Our very own tech guru, Stan has translated his dad's blog from Bulgarian describing his experience of climbing Romania's climbs. By the looks of it, the hills here are highly underrated.... although we will pass on the bears crossing the road!
This adventure started as all adventures do – with a dream. The dream of every cycling fan – to test himself or herself up the steepest and longest climb they could find. For me, this climb was a 4 hour drive away in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. Actually, there were 2 mountain passes, equally long and equally steep, which have been ranked in the top 10 most scenic mountain passes in Europe. Their names were Transalpina (26km at 6.4%) and Transfagarasan (24km at 6%). You may have heard about the latter from the Top Gear show where they drove their Ferraris and agreed that this was by far the best road in the world.
Let’s talk about the other one first though. It’s been opened in 1938 by the Romanian King Karol II which gives it it’s nickname – The King’s Road. However, the Romanians decided to pave it in 2007 and they finished it in 2012. After doing this, it became the highest paved road in the country at 2145m (7037ft). This is also the reason why it’s closed most of the time due to bad weather or snow. Its other nickname is The Devil’s road due to it often being at the edge of huge drops which could be as deep as 500m (1500ft). And with the absence of rail guards, you can figure out that driving or riding at the very edge of doom was not exactly an easy thing.
When we were preparing for this monster of a climb, we noticed that the percentage is often between 8 and 12 and the average of 6.4% is actually due to a short descent midway. The other important thing was to check if the weather will be ok. We had a few concerns because the week before our planned trip, snow was falling down on the last 5km of the climb and we were cautious that the road might be closed. On the day we arrived, we got lucky and the sun was shining – 28 degrees at the bottom and 12 at the top. Apart from the tough ascent, the second half of the climb was supposed to be quite open and with strong winds of about 40kmh.
The night before the climb we spent discussing what clothing should we take due to the big difference in temperature at the bottom and the top. We had to be as light and functional as possible.
In the morning, we had our porridge, pumped up the tyres and headed up the road. The climb begins with a few hundred metres at 10% which really warms you up. The good news was that the road was still among trees which were stopping the strong wind but the gradient was never less than 9%. The sweat started dripping down while we were riding on perfect tarmac through small villages and scenic views. Everyone knew that the hard part was about to begin after we get out of the forest.
After we got out of it, the surroundings became even more amazing – on one side, an endless green valley and on the other side, the Carpathian mountains with its naked peaks. The road turned into switchbacks and the gradient was constantly changing between 6 and 15%, there were times that the road was just ending in the skies.
It took us 2h 30m to reach the top, probably the hardest 2h 30m in my life. The combination of gradient, heat, wind, cold and breath-taking views was a feat which I thoroughly enjoyed and can’t wait to repeat.
The descent was just as fun as the climb. Unfortunately, the road was a mix of cars, motorbikes and animals, so we couldn’t go as fast as we would’ve wanted, but I was happy enough with reaching 80kmh and going back to 30kmh for each and every switchback. After we got back to the hotel, everyone was chuffed with their efforts and we were looking forward to a well-deserved dinner.
The next day it was time for Transfagarasan. This pass was built as a strategic military road between the north and south part of Romania and it was the second highest paved one, after Transalpina. It is often used in the Tour of Romania and the Sibiu Cycling Tour due to its HC status.
In the morning, we drove for about 200km until we reached the start of the climb. We arrived at around 14:00, got dressed at the side of the road, quickly prepared the bikes and left our wives to wait for us at the top where they spent the time drinking local brews.
In comparison with Transalpina, this climb was much easier, which was very welcome among the group. After all, everyone had tired legs both from the effort the day before and the long drive in the morning. Again, the road was full of switchbacks at about 6-8%. The tarmac was great and the first part of the climb felt like you are in a tunnel of trees with the peaks in front.
After the 30km descent, we climbed back in the cars and started our drive back to Bulgaria. To our utter disbelief, after about 30 mins of driving, we saw a black bear calmly walking on the road next to all the cars. I knew that there are bears in the region but I was never prepared for actually seeing one in the flesh. I had no idea what could’ve happened if we were still with the bikes… The bear itself looked careless to everything and everyone.
Only in Romania
A great adventure out on the bike!