Sign up for our newsletter

Riding the best road in the world: Romania's Transfagarasan Pass

In-depth
24 Jul 2020
Advertisement

Bike racing returned this week with the Sibiu Tour in Romania. Later today, Stage 1 will finish at the Bâlea Lac which sits atop the Transfăgărășan Pass, the road Jeremey Clarkson called the best in the world

Words: Felix Lowe Photography: Alex Duffill

Tell any keen cyclist that you’re off to ride in Romania and they’ll warn you about the stray dogs. The famed snap and snarl of these unleashed Balkan mutts gained notoriety among the cycling community when the Transcontinental, a self-supported bike race across Europe, passed through in 2017.

Riders shared tales of rabid packs foaming at the mouth and gnashing at their heels as they made their way to checkpoint four on the Transfăgărășan Pass.

Well, never mind the dogs. I’ve been in Romania for less than half a day and already I’ve seen two bears.

Of the estimated 200,000 brown bears worldwide, more than 6,000 (over a third of the European population) are thought to live in Romania.

Compare that to the 40-odd bears that are said to roam the Pyrenees and, well, if you go down to the Romanian woods today it won’t be such a big surprise now we’ve told you about them.

And it’s through gloriously dense woodland that I’m going today, up and over the Făgăraș – the highest mountains of the Southern Carpathians – at a pace far slower than the 40kmh some of these grizzlies can run.

In fact, I’m literally going across the woods, or trans sylvania as the Romans would say, and into Transylvania. So now I’ve got vampires to worry about as well as the mangy dogs and 6,000 bears.

Witnessing a bear raid the dustbins just metres away in the hotel car park last night as I set up my bike gave me the heebie-jeebies. However my local guide, Silviu, assures me that it’s rare to see them in daylight hours.

He’s been riding the roads of Romania – and in particular, the legendary Transfăgărășan – for years now, and says he has never encountered any problems of the ursine variety.

Which means there’s always a first time. Not long into our ride up the second-highest pass in Romania we come around a bend and are greeted by a large brown example, growling in the undergrowth.

Thankfully it takes one look at my lanky British frame and decides I wouldn’t make much of a meal before wandering off with a snort.

Good job, too, otherwise I may never have been able to complete one of the most memorable rides of my life on a road dubbed by Jeremy Clarkson, ‘The best road… [pause for dramatic effect]… in the world.’

Twists and turns

Built in the 1970s as a strategic military route connecting the historic regions of Wallachia and Transylvania, the dynamite-forged Transfăgărășan Pass runs for 150km and climbs to an altitude of 2,042m.

The road featured in Top Gear in 2009 when Clarkson made that lofty boast, although it has only been on my radar since being employed as checkpoint four in the Transcontinental a couple of years ago.

Silviu, who rode the ‘TCR’ that year, says the sheer scale and wildness of the Transfăgărășan makes it unique, and as good as any other famous climb.

‘If it was in the Alps or Pyrenees it would be iconic,’ he says on the approach. ‘My clients tell me that it’s as good or better than any climbs they have done; that it has Grand Tour status.’

He also says that it was only in riding the TCR that he realised the Carpathians had a specific scent: a blend of pine trees, river moss and mountain spring.

‘The scent took me back to childhood, like the food my mother used to bake, and straight to a deep place,’ the pedalling Proust tells me. It was a pre-emptive aroma of the Carpathians in Slovenia that caused him to break down in tears with homesickness on his 10th day during a race he describes as ‘the most difficult thing I ever did’.

Our ride today should be a little easier by comparison. The road across the Transfăgărășan is simply too long to create any sort of manageable loop, so we’re doing a point-to-point, riding 115km from Curtea de Argeș in the south to Cârțișoara in the north.

Curtea de Argeș is an otherwise nondescript town that holds the world record for the amount of rainfall in a single day. Thankfully, the sky is cloudless as we pedal past colourful houses in the suburbs and a small industrial estate along a false flat that hugs the Argeș river.

The ends are nigh

Approaching a gorge that cuts through the limestone foothills, we reach the hamlet of Căpățânenii Pământeni, which portentously translates as ‘the ends of the Earth’. Here the towering ruins of Poenari Castle are accessible only by 1,480 steep concrete stairs.

It was once the residence of Vlad the Impaler, the supposed inspiration for Count Dracula. As the gradient creeps up, I can’t help but think I could do with a couple of extra teeth in my rear cassette.

Silviu has chosen the southern approach partly because it’s slightly gentler and less busy than the route from the north, but also because it means we will be rewarded with the classic view of the glacial valley on the northern side with its coils of Stelvio-inspired hairpins spilling out like tinned spaghetti from a can.

Around 30km into the ride, after a series of bends and three sisterly short tunnels, we emerge onto the road around the imposing Vidraru Dam. A giant steel statue of Prometheus brandishing two bolts of lightning overlooks the lake, guarding the gateway to the climb beyond.

The dam may have been constructed before the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu came to power, but the road beyond is entirely the doing of the man who Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed ‘The Romanian Führer’.

Paranoid about a potential Soviet invasion, Ceauşescu put his military forces to work over five years to build the Transfăgărășan. Junior soldiers untrained in blasting techniques detonated six million kilos of dynamite to carve 3.8 million cubic metres of earth out of the mountain’s north face alone.

It came at a huge human cost, with estimates putting the number of fatalities considerably higher than the official total of 40.

We follow the spiky outline of the Vidraru Lake whose glistening waters occasionally become visible through dense pine trees on our left. Regular distance markers inform us that Bâlea Lake, which sits on the summit of our route today, is 54km… 53km… 52km away. The psychological battle has already begun.

We stop to pay our respects at a monument that commemorates those who died making what would eventually become Romania’s most popular tourist attraction.

In truth, I’m thankful for the break. It’s not that the road at this point is particularly steep – no more than 5% – but the temperature is beginning to take its toll.

It’s the first day of July and Europe is experiencing an intense, record-breaking heatwave. As we plod up through a series of bends in the searing midday sun, I worry I should have given heed to a recent sign: ‘Are you hungry? You sleepy? Come to Siesta Hotel’.

But Silviu and I get into a rhythm, the shade of the occasional half-exposed tunnel offering respite once we break through the treeline.

Any guilt I feel in having forced him to shave his legs for the first time swiftly turns to embarrassment on seeing his toned and tanned limbs against my pasty pins. His superior fitness puts me to shame, so I take solace in the surroundings.

The constant roar of the river or trickle of streams is a welcome reminder of the wildness and beauty of this lush valley, where butterflies flit amid the spring flowers and roaming livestock.

The sound of barking dogs ahead jolts me from my reverie, but fortunately these dogs are not of the stray variety, but are gainfully employed herding sheep.

A gregarious farmer flogs local cheeses and salami out of a caravan on a commanding bend overlooking the expanse of the valley. ‘That’s nothing,’ says Silviu as I appreciate the view, rustic sausage in hand. ‘Wait until we’re on the other side.’

We wash our snacks down with a can of Coke, then plough on, past a waterfall where we replenish our bidons among tourists posing for photos, and up towards the red roof of a chalet perched high on the ridgeline.

Tunnel vision

As far as summit passes go, the Transfăgărășan isn’t much to write home about, coming as it does deep inside an 890m tunnel. But I’m excited about what lies beyond the mouth of the tunnel. We pedal through the darkness, towards the square of light at the end, and then emerge into… utter chaos, frankly.

The road beyond the tunnel is lined with wooden huts selling junk and souvenirs, while bum-bagged, flip-flopped tourists waddle around, dodging the cars and motorcycles that vie for parking spaces. It’s stressful, even anticlimactic. But then we take a right and roll along a lane, the traffic thins out and soon we’re beside a glacial lake reflecting the remaining patches of snow and ice from the sheer ridge above.

Swimming in Bâlea Lake is forbidden, which is a shame given the oppressive heat. Instead we head to a chalet for lunch in the shade. Inside, more pandemonium awaits. Our attire instantly raises eyebrows.

I feel like a newly qualified English solicitor visiting a Count at his Carpathian castle to provide legal assistance for a real estate transaction. Luckily, Silviu acts as my Van Helsing as we find a table and order something garlicky.

Today is the first Monday that the pass is open to vehicles after the annual winter closure. This explains the crowds and why it takes over an hour for my gristly boar goulash to arrive (the waiter sheepishly admits to having cooked it himself because the kitchen is understaffed).

I look longingly at Silviu’s fish. ‘I’m sorry to say but it’s so good I must throw my hat at the dogs,’ he says, teaching me a Romanian expression for satisfaction in the process.

While the summit connection is shut from November to late June, a cable car brings visitors up to the top all year round. Every winter since 2006, Europe’s first ice hotel is built (or rather rebuilt) from frozen blocks taken from the lake next to which we now dine.

It’s from beside the cable car station that I’m finally treated to the famous view of those stacks of switchbacks scribbled down the glacial valley, hemmed in on both sides by a natural amphitheatre of ragged rock.

It’s as if I gave a child a crayon and a piece of paper and asked them to draw Mr Tickle. I’m reminded why Clarkson, grinning from behind the wheel of his Aston Martin, declared the Transfăgărășan ‘the most amazing road I have ever seen. From above it looks like every corner from every great racetrack in the world has been knitted together to create one unbroken grey ribbon of automotive perfection.’

A racetrack, thank God, that we’re about to go down.

Chasing Bernal

Thirty-four hairpin bends break up the descent as we drop 1,600m into Transylvania over the best part of 30km. Having laboured uphill in the heat of the day, it’s a pleasure to feel the wind on our faces and stretch the legs a little.

The initial corners are sharp and I take them as gingerly as Chris Evans (we all know how it worked out for him in Clarkson’s shoes).

If Top Gear’s ringing endorsement put the mighty Transfăgărășan on the bucket list of many petrolheads, this road is pedalling perfection too.

The smooth asphalt is more baby’s bottom than the pock marks and wrinkles of the earlier southern slopes, and while the road is not free from traffic, at least the drivers seem respectful.

A few kilometres into the descent we pass our first (and only) fellow cyclist, toiling up towards the summit. This will change in three days when a whole peloton will race up to Bâlea Lake on Stage 2 of the Sibiu Cycling Tour.

In the 2017 edition of the race, a young man called Egan Bernal conquered the Transfăgărășan, won the yellow jersey, signed for Team Sky and… well, the rest is history.

Alas, there are no WorldTour scouts on the mountain today. Not that they would be particularly impressed by my downhill skills – crouched onto a bike too small for my height, I quickly discover just how physically demanding a descent can be.

My fingers start to throb from squeezing the brakes, my triceps sting, my neck burns. But there’s no way I’m going to ease up now. I keep close to Silviu’s wheel – he knows every bump and grind on this route, so I happily follow his line.

Around every corner there’s further evidence of the dynamited destruction behind this extraordinary road: tunnels, sheer cuttings, man-made rocky outcrops shaped like shark fins now separated from the mountain.

On the lower incline the corners become less frequent and the traffic thins out. We take turns on the front as we emerge from the forest and combat a headwind on the fertile plains of the Olt valley.

Fields of corn blow in the breeze, while behind us stretches the expanse of the Făgăraș mountains, the glorious evidence of our exhilarating ride. I’m inclined to agree with Clarkson, who opined, ‘This is better than the Stelvio.’

We enter the sleepy village of Cârțișoara, with its thatched Saxon cottages and narrow side streets that make the Roubaix cobbles look refined. We pass some strays belying the Balkan stereotype and giving us a wide berth.

Remembering Silviu’s expression of delight, I’m tempted to throw my hat towards these docile dogs as a mark of admiration for the climb.

‘Just you wait,’ Silviu says, grinning. ‘The Transfăgărășan isn’t even the best road in Romania, let alone the world.’ That accolade my guide gives to the nearby Transalpina, the highest pass in the country and a mere few hours’ drive away. But that’s a story for another day.

Hit Top Gear in Romania

Follow Cyclist’s up-and-over into Transylvania

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/92romania. While the Transfăgărășan Pass stretches for 150km, the actual climb is 25km from the south or 29km from the more famous north.

A loop is impractical, so we opted for a one-way 115km ride, starting in Curtea de Argeș and following the 7C (the only road) north to Cârțișoara.

To repeat this you will need organised transport to get back, but by focussing on the main climb only, an experienced cyclist could easily do an out-and-back, bagging both ascents and descents in a day.

The pass is open from July to November, but try to avoid riding over weekends when traffic is heavier.

The rider’s ride

Cannondale SuperSix Evo 105, from £1,440, cannondale.com

For 2020 the Cannondale SuperSix has gone all sharp-edged and aero, so this older version is a reminder of just what an elegant bike it once was. With its round tubes and horizontal top tube this SuperSix cuts a traditional silhouette, but the ride feels as modern and nimble as ever.

Despite costing less than the paintjob on some top-end bikes, my borrowed SuperSix proved to be a solid performer – the Steven Kruijswijk of bikes, if you will – light on the climbs, predictable in its handling, and with just enough flex to iron out the coarser surfaces.

It would have benefitted from a wheel upgrade, but the Shimano 105 groupset worked a treat, and my only quibble was that the biggest model I could get hold of was a 58cm – slightly too small for my 6ft 5in frame. But that’s my fault for being unnecessarily tall.

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew WizzAir from Luton to Bucharest Otopeni for £165 return (although my luggage didn’t return for another 10 days – no compensation was offered). It was a three-hour bus transfer to our hotel at the foot of the climb. Cheaper but less regular flights go to the stunning medieval city of Sibiu (one-way from £40), an hour’s drive from the north side of the Transfăgărășan.

Accommodation

We stayed in the four-star Hotel Posada Vidraru (posadavidraru.ro/en), which overlooks the stunning Vidraru Lake around 200m beyond the dam on the south side of the Transfăgărășan. The restaurant serves decent food and the car park comes equipped with a power hose to scare the bears away. Double rooms from £47.

Thanks

We couldn’t have done the trip without the help, patience and unflagging smile of Silviu Martin, owner of Martin Cycling Adventures, who designs and runs boutique cycling tours and guiding in the Balkans (martin-adventures.com).

Not only did Silviu source a bike, book our hotels and provide transport with a cheery driver in Daniel Marangoci, he also kindly liaised with the Romanian baggage handlers over my lost luggage. He knows everything you need to know about cycling in Romania, Slovenia and Macedonia.

• Get more of the world's best rides delivered to your door every month in beautiful print. Subscribe to Cyclist magazine today and try 3 issues for JUST £5 (saving 84% on RRP) and get a FREE Ass Saver as a welcome gift.