking in New Zealand’s South Island. He’d taken some time off after participating in an event with South Africa’s adventure racing team — a multidisciplinary outdoor sport consisting of several events like hiking, climbing, running, paddling, and orienteering. He met Laura, an Olympic-level equine physiotherapist, on a bus. They both soon canceled their flights home in order to spend the next six months driving around New Zealand in a cheap secondhand car they’d bought together. They then settled in Cape Town, until Laura’s father, still living in Newburgh, took ill — and they moved to Gardiner. “When it’s family, it’s not a decision,” says Spilhaus, “you just go.” Sitting on the couch of his cozy, out-of-the-way home, he speaks slowly in his still unmistakably South African accent. His blindingly blonde four-year-old daughter, home sick from school today, sleeps in his arms. The dogs all lay on the floor, snoring in harmony.
Participants in the Wildcat 100 gather at the starting line in Rosendale
When they arrived in Gardiner, Spilhaus launched a new business, Wildcat Epic Events — named for Wildcat Mountain in the Catskills — and started out with mountain biking. “There’s a need for a major staged mountain bike race in this area,” Spilhaus explains. “It’s beautiful, and there are a lot of big races on the West Coast, but not in the East. I see this big opportunity for mountain bike racing in this area.” In 2010, the first Wildcat Epic drew 86 riders to a two-day, 100-mile race — and he was on his way.
In the last three years, business has mushroomed. Between the 100-mile National Ultra Endurance race and the only-slightly-less arduous 100-kilometer race, 265 riders entered the May 11 Wildcat 100. Spilhaus expects this year’s Wildcat Epic, on August 3 and 4, to include about 350 riders. And next year he plans to put on a five-day race.
He’s got other stuff in the works, too. Like the 315 Hudson River Adventure Series (part of the Hudson Rising festival, see Polly’s Picks here) taking place in Yonkers, Kingston, Beacon, and Ossining throughout the summer. This multisport series consists of kayaking, running, treadwall climbing, an “Amazing Race-style” scavenger hunt, swimming, and stand-up paddleboarding competitions, allowing entrants — either individuals or teams — to participate in one, several, or all events. The days’ competitions will be framed by a green sustainability expo, the Hudson Valley Farm Feast with local produce, and an adventure village.
Putting all this together is yeoman’s work. Spilhaus organizes it alone, from his home office and his cell phone. He’s spent several days clearing leaves off a 100-mile trail to get ready for the big race, and then cleaning up after it. Last year, he erased 108 miles worth of arrows from the roads.
But the success and momentum is tangible. “It was a lot bigger in numbers than any of us thought,” says Spilhaus of his Wildcat 100. Each of his events seems to double in size every year. He should eclipse 1,000 participants in his events this year, even though most of them are still in their infancy.
The races and spinoff happenings aren’t the point of this exercise. Or not entirely, anyway. They are more catalyst than they are the end game; pieces of a grander puzzle, not the entire picture. As Spilhaus envisions it, the events will build the area’s brand as a mountain biking and outdoor sports destination. Right now, Wildcat borrows land from local farms and gets to use state park trails. Some of the courses are made permanent after the races, which he hopes will spur on the construction of an entire network of fixed mountain biking routes — separate from the hiking trails — connecting towns all over the Catskills and attracting everyday mountain bikers and outdoor sportsmen.
The model for this is the Kingdom Trails mountain bike network in Vermont. The trails are used for running, hiking, snowshoeing, and Nordic skiing (depending on the season); and they attract some 50,000 people per year. “I want that model down here in this region,” says Spilhaus, “connected to the ridge.”
If sponsorship eventually comes to fund the events, they in turn will benefit the local economy, forging a synergy that will be a boon to the area. “I want to use the network and events to bring it back to the communities and boost tourism as best we can,” Spilhaus says. The Wildcat 100 attracted 150 or so riders from outside the Valley, most of whom stayed at least two nights. Spilhaus estimates 60 percent of participants in his events travel here from outside the region and stay overnight. They eat in local restaurants, shop in local stores, stay in local hotels. The farms contributing land to local trails could suddenly come into regular foot traffic, with visitors frequenting farm stands. Outdoor sports tourists could spend as much as a week here, riding, running, and hiking from town to town — with it all just 90 minutes from New York City.
“It’s gorgeous here,” says Spilhaus. “This region is stunning. We’ve got accommodations. We’ve got all the wineries and restaurants and distilleries and apple farms. We’ve got it all here already. It’s just a matter of one more way to market this area. We just keep pushing the rock uphill right now.” The rock, yes — and the bike.
Learn more about Gunter Spilhaus’s events at www.wildcatepicevents.com.
Where to try it:
Are you an avid biker? Or perhaps you’re just seeking a little summer adventure? Either way, you’re invited to the ninth annual Cycling the Hudson Valley bike tour. This six-day, 200-mile trip takes bikers through the Valley and past a number of scenic and historic locales, including the FDR National Historic Site, West Point, the Culinary Institute of America, Olana, and (eventually) into Manhattan. You bring the bike, a helmet, and camping gear, and the tour staff provides the rest: camping accommodations (with showers and toilets), six breakfasts and four dinners, refreshment stops, nightly entertainment, baggage transport, mechanical support — even fresh towels and gourmet coffee every morning (for an additional fee). If camping isn’t up your alley, you can opt to stay in one of many motels or B&Bs along the route. July 30-Aug. 4. $560 adults, $240 youth. For more information, call 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org/hudsontour.