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Mountain Biking

Out For The Count | We Went On A Mountain Bike Adventure In Dracula’s Backyard

Bloodsuckers, bicycles and bears… go riding in Romania if you dare

Words by Tom Owen | Photos by Zora Iuga

“The whole Dracula’s castle thing is total bullshit, you know.”

This is Silviu, the head honcho at Martin Adventures, a Romanian company specialising in exhilarating off-the-beaten-path experiences in the wilds of Transylvania. Famous for being the home of Count Dracula, nowadays Transylvania is the country’s outdoor adventure playground, filled with high alpine trail-running paths, spectacular road cycling routes and, of course, some truly stellar, as-yet-unknown MTB runs.

We are driving past the fortress at Bran, famed as the castle featured in the original Gothic vampire story, on our way into the mountains.

“Bram Stoker never even came to Romania. He just imagined a castle and described it, then a bunch of Dracula fans came here looking for something that didn’t exist. They decided Bran Castle was the closest thing to what Stoker described. And now thousands of people come here every year. All this vampire stuff, it doesn’t even have an origin in Romanian folklore.”

So there’s nothing to be scared of in Transylvania after all?

“Oh definitely. There’s bears here. And wolves. We have a greater concentration of large predators here than anywhere in Europe.”

He pauses. Perhaps feeling he should moderate his comments,

“Generally the bears are afraid of humans so it’s really unlikely you’ll meet one. The worst thing are the Carpathian shepherd dogs. They’re these huge dogs that were bred here, really huge, and they will corner you and won’t let you move until their owner says you’re cool. They can weigh 80 kilos. If we see one, don’t try to outrun it.”

I’m not sure what to think. I’m pleased I won’t be mauled by bears, or develop a sleep disorder and a severe dislike for garlic, but at the same time I’ve got a whole new breed of sheepdog to worry about. The other thing I’m worried about is just how wild it’s going to get when we get out on the mountain tomorrow, riding some of the sketchiest tracks through the wildest woods in some of the hilliest terrain I’ve ever tackled on a mountain bike.

“The bears are afraid of humans so it’s unlikely you’ll meet one. The worst thing are the Carpathian shepherd dogs…huge dogs that will corner you…”

Romania is pretty well established now as a ‘cheap ski and snowboard’ destination – an alternative to the pricier resorts of France and Switzerland, but barely anyone knows about the amazing things this former-Soviet country has to offer in the summer time when all that horrible white stuff melts away. The mountains are crisscrossed with barely used trails and paths, pretty much only navigable by foot or full-suspension mountain bike.

Over two days I did my best to experience what Romanian trail riding is all about, courtesy of a little local know-how from Silviu and his friend and mountain guide, Andrei – a dude who specialises in ultra-running, but just happens to be a kickass downhill MTBer too.

Day one was pitched to me as the “warm-up”, which must be some kind of cultural difference that I wasn’t aware of, because in Romania warm-up clearly means ‘forty kilometres of deserted valleys, pine forests and general awesomeness.’

We head out on the bikes and it only takes 20 minutes before we encounter the first bunch of these shepherd’s dogs. They set off barking like all hell when they see us and won’t stop until we reach their owner. With a flick of his hand he waves us through his fields and the hounds quieten down.

How many dogs does he have?

“About 20.” is the matter of fact reply. “When you’re trying to keep bears away from sheep it’s good to have a lot of dogs.”

Sure enough, we spot a bear footprint not long after.

In the first day, “warm-up” not withstanding, we manage to cram 1,800 metres of vertical ascent into those 40km – along with a couple of technical sections and a long old climb through an amazing gorge, called the Prăpăstiile Zărnești. The bottom of the gorge you can actually drive up to and the first 400m or so there are Bucharest tourists out for a look around, but the higher up you go, the more tranquil and deserted it becomes. If we’re going to see a bear today, this is where it’s most likely to happen.

“In Romania warm-up clearly means ‘forty kilometres of deserted valleys, pine forests and general awesomeness.’”

There is no bear. But there is plenty of spectacular scenery as we reach the top of the gorge and start the white-knuckle descent back to something like a sensible altitude. We rip it through muddy farmers’ roads, down wooded singletrack, up a hairpin-laden asphalt climb and then finish the day by coasting through flower-strewn meadows of long green grass – back to base.

At dinner I stuff about 10 kilos of cascaval (this amazing cheese they make up in the Carpathians) and polenta down my face, take a slug of pálinka, the local fruit brandy, then near enough pass out at the dinner table. A good first day.

Snow and singletrack

We spend most of the second morning pushbiking, with a few sections of granny-gear climbing. In Romania, you learn to love pushbiking, it’s all part of the big payoff. We pass through a gorge that cuts deep between two inclines, up a gravel track about a car’s-width. Churning through the vertical metres.

“Turn left!”

I look and there is no left. It’s just a stream flowing into the gutter beside the gravel track. Of course, up the stream is exactly where we’re going. We stop in a clearing in front of a hunter’s lodge. The grass is littered with sheep’s wool and bones. Big bones. Hip bones and things that look like tibias.

“Looks like this is the bear’s picnic area.”

Great.

After the clearing we say goodbye to gravel paths. It’s all singletrack now and sometimes less than that, scrambling up near-impossible inclines and through sad, deforested sections of low-lying vegetation. After an hour we reach the ridge that we’ll traverse to get across to the saddle where we start the descent. We’re above the timber line and the weather starts to go haywire. Rain, then sun, then sleet, then rain, then more sun. Repeat every 15 minutes.

Riding the top of the ridge is spectacular. The mountain falls away at an incredible gradient on either side. If you toppled over, it wouldn’t quite be the end of you, but you’d tumble a fair old way before you got caught in some handy foliage.

 

Halfway across the ridge something bizarre happens. There is a tent. And in the tent are four English blokes and about 40,000 calories worth of crisps and gummy sweets. They are part of the team organising an epic ultra-running event in the Bucegi mountains and the tent is one of the checkpoints participants must go through on their way. It is the 70km checkpoint. After they pass through, the runners will run down the same paths we’ve just ascended pushing our bikes.

“I lose one foot and somehow catch myself by grabbing the brakes and using the bike as a makeshift icepick.”

Across the ridge and we have to push our bikes up and up again. We have to go through a patch of snow about a foot deep and ten metres across, and it’s ridiculously steep. The whole thing is sketchy. I lose one foot and somehow catch myself by grabbing the brakes and using the bike as a makeshift icepick. God bless disc brakes and knobbly tyres!

The literal and figurative high-point of the trip is tear-assing down the descent from the Bucegi ridge. It’s 15 kilometres of pure, heart-in-mouth downhill. Starting with some really challenging rock gardens, we pick our way down the hill side. It’s less steep here than the way we came up, but more exposed too. The wind blows sheets of rain into your face as you try to pick a safe line through.

The rocks above the tree line turn to dusty singletrack once we enter the pine forest. In the half-light of the woods there are some tricky technical sections, where the soft soil and tree roots combine to create some precipitous fall-away ledges. The back tyre slips out from beneath me at one stage and I flail about trying to rebalance. I thank the bike gods nobody saw me.

But mostly these trails are about speed. Smashing over obstacles and carrying momentum over the occasional mini-climbs. Most notably, although these are among the best trails I’ve ridden anywhere in the world, we are the only bikers on them. It’s a little bit early in the season, true, but even at peak time you’re not likely to see many other riders out here. The routes are a well-guarded semi-secret, kept by guys like Silviu and Andrei. It feels untouched here. Like you’re in on a secret.

Zora Iuga, the team photographer for Martin Adventures, describes the lack of people on Transylvania’s trails to me like this, “The routes aren’t necessarily a secret, but we only share what we know with kickass awesome people. So don’t go back to the UK and tell any douchebags about them!”

You heard the lady, ‘Romania – for awesome people only.’

This trip wouldn’t have been possible without the logistical skill and local expertise of Martin Adventures and their team of guides. By all means check out the routes we rode on Strava, here and here, but if you venture into the mountains, always go with a guide who knows the area. Martin Adventures offer custom and package tours of the mountains in Transylvania, and you can find more information about them here.

To read the rest of the May ‘Fear’ Issue head here

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