Wild, Rugged Romania: The Carpathian Mountain Bike Epic
Lying in bed, I was close to sleep when suddenly the room lit up; a bright, white flash followed by a brooding growl of thunder. Alone in my room, I listened to the vicious fight between animated clouds in the Romanian sky. How apt.
Arriving in Dracula country, I’d been warned of unruly Romanian drivers but now my mind turned to blood-thirsty legends lurking in the dark. Hearing another crack, then a rumble, I anticipated ominous laughter and the shadow of a fanged monster at my balcony. Okay, so I’ve watched too many episodes of Game of Thrones. Exhausted after a long day of travel, I muffled the sounds out with a pillow. I was keen to bank sleep for the four days of untamed adventure, which was to be served up by the inaugural edition of the Carpathian Mountain Bike Epic. Aside from the promise of being wild, rugged and indeed epic, I had little notion of what to expect in the coming days.
Day One: Breaking Us In
Waking up to clear skies, the first day of the journey was a prologue. Despite only reaching five kilometres in distance, this was a firm tester and a brutal taster. Following a slick registration, the organisers gathered us all to the start line and set us off in convoy to complete the tempestuous trail. What came next was a near assault on my lungs. Short, punchy tracks looped around the village, taking every opportunity to challenge us to a series of near vertical descents and slopes so steep, they were impossible to pedal. Either up or down; the track was a token of the days to follow.
Back at base, my eyes grew wide; I shook my head and laughed with one of the other media riders, nodding in acknowledgment.
“Well, you were right! That was pretty brutal and that’s just the prologue.”
“That’s nothing compared to tomorrow.”
I made sure to stamp the Queen Stage firmly in my mind. I gulped and looked at my gears.
Day Two: Queen Stage
With graceful apology the night before, the organiser had us up and out before light, in time to get us to the ski resort town of Sinaia, an hour’s drive south. Weaving down the mountain roads on the bus, racers exchanged stories of past events and tried to abate nerves in advance of the formidable day ahead. The Queen Stage is known as the most gruelling and divisive of stages and this was going to hurt.
Covering 57km and according to my Suunto, 2800m of combined ascent, only the locals knew what was to unfold. Counting us down, it was a fast and fervent start as we took off up the Royal Road towards the summit of the Bucegi Mountains. Moving from tarmac to open track, the front riders disappeared within seconds. As seasoned climbers, I reasoned they were hardened to the gruesome gradients ahead. I rode steadily, aware not to rip my legs off before I’d had a chance to warm up to this punishing landscape. Reaching the top of the gondola, already the loose boulder track had us pushing our bikes, my calves crying out as we heaved ourselves upwards of the joining path.
From there we continued to climb on mountain tracks, slowly gathering height and tackling slabs of rocks, soggy sand and loose rubble, tethered with crushing climbs. I couldn’t decide which was suffering more; lungs or legs? Further on, I could see riders caught in the rush of the racing pack begin to slow, their heads dropped and legs grating against the slopes. Fog was coming in thick and fast. The winds we’d been warned of were whipping up a storm. I’d been hopeful for views from the plateau as we made our way from Babele to the highest point at Omu Peak. Instead, my mind was focused on following the breadcrumb trail of my GPS through thick, masking fog that granted only meagre metres worth of vision. At one point, we hit a thick forest of shallow bushes, a faint track carved through the centre. I tried to haul the bike overhead, but being vertically challenged, I succumbed to pushing it upright with the rear wheel weaving through the maze. I strived not to stake my legs on the impeding branches.
As I turned a corner to reach the peak, an all-terrain buggy drove past on the precarious trail. Inside was a rider curled in a silver survival cape, his ashen face mirroring mine. Lycra wasn’t getting a look-in against tiny temperatures and forceful winds. Muttering to myself about the brutality of the course and the conditions, my claw-like hands managed to pull my waterproof from my pack and I battled with frozen fingers to get it over my helmet. Pushing, quite literally, onwards to what seemed like the summit, I saw one of the many smiling volunteers and shouted to her “Do you have any spare gloves?!”, humour and hope resounding in my voice. Kindly, she offered me the inside of her jacket, and for a few moments I huddled with this sweet stranger as I warmed my hands enough to grab my bike for the next carry.
Over the other side of the mountain, we were on the downward journey. Feeling weary and storm-battled, I looked on to what was a sporadic sheep track at best; giant boulders scattered and ready to catch pedals and riders. I rode and walked, lugging my bike over obstacles I’d rather match with a full-face helmet. Eventually, the track turned to grass, rutted heathland, then ridable mountain trail followed by fast and flowing forest singletrack. A smile returned to my face and movement to my fingers.
Dropper down, I found some renewed energy in the warmth of the wood, coupled with a close chase for first place in my category. This was the focus I needed close to the finish. In truth, I couldn’t believe how little distance I’d covered. With increasing momentum, the last section added much-needed speed to this rough ride. With less than eight kilometres to go, my mind was wavering and I missed the turn off, losing my place. Shit! Hiking back up and furiously searching for the arrows, I took off like Dracula chasing dinner down a wild, grassy embankment. I rode the line straight as an arrow and as fast as I could. Meeting the road with a thud, I’d recaptured my position and took off up the last five kilometre of twisty tarmac road. Battling sanity, I eventually reached the turnoff and rode along the finishing straight, an elated relief followed by an overwhelming sense of satisfaction to have survived. How I was going to do it all again, then once more, I wasn’t quite sure.
Day Three: Rollercoasters and Rivers
I awoke the next day and opening my eyes, wondered if my body could even move. Slowly I sloped from my bed. Seemingly the previous night’s incarceration by compression kit had worked wonders. However, I certainly had no escape from tiredness and was only a few hours from doing it all again.
Starting from the resort, riders flew ahead, keen to keep their positions. Following the road at first, the group spread quickly before turning onto open farmland. My head was down and I wasn’t concentrating, so soon found myself along with another girl, far from the path. Panic struck. Lessons learnt, I vowed to keep an eagle eye on my GPS. Turning back once again, I played catch up to claim back my place.
Rather than one single, chunky climbing expedition, the second day delivered a rollercoaster ride over 54 kilometres, yet still close to 2400m of ascent. Rolling through forests and farmland, I found rhythm and company from a now familiar group of riders and for a time, a local farm dog, who seemed intrigued by the band of bikes whishing by. Tagging along for a while, he came to his senses at the next bike carry and retreated to safety.
Whilst we ached and moaned when it came to pushing, the descents on day two made those back breaking moments worth the burden. As we descended to Cheile Dambovicioarei, the tamed trail transitioned into a gnarly boulder field, my hardtail pin balling down the straight. Met at the bottom by a chirpy support crew, we chatted and recovered both nerves and energy reserves before the final stretch of the course.
No adventure bike would be complete without a carry and similarly a river crossing. My friend and roommate Anilya had mention we’d get wet feet, so nonchalantly I nodded, not considering the sadistic nature of the previous day’s onslaught. On the final descent, the mud was so thick and the slopes so sharp, I caught my jersey on the saddle trying to hang off the back. I slipped and tumbled to the side. At this point, I welcomed the riverbed, a worthy chance to wash away the dirt from my clogged cleats. As we reached it though, I took a double take as I realised this wasn’t just a crossing. We were wading. As the river neared knee depth, I balanced my bike and hoped no stones would roll out beneath my carbon soles. Weaving back and forth countless times, eventually I came to a wire bridge and prayed it wouldn’t end my days forevermore as I carefully crept over the missing planks.
At the other side, I was relieved to find a long track road, which circled back to the finish. Eventually I caught sight of the arena and knew rest would soon be mine. Mildly delirious, I managed to miss the track. With moments to go, I found myself back-tracking uphill. I was making this a bad habit. Over the line, the cheers of the spectators put a smile back on my face.
Day Four: Punishing Peaks
Rising for the final time, what lay ahead was to be nonetheless excruciating or extreme. In the days leading up, the post-race chatter had been filled with words of warning. Of the entire 47-kilometre route, we’d be dragging our bodies and bikes up more than four kilometres’ worth of incline over jagged mountains tops to reach Busca Peak. Joining us with fresh legs, locals taking part in the one day Epic filled out the field of weary warriors.
Whether it was down to brain or brawn, I mustered a new-found zeal as we took off up the slippy, rutted trail towards the top. At points, I was biting my bars and making manic sounds as I climbed, refusing to walk until utterly enforced. Due to heavy rains, the feed station also arrived sooner than planned, a mark of what was ahead. I grabbed at water and sachets of honey, forcing sugar down my throat as fast as I could find it.
For close to 20 kilometres, riders rode and pushed and occasionally cried out with exhaustion. Finally the forest cleared and we turned towards a perfectly carved trail over the mountain tops. What I could see ahead was wavering lines of wobbly legs with bikes on backs or slung over shoulders, being hauled to near vertical. This time though, we could see. Far and wide, the Romania sun shone over the mass of forest covered mountain ranges at long last. Taking a moment, I stopped to absorb the view, then marched on to join the other sorry souls for the charge.
An endless and rigorous routine of carrying continued. Bewildering descents were marked with warning signs and so with childish abandon, I dropped in and hoped for the best. Such a route defined mountain biking and moreover, the nature of the race.
Gathering momentum, each peak grew steeper and deeper on both sides. At last the trail mellowed and as I traversed, I passed a group of bewildered shepherds, their wild dogs watching with wonder and uncertainty. Meeting a once familiar track, we rode the ridgeline from the first day, this time with views down to the valley and the slippery stones now familiar foes. Once through the forest, I knew the line ahead and charged down the steep, grassy bank to hit the road, thankfully not fighting for position. With final reserves, I winched up the resort road, joined by two familiar faces, who charged themselves with leading me back to the finish line.
“You can be the Queen of England. We’ll be your guardsmen.”
I didn’t think it was appropriate to let on I was in fact Scottish and accepted their kind request, matching their pace back to the finish for the final time.
Crossing together, there was a sigh of relief and sated satisfaction amongst us all. Indeed there had been moments I’d truly wondered if I’d be able to finish, the strict cut off times like sharks snapping at our fading legs each day. Even elite riders succumbed to the stopwatch and failed to finish in time. With a promise to take you to your limits, the Carpathian Mountain Bike Epic had certainly succeeded.