It is mid April and almost 9 months to the day when I find myself back in Romania. We are in the mountains outside of Sibiu and I am parked precariously along a steep, mountainside trail with a small group of riders that have come here to train for the 2015 Red Bull Romaniacs (RBR). Towering pines have defied gravity and rooted in to the thin mountain soils, providing me something to lean my handlebar against while we listen to TC.P xpower (TCP) guide Paul Fratila instruct us on the technique required to conquer the trail ahead. The tail ahead literally extends in to the clouds at an angle I think is almost un-rideable, save for the fact that Paul has just mounted his bike and effortlessly rode 40 or so meters up it. I sit in awe for several moments and work up the nerve to give it a go.
In addition to being a TC.P xpower guide, Paul is a 3-time Romanian national enduro champion and has finished inside the top ten at Romaniacs, so it’s no wonder that he’s just silenced the group with an effortless ascent. Now high above me, Paul breaks the silence. In a thick Romanian accent he calls down to us: “Remember, use the clutch, little bits: 5 to 10mm, easy throttle, weight back, go very slow”.
If I loop the bike over or bobble it here, I could roll down this hill and be in a world of shit. I hit the e-start and ignite my KTM 300 EXC. I slowly release the clutch and front break while gently rolling back the throttle, weight back over the rear tire. In a delicate, synchronous, balancing act, the rear wheel finds traction and I inch forward.
I came back to Romania for a few reasons. First, because the brief tour I did with TC.P xpower last summer left me wanting more. I had an amazing experience with TCP last year that included three days of touring and a week of race support for the 2014 Red Bull Romaniacs. Everything about TCP is perfectly organized and executed; from the airport pick-up, the accommodations at the IBIS hotel, guided tours (especially the guided tours!), the bikes (all newer model KTMs and Husqvarnas), mechanics, guides, the instruction, the lunches and group dinners – nothing disappoints. They are consummate professionals from start to finish and have earned my unqualified endorsement.
Romania, in my opinion, offers the best riding on the planet. It graces the senses with crisp air, stunning scenery and near unlimited access to terrain that ranges from novice-friendly mild to completely bat-shit wild. So when TC. P xpower offered up a training session in preparation for RBR, I booked it, trans-Atlantic flight be damned.
A seven-day guided tour in Romania includes all of the aforementioned services for the price of about 1,300 US dollars. Rounding it out is that Sibiu is a safe, welcoming city where almost everyone speaks English. There is much to do and see in Sibiu. Dracula’s castle is a mere 40 kilometers away, if interested. Each morning before disappearing in to the majestic Transylvanian wilderness we ride from the Ibis Hotel in downtown Sibiu through the quaint and fortified Saxon villages where kids rush to high-five us and horse carts outnumber cars.
I can practice some hard enduro stuff here at home, but there is no substitute for the unique hills in Romania and the necessary training required to conquer them. Here in the U.S., the emphasis is on going fast, so it’s understandable why many of us know little about the necessary skills to complete a true Hard Enduro, especially one that places an emphasis on long, steep hill climbs. I am also entered in the 2015 Red Bull Romaniacs Hard Enduro and hope not to struggle over the terrain that wreaked havoc on me last year.
Back to the ascent. I begin inching forward at a snail’s pace. My feet are off the pegs but I am going up at an angle that is outside my comfort zone. The front wheel begins to lift off the ground and I flick the clutch in and ease slightly off the gas, settling the front tire while losing little momentum. I go another 40 yards and approach a downed tree that forces the trail sharply to the right and then parallel along a frighteningly steep, off camber switchback. However, before the switchback I need to clear that sharp right turn – and that’s going to require some fancy moves that resemble an awkward pivot turn. Just above me, the clouds roll gently through pines of this misty Transylvanian forest. I stop for a long moment and take it in before pressing on.
The trail (maybe slope is a better word) begins to bank sharply to the right as I crack the throttle and work the clutch to loft the front wheel while angling it to the right, shifting my weight upslope in the process. I nearly pull it off until a pine-needle covered root causes the slightest bit of wheel spin and I lose balance. I tumble down the hill about 20 feet and fire off an impressive barrage of expletives. Watching it all unfold, Paul is now parked comfortably on the steep slope below me. “Kevin, you and your bike need to fall on the upside of the hill,” he says in all seriousness. “Thanks, genius!” I mutter to myself.
Realizing I could use a little help, Paul flicks his EXC 450 upward and chugs past me on a slick bed of pine needles to where my bike is. “How the hell do you do that?” I exclaim. “Four strokes are a little easier but two strokes are still good. You need to work the clutch, little bits, little throttle, keep wheel from spinning. When you need to (pivot) turn, shift weight quickly to upside of hill. Don’t lose focus, keep clutch and throttle in use. Always work both at same time and try to throw bike uphill if you crash.” “There are so many things to think about when going this slow,” I grumble, relieved he cannot hear my internal monologue.
A ways below me is Marcellus from Switzerland, who is entered in the RBR Iron class. Marcellus is a true novice who comes to Romania a few times a year to ride and train for RBR. In a short period of time, he has made remarkable progress. At present he is doing things on this hill that most regional pros would not. What he lacks in speed he makes up for in proper hill-climbing technique and toughness. With that in mind, I stay hopeful.
I hear Marcellus begin his ascent as I start another hairy switchback that makes its way around another downed evergreen. The switchbacks are steep and carved in to the slope a little more than a tires width wide. I inch along at a walking pace, bike leaning slightly uphill, making slow and steady progress. Each time I encounter a small root or rock, I come to near stop and inch the wheels over it. It’s a slow, deliberate and delicate grind that’s wildly exhilarating for something so slow-paced. A few yards later I come to the end of the last downed tree in this series of switchbacks. This turn requires another sharp, pivot-like turn, but to the left. This time Paul is ahead of me and waiting to show me another technique (he moves up and down these slopes with great ease, proving that it can be done). Rather than synchronize his clutch and throttle in an effortless near 180 degrees turn that lands the front wheel perfectly in the center of this damned goat path, he does something different. This time he stops with his wheel facing uphill at about 12 o’clock and uses the clutch and throttle to move the front wheel down several inches at a time, as if “slicing off pieces of the pie” as he says. He finally lofts the front wheel gently on to the center of the goat path and rolls ahead.
As easy as he made it look, I see it as too complicated and stick with trying to do it all in one single, inelegant turn. I almost pull it off until my front wheel overshoots the goat path and slides a few inches down the slope. Several unnecessary expletives later, I gently pull the front wheel back on to the trail and inch ahead.
Finally past the switchbacks, the trail begins a long, straight, and steep ascent. I crane my neck all the way back and see that there is no end to this ungodly steep trail. I roll gently ahead and travel another quarter mile with my feet off the pegs, inching along with my weight back over the rear wheel while leaning forward. The forest is now completely enveloped in fog, causing water droplets to form on my goggles. There is little room for error in these conditions so I keep my goggles in place rather than risk stopping. If I have to stop here, I will have to perform a series of switchbacks to get going again and that is not something I want to risk, so I press on. Eventually I gain enough momentum and balance that I can place my feet back on the pegs.
I travel another ¾ of a mile at an angle I would have to slide on my ass to get down. 40 or so yards before the top, I weave between a few annoying saplings before I pop out atop the ridgeline of this soul-sucking mountain. Legs shaking and covered in sweat, I am elated, stunned that I just rode up something I wouldn’t want to walk up or down I am so happy that I take a selfie and send it to my family. I never take selfies. Ever. I sit alone atop the mountain and enjoy the majestic Transylvanian wilderness as the clouds tumble and roll gently below me. I don’t even remember passing through them.
One by one the group makes their way to the top. We congratulate one another before moving on and cross several alpine ridgelines that offer more stunning views of the vast wilderness I am so wildly fond of. At our highest point, we veer off the trail and Paul conducts a brief training session on how to properly ride over a big rock that resembles a step-up. As things wind down, we sit atop this mountain and enjoy the view for several minutes before moving on.
We quickly drop down into the trees and before I realize it, I am parked on the back of my seat as we drop steeply in to the valley below enroute to a ski area where we are to have lunch. The descent is long and steep, requiring me to bull-dog the bike in a couple of spots but I deal with it. Odd as it sounds, I’d rather go uphill than down. At the ski area, I order a Romanian smoked pork dish at Paul’s recommendation that lights up my taste buds. I order it again a couple of days later when we return to this same spot for lunch.
After lunch it’s more of the same but we find a warm, sunny valley to practice log crossings and a variety of other drills. A couple of hours later we attempt an even more intimidating hill. I struggle and claw my way to the top, gaining confidence with each little victory along the way.
And that’s the way the rest of the week went; intense, hands on training broken up by stunning scenery, incredible touring, good company and authentic Romanian dishes. I drag my feet when it’s time to leave but book my next flight to Romania for RBR and TC P. xpower race support service as soon as I get home. Now I have a solid foundation to build on. I have more trips in my future with TCP Xpower. Maybe it will be Italy? Maybe Croatia or Turkey? Definitely Romania, though. Regardless, I know it’s gonna be a blast because disappointment is not an option with TCP. Check them out at www.tcpxpower.com.