As exciting and satisfying as Day 1 turned out to be, Day 2 was destined not to disappoint. After finishing Day 1, I made my way back to the pits in Sibiu and had the TCP X Power support crew install a new Goldentyre GT216 90/90-21 front tire and a GT216X 140-80/18 out back. I then had them change the gearing from 13/51 to 13/52. The extra tooth on the back sprocket would prove invaluable as the Red Bull Romaniacs (RBR) crew would make good on their promise of steep elevation changes for Day 2. I also ran less sag as the frequency of off camber turns required a sharper turning motorcycle. Still amped up (and not fully adjusted to the time difference) after an incredible day of riding on Day 1, I was already awake when the alarm clock went off at 05:30. Bright sunshine may have burnt the previous night’s rain off of the pavement but the woods would remain slick for much of the day. The starting area was about a 25 kilometer ride from Sibiu and overlooked a beautiful Romanian village, shrouded in morning fog and set picturesquely among the Carpathian Mountains. The scenery in Romania never disappoints. Having passed scores of riders the day before, my starting position improved significantly (to the tune of 30 minutes) from the day before, which meant less carnage, fewer bottlenecks and even more opportunity to move up – I hoped. With the successes of Day 1 fueling me, I was ready to get down to business and put another 60 riders behind me today.
Day 2 began in Sibiu and would end in the village of Voineasa, where the accommodations included an aging but comfortable Soviet Era retreat adjacent to a ski area. It was really was a cool scene nested in stunning scenery. Despite the less luxurious setting, this was truly a neat area to visit.
I was a bit overzealous out of the gate and nearly soil sampled at the base of the first downhill. Romaniacs may be a four day race, and some treat like a marathon, but I was operating under the notion that you’ve got to pin it to win it. A key lesson from Day 1 was that you need to be entirely focused throughout the entire day: there can be no mental lapses, which is difficult as it’s so easy to suffer sensory overload given the amazing terrain and scenery. After traversing what seemed like a mile of off-camber hillsides, we dropped in to a meandering stream for another mile or so, skirted its slippery edge for several more miles, then began a short but steady climb that culminated by crossing over a small hillside meadow. Day 2 was definitely shaping up to be more challenging than the previous day. After crossing over the meadow we were back in to the woods for another long descent through a forested ridge that wove tightly between the trees. Losing a front wheel here and sliding down this slope would result in a long day of bushwhacking towards the base of the mountain. I didn’t bulldog down any hills here but several gave me pause. A couple of miles later we dropped on to a cart road for the first gas stop.
It should be noted that Red Bull Romaniacs is an impressive logistical accomplishment. The whole organization packs up and moves to two different locations before returning to Sibiu on the final day. The entire operation is more efficient than most military operations. Also, there are gas stops every 18 miles and medical aid stations every 8 miles along the entire route. Each medical station offers medical aid and an “escape route” in case you wad yourself up and cannot continue. There are also several locations for support crews to offer assistance. And for the price of your entry fee you get a hotel with free breakfast, a free pasta meal immediately after the ride, dinner, fuel for your motorcycle, and transportation of your gear to the different hotels and starting areas. The RBR crew also uploads the day’s track layout to your GPS unit every night. The entire outfit is quite impressive
After the first fuel stop we began a long grinding climb via a series a of switchback cart roads before encountering a steep, 30 foot wall of soil and roots with two guys stuck ½ and ¾ of the way up. The two of them eventually helped one another up and moved on. I got a good head of steam going and bounced my way to the top without issue. This is where the plush suspension on the Husqvarna was a definitive plus. Clear of that potential hang-up, it was time to grab some gears on a steady ascent that went on for several miles, transitioning between double-track switchbacks that cut into the side of a mountain and short, steep ascents that linked the switchbacks just above. Slowly but surely the trees became smaller in size, the air temperature dropped and Husqvarna began to wheeze and feel like a 200 rather than a 300. The hardwoods and evergreens trees transitioned into alpine flora until eventually, we were above tree line and riding up a grassy mountain side. I was told we were somewhere around 10,000 feet. Here, the GPS was essential as the folded-over grass of the windswept landscape made it look like bikes had passed over the entire area. We climbed all the way to the top of this cloud shrouded peak before beginning a long, gentle descent that included miles of stunning alpine terrain and scenery. The Carpathian Mountains resemble both the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. and the Appalachians and accessing areas like this via a dirt bike is memorable experience.
Romaniacs is always trying to take from you; your focus, your energy, your will to press on. It distracts you with stunning scenery, attacks you subtly and consistently throughout the day or in an all out assault via uphill, downhill or gnarly terrain. I crashed along some ridiculously easy trails by being distracted by the scenery around me. It also rewards you in equal parts with some of the best riding in the world and by a feeling of true accomplishment as you ride something you never thought you would.
After descending through the stunning alpine terrain, the trail dropped into the woods for some more fantastic single track. Looking ahead about 40 yards, I could tell that the trail dropped off and angled towards the right. What I didn’t pick up on was how sharply it would transition into an off-camber corner. After about 30 miles of riding, I was still in attack mode and going a little too fast. Coming into the corner, I saw my fate almost immediately. I tried to scrub as much sped as I could, but it wasn’t enough as I lost traction and slid off the side of the trail, the bike rolling over until it got hung up on a little bedrock outcrop, which was a minor miracle. Regardless, I knew I was completely screwed as eight feet of slick, 50-degree slope separated me from the trail. Ordinarily if you slide off the edge of a trail and down a slope, the preferred method for getting yourself out is to tie a wheel to a nearby upslope tree, lift the opposite wheel above it, tie it off to something to prevent it from sliding back down and repeat. Here, there was nothing to tie off to, just that 50 degree slope of damp grass. As fruitless as I thought it would be, I tried pushing, pulling and tugging it to the top. It was pointless.
Eventually I realized that about 15 feet to the side of me the slope was less steep. It was also buried under a large pile of small trees that had been cleared to make the trails. If I could clear the downed trees and get the Husqvarna onto the gentler slope, I could eventually pull the bike to the top. It surely beat timing-out here (kind of like houring-out back home). All I needed to do was clear 30 or so 5-inch diameter trees—so I got to work while all those riders that I worked so hard pass went by me. Several of them fell above me but none joined me in the abyss. Sometimes slower is better. 20 minutes later I had the slope cleared but at the cost of a lot of precious energy. And then Karma paid me back for yesterday’s goodwill. Nate (I regret not getting his last name because I would have put him on the cover), a GasGas rider from Spain, saw my plight and said, in a thick accent: “Today, I will give you some time back.” Nate parked his bike and helped me get the Husqvarna on the gentler slope and then back onto the trail, saving me a least a half hour. I thanked him profusely. I then pulled along the side of the trail and rested for a few minutes, draining my camelback. Fortunately, I was close to where the TCP support crew was waiting. When I got started again it was back in to the woods for some loamy single track that dropped steeply from the top of a mountain to the base, a two or three mile steady descent with a few areas that required some bulldogging. Regardless, it was so rewarding and a true accomplishment when I safely reached the base of the mountain and the support truck. I rested every moment of the 20 minute mandatory stop, only using energy to pop some electrolyte pills and chug a little Jack 3D.
After gas, we began climbing miles of rocky double track that culminated in the first bottleneck of the day – a steep, loose, rocky hill that had at least 30 riders pushing and spinning. It was total chaos and not unlike a scene out of local C class: bikes screaming, rocks flying, riders ducking for cover. Some guys went right around the line of riders and parked themselves in the middle of the trail, requiring people to help them up the trail as they were completely in the way. Inconsiderate, yes, but also effective. It’s too bad that they were squids and were quickly passed anyway. 45 minutes later I slogged my way to the top and got going again, but not before helping the Australian kid with whom I’d made a pact that we would help one another. Most everyone will require help at some point. After this brutal effort we were once again rewarded with an amazing rip above tree line. I should have been pinning it in 6th gear but instead enjoyed the view.
Several miles after the bottleneck I was parked on the back fender skidding down a hill that, in hindsight, I really should have bulldogged down. I never even saw the small root that took the front end out from under me, forcing me to fall towards the left and absorb the full impact with my leg. When you hurt yourself on a dirt bike, important thoughts flash through your mind in an instant. So when my left leg absorbed impact and I heard a loud “POP,” my first thought was, “Next year, I’ll be back next year.” When bike and body came to rest, I stood up and my knee slid to the left. Yup, ACL tear. Still, I wasn’t feeling defeated. I knew my race was over, but this place was way too much fun to discontinue the ride. So I pressed on with my knee popping out of joint whenever I had to dab, which was often. I quickly went from wanting to finish to wanting to survive.
When I finally crossed the finish line, I booked it back to the hotel and wrapped my knee in ice. I then got in touch with Volker Jacob, the director of the RBR media pool and explained my plight. If I couldn’t continue, he’d set me up with the RBR international press pool, for which I was grateful. I spent that night with ibuprofen coursing through me and with my knee elevated and on ice, praying that it would keep the swelling manageable. The following morning I awoke to a badly swollen knee with a 20 degree range of motion. The pain wasn’t too bad so I tried stuffing my knee back into my knee brace, but it was too swollen and wouldn’t fit. Applying any pressure beyond body weight would cause it to dislodge. I spent the rest of my time with the press pool, which was fun but nowhere near as fun as riding RBR. As of the writing of this, six weeks have passed since the race and I am no more at peace with this DNF than I was on the day it happened. It was the worst feeling of my 30+ years on a dirt bike, by a long shot. Next year, I’ll be back next year.
So what is it like to race the Bronze Class at Red Bull Romaniacs? It’s trip between the emotional poles: one moment you are King of the World, the next, a complete squid that has no business being on a motorcycle. There are more peaks than valleys, more fun than dismay. The rewards outnumber the losses. Honestly, it’s amazing. It’s crazy. It’s scary. I can’t wait until next year.