Words by Adventure/Endurance team member, Cory Wallace
Romania is a Southeastern European country with close to 23 000 000 inhabitants including the infamous Dracula character. Geographically its trademark is the Carpathian mountains which are in the forested region of the Transylvania region and are considered to be one of the last truly wild parts of Europe. Having a chance to go there to race the 4 day, Carpathian MTB Epic (UCI, S2) was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up so off to Eastern Europe it was!
The race itself was based out of the Fundata resort, 4 hrs North of the capital city of Bucharest, and just minutes away from Dracula’s castle in Bran. With a 10 hour time difference from Canada, I showed up a bit jet lagged so opted to spend Wednesday riding down to Bran to check out one of Romania’s many medieval towns, highlighted by its fortified churches and castles. The beauty of riding a bike is that it gets you straight into the culture and its people while simultaneously getting the blood flowing and the body back online after a big travel day.
My buddy Frederic Gombert flew in from France and arrived late Wednesday night. He too wanted to get over his jet lag so Thursday morning we went for an easy pre-ride with our new friend Miroda from South Africa. Our pre-ride turned into a bit longer and tougher than expected as the shortcut we opted to take back to the resort ended up being a solid hike a bike and pretty soon we were 2.5 hours into a “recovery ride”. We came to a private property sign just 3 km from our home base back at Fundata. Thankfully the locals were warm and welcoming, opening the gate and letting us cross through there pastures. This was a small prelude of both the warmth of the Romanian locals and also what was on deck for us at the Carpathian Epic.
Later this afternoon we tackled a short 10 km prologue to officially kick off the CarpathianMTB Epic. It was underestimated as we road down some gnarly old school straight shot descents and soon had to ride up some insanely steep gradients back to the finish line. My body was in shock as I tried to push over a 36 T-45 gearing. I was ready to walk but my buddy Fred was just behind me and my manly hood wouldn’t let me get off the bike. Thus I ground the gears over at the slowest rpm possible. By the finish line, I was cracked and stunned as it’s only once every 5 or 6 years that a 36-45 gearing will let me down but apparently racing in Romania was going to be an exception.
Post race we headed up to the restaurant for a big Romanian buffet full of all sorts of meat, delicious cheeses, potatoes, cabbage, and a few other white starches. Apparently, they don’t like eating green things too much over there but we certainly had our fill of heavy proteins and Carbs. It reminded me a bit of the Mongolian cuisine. The setting for all our meals during the race had an epic view over the Carpathian mountains and turned into our hang out spot between racing.
A Romanian 4 star resort is a little different than a Canadian 4-star resort, and while it was comfortable, we also had one giant street light and one spotlight shining straight into our room. A Belgium rider had the same problem, so he put his extra bed and mattress against the window to block the light. Fred and I occupied both our beds, so instead, we unscrewed the light from the spotlight, and then slept with black shirts over our heads to try and get some darkness. The shower also shot straight into the room making it a swimming hole, unless we crouched in the tub and washed ourselves like we were kids in a tin basin. The WIFI they promised was also non-existent. I brought these issues up to the front desk but they just turned their heads and told us they’d fix it later. I’m used to sleeping in a tent in a ditch somewhere so I could really care less about this stuff, but if you’re going to charge $100 + a night for something then I’ll raise my voice in hopes of getting any silly problems fixed for the next occupant.
Stage 1 I showed up nice and early, 20 minutes before race start, but apparently had already missed the UCI call-up. I tried to negotiate with the UCI official, but these guys can take themselves pretty seriously, thus I had a nice start position at the back of the 150 rider field. It was sketchy trying to ride through the field on marbly gravel roads but I made it up to the chase group just before the first 10 km climb. The lead group of 12 riders was already long gone, part of the joys of racing a UCI race in Europe with top riders from 20+ countries on hand. I attempted to bridge up to the lead group but the 20-25% hills were kicking my ass one after another and pretty soon I had a full meltdown as my back was unhappy and the legs were even more unhappy trying to push over the 36-45 gearing. All my smaller chainrings were at home as I never use them, and I had unsuccessfully looked for a smaller one after the Prologue the night before. Apparently, when you race in Eastern Europe you better show up with everything you need as spare parts are sparse.
Reaching the first feed zone at a mountain pass was stunning as we had 360 views of the Carpathian mountains. I stopped for 10 seconds to fix my seat and was immediately scolded by the UCI officials for fixing my bike in the feed zone and not tech zone which was 3 feet to the left. Whatever, no one else is around, but as I know these UCI guys like to show off their powers so moved a couple feet to the left to continue fixing the problem. Grabbing some food I took off, hike a biking straight up a pitch to the mountain summit and then embarking on some amazing high alpine riding. The body was still in meltdown mode as I sunk into the 30+’s but I kept on telling myself to push through it. Eventually, the legs came back online and I started moving forwards, passing riders again and slowly gaining some momentum. It’s amazing how fast the mind can switch during a race, being on the edge of a complete breakdown, to making small gains and getting the momentum back in your favour.
Mid-race I could see my buddy Fred about 3 minutes ahead, straight up this huge hike a bike section. After spending last winter hiking around the Himalayas I used these hike-a-bikes to my advantage and caught a few riders, including my buddy Fred just before a 15 km descent through the alpine on a great, technical rocky trail. This turned into one of the best 30 minutes of riding I had all year as we pushed each other, passing riders, and getting ourselves back into the race. It was sketchy in sections, dodging sharp rocks, skidding down wet grassy slopes, and bouncing off tree roots in the forest below. By the bottom of this Romanian Enduro we had moved back into the top 15, a position I’d hold to the finish, while Fred would crack and drift back a few spots.
Again after the race, I searched for a smaller chainring as I heard Stage 2 would be even tougher. One of the local Romanian teams had some but were unfortunately unwilling to sell off any of them, or loan one out for the last two days of the race. Fair enough, I was in direct competition with them, and it was my fault for not packing one. That being said, if anyone from overseas is competing against me in Canada and needs help one day I will go out of my way to make sure they get it. After being on the traveler’s side of the game for most my life I know the challenges that come with being away from home and have some karma to repay as I’ve had great help all over the world.
Stage 2 was pretty short mileage wise but a real hardman’s day. Somehow they packed 3300 climbing meters into 59 km, and it had more hike a bike then you could shake a stick at. Luke Way at Balance Point Racing has been giving me coaching guidance for years and after the last visit, he told me to work on my slow cadence efforts to really put some stress on the leg muscles to lower the blood oxidation levels. I took the steep climbs at the Carpathian Epic as the perfect spot to practice this, but it also took its toll as I would push the low gears way past my limits and after 2 hours of this I had detonated my legs.
Finally hitting the top of the last Carpathian Mountain on the stage, I was all geared up to make some spots back up on the descent. Shockingly the decent went in a straight line, through the rhubarb and grass down the mountain. It seemed whoever flagged the course just set there GPS on a straight line down the mountain and then started hanging flags up. Once out of the bushes, it eventually turned into a skid trail and near the bottom a skid trail with boulders littered all over. All in all, it took 12 minutes to go down what had taken over 1hr and 15 minutes to climb with much of it being at – 30-47%. My arms burned at the bottom and my brakes were likely melted into the rotors. From here to the finish the body was in shutdown mode, likely from going over my limit trying to grind up the last 2 mountains with no ability to spin with the big gears. Eventually, I’d roll in 20th, just glad to be over and able to start the recovery process for the final stage.
Stage 3 was more of a normal marathon, 60 km, 2500 km, and no hike a bike. Starting the stage out slow, I’d wind it up going over a grassy descent, passing 10 riders via letting go of my brakes and taking a sketchy outside line. I’d lose a bit on the next punchy climbs but the course was predominantly downhill to start going over some rough cattle trails which played in my favour. Eventually, I’d settle into a group from 11th-15th place as we started a long 12 km climb, first up through a giant canyon, then onto a fire road and eventually ending on some rooty singletrack. A lot of these gravel roads were full of tourists hiking around looking down at there phones which made it interesting trying to weave around all the oblivious hikers.
I kept getting dropped from this group of Euro climbers, but I’d use the rolling singletrack across the top to gain contact again. Most the trails in Romania were like rough Canadian hiking tracks. In my mind, these are some of the most fun trails to ride as they are raw and rugged and my Kona Hei Hei was eating them up. The backside descent was fast, and ended on a straight pitch down a loose dusty slope, a similar theme to the week. It wasn’t super technical but it was pretty rad how the Romanian riding was so diverse every day with every type of riding imaginable. The final climb to the finish was 12 km up a tight river valley surrounded by Transylvanian forest. It resembled the west coast of BC and the slight 3-4% gradients were much nicer than the 20%+ gradients that had dominated the race the first few stages! Crossing the finish line in 10th on the day marked the first solid ride I had since crashing hard on stage 4 at BC Bike Race back in July, and moved me up to into the money and 15th overall in GC. It was reason enough to enjoy the festivities later in the day as the organizers put on a huge Romania BBQ, complete with tables full of wine and beer. Apparently, Romania is the 10th largest supplier of wine in the world, and home to some of the best cheese and free-range meat I’ve tasted so we had a nice party.
Overall the experience in Romania was top notch. The organizing crew put on a great race and the atmosphere was nice as every stage started and finished in the same race village. The riding reminded me of the old TransRockies classic in Canada, a nice change from all the new school berm filled, smoothed out IMBA trails. The following morning all the racers cleared out and I settled in for a relaxing day to try and recupe some energy as I had an adventure planned the following day, planning to ride back to Bucharest via the backroads.
It’s interesting how the locals often try to talk you out of these sort of adventures in their countries as they try to make it sound more dangerous then it actually is. Over the years I’ve learned to trust my own instincts, take a few precautions and then get on with whatever little adventure I have planned. With a smile on your face and an open mind, this world is usually a pretty welcoming place.
The ride back to Bucharest was top notch as I planned out a 185 km route via the backroads. The first 80 km snaked its way out of the Carpathian mountains on some dirt roads, going through some pretty cool mountain towns full of impressive churches. It was good to see how well kept the Romanians keep their countryside. The 2nd half of the ride was across Romania’s agriculture flatlands and was a good mixture of small paved roads and farmer dirt roads. Every couple of hours I’d pull over at little roadside stores to refill on water and snacks. There was always Romanian country folk just chilling outside these rest stops and they were pretty curious as to what a Canadian mountain biker was doing in there neck of the woods. I learned a bit of Romanian this way and had a lot of handshakes and good travel wishes.
Reaching Bucharest the traffic picked up so I hopped on the sidewalks for the last few km of the ride before checking into the Rin hotel near the airport. The next day my friend Elena from the Carpathian MTB Epic offered to give me a tour of her city so I hopped on the bike, this time with sandals and casual 7mesh clothing, and took the scenic way into town via the many bike paths through the parklands. The city itself was pretty rad, full of the largest parliament building outside of the Pentagon, lots of historic buildings and many neat cultural things to see and do. Bucharest used to be called a mini-Paris and has some cool places to check out. A week in Romania was a good taste of the country but the more you see of a place the more plentiful the opportunities open up to explore it further. I’ll hope to have a chance to come back one day to continue exploring this Balkan country.
For now, it’s off to Norway for a two-week adventure including racing both the legendary Birken in Lillehammer and then the Skaidi Xtreme way up North above the 71st parallel. Here we come Scandinavia!
**Photos by MPG Romania
For all of Cory’s race reports, be sure to check out his blog featuring in-depth recaps from all of his race and events.