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Red Bull Romaniacs: On the Edge

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It is about 7:30 p.m. on July 10 when my flight descends through the clouds and in to the air space outside of Sibiu, Romania.  From my cramped, economy cabin seat I can see the rounded, glaciated peaks of the Carpathian Mountains. Sharp, rock-crowned peaks extend beyond the tree line further in the distance.  The plane banks to the right and reveals gray rain clouds moving away from Sibiu, leaving its red rooftops sparkling in the early summer sun.  The plane sets up for its landing and I get a clearer view of just how vast the Transylvania wilderness is; towering pines and hardwood trees blanket the landscape in every direction.  Somewhere beneath that thick forest canopy, the tracks of the 2014 Red Bull Romaniacs await.  When the doors to the aircraft finally open, the cabin fills with smell of rain evaporating on pavement.  It seemed to rain, at least a little bit, most nights. 

Red Bull Romanaics Hard Enduro Rallye had been on my radar screen for a few years now.  It began with an evolving preference for the most technically challenging enduros that my region offers, and then spiraled into always wanting more; more gnarl, longer, steeper hills, terrain that needles at your comfort level.  I get bored easily.  This isn’t to be confused with “survival runs,” there’s a difference.  Survival runs suck.  So with a slogan laying claim to the “The World’s Toughest Hard Enduro Rallye,” I had to be part of it and give this event a thorough shakedown in testing its validity.  It would be foolhardy to dispute the slogan in regards to the Gold Class, the video footage is indisputable and speaks for itself.  And besides, I would need an army of Sherpas to make it through the Gold class course.  But what about the courses that are laid out for us mortals?  There are two other classes and courses to choose from: The Silver and Bronze.   First, what class to ride?

To give you some background about myself, I am bottom-dwelling AA Enduro rider that races the New England Trail Rider Association‘s enduro series—which is, in my humble opinion, the most technically challenging enduro series that I have experienced in my travels.   By technical, I mean rocky.  The elevation changes in most cases aren’t particularly notable but most of the trails are rock-studded and laced with roots.  You would think that with that background that I would have entered the Silver/Expert Class.  I almost did.  But the information on the RBR web site made me reconsider. It clearly stated that for the Silver class, you should bring some Extreme Enduro experience (I had none) or have scored well in your national Enduro Championship (a one-time 21st place doesn’t cut it, IMO).  Also, some trials techniques would be useful (none).  I entered the Bronze class.  The following is a personal account of what it’s like to ride this class.

Bike Choice

My bike for the RBR was a 2015 Husqvarna TE 300. It was the perfect tool for the job.  You can read the review on page 10.  All I did was set the sag at 102mm, install a GPS mount and add the softest GoldenTyre mousse inserts and GoldenTyre tires available.  I changed up the gearing from 13/50 to 13/52, and I ran the Yellow spring all the way out.

Inscription

Before you can even consider lining up for the Prolog, you have to navigate your way through Inscription, which is the Euro-term for “signup.”  Inscription is kind of like a Prolog in that you need to navigate your way through several seemingly complex obstacles in the form of signup stations.  This will include checking your helmet, survival gear (yes, you need survival gear, including flares), examining your international license, and laying down a deposit (put it on the credit card and keep the cash for beer money).  The organizers set aside a day and half to get it done.  It took me about three hours, but I was clueless when I started.  I signed a bunch of waivers, smiled as much as could, proved that I could operate my GPS and did whatever I could to get through it.

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The Prolog

Before we are fed to the wilds of Transylvania, we are run through the Prolog, which is held in the downtown area of Sibiu.  The Prolog is kind of like the illegitimate lovechild of endurocross and a construction site, with crazy, mutant obstacles that you wouldn’t find in any endurocross course. If you finish in the top 30 of your class, you go to “the finals” which includes a 10 minute moto through the Prolog with 30 others in your class.  The finals attract thousands of locals – and they all love it!  It is quite literally assess to elbows wherever you go.

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My first reaction when laying eyes on the prolog was the adult version of, “How the (heck) am I going to get through that?”  There is no practice session.  You hit these obstacles once and only once – at least in the bronze and silver classes.  As I watched some of the early rows go through it, I felt better about my chances.  Despite racing between the emotional poles and some last minute optimism, my Prolog was complete shit-show.  I wasn’t alone, either.  In the end, it was a massive display of synchronized incompetence, with Bronze class riders bottlenecking the man-man whoops, log matrix and rock garden.  I just don’t have the skills to ride the crappiest lines while weaving between stuck riders.  My starting position for the following day would be a pathetic 136th.

 Off Road Day 1

It wasn’t the steady rain on the hotel window or visions of a soaking Day 1 that kept me up all night – it was jetlag.  Despite being in Sibiu for almost 4 days, I was still on eastern U.S. time, which is 7 hours behind.  I’d fall asleep around 5 a.m. most nights.  So when the alarm clock went off at 5:00 a.m., I was already up – and feeling pretty good, largely thanks to nervous excitement.  The plan was to eat a quick breakfast and go wait in line to pick up my GPS, which is programmed the night before by the Red Bull GPS crew.  After breakfast I navigated around the puddles en route to collect my GPS and found that I was one of the first ones there.  I then went back to the room to for a quick nap and to get dressed.

It was a cool, damp ride to the start.  The first half of day one was a bit of a surprise, in that it was fast.  As in 6th gear go-as-fast-as-you-dare, or as fast as your suspension allows.  But pinning it blindly is not you want to do, because the Romanians don’t use X’s to signify danger.  It’s entirely on you to read the terrain and react quickly enough.

When the green flag went up on my number, I was grabbing gears and in a rush to get into the woods.  The GoldenTyre I chose to run was a rock and root specialist, so it protested a bit when asked to hook up in the grass and slick clay-like soil.  It was like the terrain was coated with Astro-glide.  Nonetheless, I pinned it and fish-tailed my way through valley meadows and farmlands, dipping into a few lowlands and generally heading in the direction of a cloud-shrouded mountain.

After 15 miles or so of gear-grabbing terrain, we arrived at the base of the mountain.  I figured this was where the hammer would drop.  It didn’t.  The next 10 miles were amazing; loamy and flowing singletrack with some fun climbs and descents.  It was all flow and go.  The few climbs weren’t enough to cause any bottlenecks, so this section passed quickly and without incident.   This stretch of amazing trail went on all the way to the mandatory 20 minute break (gas stop) at the service point. I felt great. I must have picked off 25 riders.

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After gas, the party was over, or at least for a little while.  Almost immediately we were hit with a wildly steep downhill.  It wasn’t really a downhill so much as it was a something like a rounded, sandy cliff with a few natural step downs carved into it. This was the first time I ever “bull-dogged” or walked my bike down a hill.  There was no margin for error, either.  Any mistake would transform you bike into a tumbling mass of twisted metal and broken plastic.  It’s so impressive how many people navigate these down-hills without incident.

After descending the “hill” we got into a long, thin stretch of off-camber trail that was carved across a steep, grassy mountainside.  Losing focus and having your front tire to drift off the trail would likely result in a perilous slide to the bottom.  You would have one hell of a time trying to get bike and body back on the trail – remember the Astro-glide metaphor? The hillsides were seemingly coated in it, and I am speaking from experience (in regards to sliding down the trail).

The off-camber section eventually transitioned in to a series of gentle, gear-grabbing switchbacks through the woods.  All too soon things came to a grinding halt as I nearly careened into 20 or so bottlenecked riders waiting for their turn to attack some obscured hill.  I shut off the bike and waited in line for my crack at it.  The smell of burnt rubber and two stroke exhaust filled the air, and as we crept forward, it sounded 10 bikes were stuck, all them screaming and spinning.  It was mayhem with no other way around; I just had to wait as we were sandwiched between two steep ridgelines.

When it was my turn to hit the hill, all I found was a moderately steep, short hill that was a bit slick.  I put the Husqvarna in to second gear and chugged most of the way to the top before reaching a stuck rider.  I parked the bike, helped him up, he returned the favor and we were gone.  Most ECEA and NETRA A/AA riders would have cleared this without incident.  The riders from desert countries had the most trouble, or so it seemed.

The bottleneck we cleared must have taken a toll on some riders because many were then dropping like candlepins on the easiest, rocky inclines.  It was a bit maddening.  Regardless, the trail was fantastic as we climbed ridgelines and meandered up the mountain.  A few miles later we came to another moderate-sized hill that was again littered with riders.  It was short, steep and culminated with a sharp and awkward left turn up and over a wet rock face.  Fortunately there were a couple of course workers there but they were completely overwhelmed.  Again, I rode up as far as I could and helped to move traffic along.  This was a legitimate show-stopper as the awkward left turn and rock face would have been best handled on a trials bike.

Most riders returned to help and return the favor, though some just rode away – wankers!  Once I got to the top, I went back down to help the guys that helped me.  It’s important to establish good Karma at Romanaics.

A Wall of Dirt and Roots

Once clear of that bottleneck, we began several more miles of a gentle but rocky ascent until being derailed by another bottleneck.  When I got close enough to get a good look at what the holdup was, I felt queasy in my stomach.  Just ahead was a 20 foot wall of slick dirt and roots.  There were two lines here: one of them looked like it was carved out by the track manager, the other, burnt in by desperate riders.  The original line included a steep off-camber ascent with a hard left into a web of roots and rocks that was followed by a wet bedrock outcrop that offered no traction.  This line derailed everyone that tried.  It was exhausting watching the riders trying to get out.

The other option was to hit this wall of dirt and roots straight on but to the left of the off-camber line. Doing this would take you about 10 feet above the web of roots.  The additional 10 feet however, was almost vertical and required that you to pivot the bike at the right moment or succumb to gravity.  The rider three spots in front of me tried and cleared it, which was an obvious time and energy saver.  Another guy attempted and ate shit, badly, landing in a smoking pile the bottom.  He also didn’t give himself enough running room.  When it was my turn, I gambled and came away a winner by taking the steeper line. I would never have tried this under any other normal conditions. Then again, there’s nothing normal about Red Bull Romanics.

This hill must have really sapped the riders because a half dozen were parked further up the trail with their helmets off, guzzling water.

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Holy Shit!

A long, steep descent made short work of the long climb we just made.  After bulldogging down a couple more wildly steep sand hills with sharp corners at their base (I shudder to think of what would have happened if you didn’t make the corner), we were dumped into a granite quarry.  After skirting the edge of a granite cliff, I found myself looking over the edge of another crazy-steep hill.

“Holy shit!  Are we supposed to go down that? Is there another way down?” I asked to a nearest spectator. He pointed down and muttered something about no English while I glanced around desperately looking to find a chicken route.  Nothing.  Damn it!   I slid back on the seat and formulated a simple plan to crash into the rock pile at the bottom rather than risk death by going over the left of the plateau at the base.  I felt like a run-away truck ramp would have been appropriate at the bottom.  Almost miraculously, this hill passed without incident. It was actually easier than the previous ones that gave me pause.  What immediately followed was another bull-dogging session but the success of the previous hill had me flying high the whole way down.

From here there were no other show-stoppers, just miles of amazingly fun trails and spectacular scenery.  A ride through a rocky canyon and a deep river crossing preceded the finish line.  It’s also worth mentioning that the Red Bull Girls hand out Red Bull Energy Drinks at the finish and are responsible for my new blueberry-flavored Red Bull addiction.

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Hell Yeah!

In conclusion, Day 1 was absolutely amazing! The layout was diverse and fun with a few tough climbs, wild descents and miles of great trail.  Everything in Romania is on a grander scale, the hills, the amazing trails, the scenery – it was all so overwhelming.  Even though the trail was at times more fun than I expected, I often felt like I was on the edge and one mistake away from disaster.  There were a few moments where I conceptualized my mortality, but I more than survived.  I pushed my comfort zone at times and was rewarded for it.  By the end, I had advanced from 136th to 77th and was ready to pick off another 59 riders the following day.  As fun as Day 1 was, it was on Day 2 when “shit got real,” as the saying goes.  We’ll conclude this account of Red Bull Romaniacs next month.  Stay tuned.