Sixteen hours after taking off from Boston, Massachusetts, which included a beer-soaked eight hour layover in Munich, Germany, I arrived in Sibiu, Romania. I arrived a few days before the start of the 11th annual Red Bull Romanics (RBR) Hard Enduro Rallye to go on an enduro tour with TC.P xpower (TCP). TCP offers enduro tours in Romania, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey and now Russia (Siberia, no less). They also offer a free Red Bull “warm up” tour two days before the start of RBR and I had planned to take it all in.
After clearing customs I am greeted by Rares (“Rah-rez”) Jolds, the TCP coordinator for all things Romanian, and the man in charge of delivering me to the Ibis Hotel in downtown Sibiu. The Ibis Hotel has all of the amenities an American visitor will want. Even better is that TCP is headquartered right in the building, with a locker room for changing and about 60 KTMs in a fenced area adjacent to the hotel. It’s a great set up and across the street from the Romaniacs headquarters.
In 2007, following the vote of the European Union Ministries of Culture Council, Sibiu was designated the European Capital of Culture. Its diverse human landscape extends back from its current renaissance, through the rusting Soviet era, and all the way back to the 14th century. Ancient churches with majestic spires, glittering red shingled roof tops and flowered porches dot the skyline in every direction. Aside from its historical and cultural treasures, it’s an off-road rider’s paradise.
After a quick shower, I tag along with Rares and Thomas Fasching, the owner of TCP, for a nine o’clock dinner at the Hermania Restaurant, where are joined by a large TCP tour group from Brazil and a smaller one from Denmark. The Hermania restaurant has a captivating and rustic Transylvanian decor with a menu that is only one-upped by the food that is prepared. It is after midnight before I finally get to bed.
Romania is unlike anything American off-road riders will experience. The country allows you to ride a dirt bike just about anywhere, save for national forests. And as I will come to find out, the riding rarely deviates from spectacular or stunning.
The following day I am introduced to my guide, Teo Issac. Teo is a native Romanian and the fleet manager for all of the 100+ TCP bikes. He’s an excellent mechanic, tour guide, and rider. He also has the ingenuity of a 70’s era enduro rider.
The morning of the Day 1 tour brought light rain and intermittent showers. It didn’t matter. Teo is indifferent about the weather and I didn’t fly halfway around the world to snooze to the unsteady cadence of rain on the hotel window. With my Husqvarna 300 TE still en route, Thomas offered up an EXC 350 to use for the day. This is but one example of how accommodating TCP was throughout the entirety of my stay, which included racer support services throughout RBR.
With rain falling, Teo and I ride out from the Ibis Hotel to the wilds of Transylvania. We dodge urban foot traffic and weave between cars as we slink through the crowded streets of Sibiu. We drop down roadside embankments, over sidewalks, pass through drainage culverts and blaze through back city streets. We skirt past aging Soviet era developments and through modern condominium complexes until we duck into a forested area at the edge of Sibiu. Imagine doing this through your urban or suburban neighborhood? The ride to the woods was more fun than I bargained for.
A few miles later we pop out of the forest and stop along a rolling meadow overlooking an ancient Transylvanian village. The village sits in a valley surrounded by the lush Carpathian Mountains. We descend through handlebar-tall grass and stop outside the forest along the outskirts of the village. “Here, we begin to climb,” Teo announces. We ascend a series of switchbacks that weave through towering pines. Several minutes later we arrive at the top of an unnamed mountain above the village. In the absence of a view, Teo ducks in to the woods and we begin a long, steep descent down slick singletrack. What seems like 2 kilometers later, we drop into the village and skirt the back roads en route to another trail. Teo stops and drops my tire pressure to about 6 PSI.
“I hope you have tire irons, because there is no tire I won’t pinch,” I warn.
“You will be fine” he says in full confidence. The drop in tire pressure gave me some indication of what was to come.
“Ahead, we are going to climb quite a bit more. You will first go around that corner and come to a couple of step-ups. Then there will be a rock face to climb. After that, it gets steep. We will take our time and help each other.”
“Wait, so you’re going to get stuck, too?”
“Maybe,” he replies.
Throwing the Purse
Teo disappears through the overhanging brush. Seconds later his 250f goes into a howling fit as he clambers up and into the unknown. I hear unnerving intervals of his 250f wailing away until it goes silent several minutes later. I take the silence as my cue to get moving.
I plow through the overhanging brush and come to a dead stop before careening into a four foot rock face. “I am going to need to try this again.” I say to myself. I back down the trail and start over. This time I pin it and clamber up and over the rock face, mostly due to the momentum I was carrying. The trail degrades quickly into a thin, washed-out rut with a silty water trickling down it. I paddle along and realize that the trail takes a hard right turn up and over a slick, 15 foot rounded rock face. I shut the bike down and move it into a better position. At the top, I see Teo ready to give me hand, if needed.
“This is not going to be pretty,” I announce. With little room for an approach, I pop the clutch and try to muster what little momentum I can. Fully expecting the rear wheel to slide sideways over the slick ledge, something weird happens. The 6 PSI and Metzeler tires actually hook up and I get traction – much more than I expected. The front end begins to loft as the 350 tractors up the ledge.
Now it’s decision time. Do I back off, crash and likely tumble back down the rock face or do I ride this train as far as I can and toss the bike over the top? Both options are equally inglorious. Rather than have to make this same decision again, I launch the 350 as far as it will go. Anticipating my move, Teo steps to the side while the 350 loops over backwards and lands in the opposite direction, emitting one of those expensive-sounding crunches. Miraculously, nothing is broken. The hand guard is pushed down but we fix that. I am partially elated but mostly embarrassed. I then catch a glimpse of what lies ahead: more of the same. In the next 150 yards I will loop out twice more before I take Teo’s advice and figure out how to get up steep hills.
When we reach the top, I am panting like a fat dog and Teo asks, “What do you Americans call a… lady’s… er, bag?”
“Yes, a purse! In Romania, when you try to throw the bike to the top of the hill, we call it ‘throwing the purse.’”
I burst out laughing.
With the purse-throwing incident(s) behind us, we head for more benign trail and begin a steady climb along a sharp ridge. A few kilometers later the trees are noticeably smaller until finally, there are none. We punch above tree line along a trail that cuts through the ubiquitous alpine flora—an action that would cause the head of the maladapted American liberal to explode, which leaves me giggling. The scenery in every direction is nothing short of spectacular. To the north, the Carpathians are shrouded in a gray rain clouds, while to the southeast, red rooftops are blanketed in early summer sunlight.
Familiar with almost every mountain pass and ridgeline in the region, Teo leads us down a steep, grassy mountain side and back below the treeline, where we drop onto another trail. The trails vary from ultra-smooth to New England-like rocks and roots. For several miles we alternate between riding slender forested ridgelines and wide mountaintop trails. With each pass above the treeline, the scenery transitions from rounded peaks to towering, rock-crowned apexes.
The villagers clear many of the mountain sides and peaks to graze their livestock and at times, we ride by herds of sheep and cows and are chased by their canine keepers. Many of the smaller dogs have their necks protected by large wooden collars to prevent the wolves from killing them.
Eventually we make a few passes along a ski slope before dropping in to the valley for lunch. When we arrive, the TCP support van is waiting to fill the bikes with fuel and make any needed adjustments. We are both wet and soggy but grab a seat inside the ski lodge where it’s warm and dry, along with many other riders and their respective tour groups.
After downing a bowl of chicken soup, half a sandwich and a couple of espressos, we take off towards the ski slopes again and begin what turns out to be miles of fantastic single track and intermittent gnarl. We again pop above tree line where Teo heads in the direction of a large cell phone tower several miles away. The pace quickens as Teo realizes that I am more comfortable on the EXC. We rail over a couple peaks, dodge more sheep dogs, sheep, and horses, and dip back into the trees again. The trail leading to the cell tower is laced with rocks and roots so I drop in behind Teo. He grabs another gear and we reach our destination all too quickly. I take a few minutes to take in the spectacular scenery, which seems to build in carefully planned increments, before heading out again.
Silver Class Ascents
Knowing that I was signed up for Red Bull Romanics, we headed out to ride some of the trails used in past Red Bull Romaniacs events. A few miles later, I am struggling to keep the back end of the EXC straight on what is the steepest downhill of my life – forget about what you read earlier, this was steep! Several intense butt-puckering minutes later, we drop on to a rocky cart road.
“Good?” Teo asks.
“Good,” I reply.
We move on and begin a series of switchbacks until Teo ducks into the woods with me in tow. A short distance into woods, he pulls to the side, revealing a steep, 15 foot rock face. For me, it’s too late as I’ve already committed to the line. The EXC rumbles up the rock face with ease. And to my happy surprise, I am still attached to it. This is something that would have stopped me in my tracks at home, but the Romanian wilderness has been probing the boundaries of my comfort level all day long. A steep craggy ascent comes in to view so I keep going. Surrendering here would result in an exhausting effort to get the bike back down the ledge, and pushing a bike uphill isn’t something I fancy. So leave I Teo at the base to fend for himself.
Once again the 350 finds traction when I expect it to spin (thanks to 52 tooth sprocket and 6 psi in the rear tire) and stays planted throughout. The hill goes on and on, alternating between steep and gentle grades, with an emphasis on steep. Several tense moments later I am at the top of something I never would have tried at home. I am again elated. A few moments later Teo comes barreling by and doesn’t stop. Realizing that I have celebrated too soon, I start climbing again. And I keep climbing and climbing and climbing until rewarded with the best view yet.
“Good job, that was a good Silver Class hill,” he states.
My success emboldened me to even steeper hills, so once again we dropped down into the valley via what was now the longest descent I had experienced, forget about what you read earlier. The final hill of the day was over a mile long. This time, there were no easy grades to catch a brake on or to regain traction, just an all out assault along a very steep mountain side. I had to improvise a few switchbacks, but I made it. Recognizing that this was a high point for me and that the sun was making its way to the horizon, we made our way back to Sibiu—where somewhat expectedly, I ate shit on an easy downhill. I must have gotten cocky. It’s best to stay humble in Romania.
A little while later I am taking my boots off when Teo stops by.
“It’s like enduro heaven?” he asks.
“It sure as hell is,” I reply.
“You haven’t seen anything yet. You will have to come back.”
“I will, soon.”
The Tracks of Romaniacs Tour, October 19-26, 2014
And so we will return, October 19-26th, and you can be a part of it. Come ride the best sections of the 2014 Red Bull Romaniacs Hard Enduro Rallye and maybe get a peek at what’s in store for 2015. Each tour includes a KTM or Husqvarna motorcycle (unless you have your own), a mechanic, gas, hotel accommodations at the Ibis Hotel in Sibiu, breakfast, dinner at the best restaurants in Sibiu, support vehicles, and a tour guide.
Trail Rider Magazine readers will receive a gift voucher of 100 euros (~125 dollars) for the longer tour and 50 euros (62 dollars) for the shorter tour. The longer tour with the gift voucher and bike rental is ~1,500 U.S dollars. The shorter tour with the gift voucher and bike rental is ~1,120 U.S dollars. Romania has some of the best riding on the planet and autumn is the perfect time of year to experience it. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to book.