The Transfăgărășan Highway, a Pilgrimage

The Transfăgărășan Highway, a Pilgrimage

[We’re going to be posting some work that originally appeared elsewhere as I move my home and office from Southern California to Sonoma County. This story first appeared in Peloton Magazine—Padraig.] 


Where does the search for the perfect mountain descent lead?

When the rain began falling, my first thought was, “Great, there’s goes a new pair of socks that will never, ever be clean again.” I admit, it wasn’t a particularly in-the-moment thought. There was a good reason for that—I was tired. I was 60 miles into what was to be a 75-mile ride with more than 6000 feet of climbing. But this ride was coming on the heels of a good deal more mileage. I’d been away from home for more than two weeks and had more than 800 miles in my legs. So tired, just days before, in discussing plans for getting home from the airport, I uttered the disconnected, if memorable, “I only live 10 minutes from home.”

The next thought that occurred to me was just when the next section of the descent would begin. That was a far more important thought. I was roughly 4000 feet into a 5000-foot drop down the south face of Romania’s Transfăgărășan Highway and I knew from considerable experience that wet mountain roads make for notable—and sometimes terrifying—experiences.

Wait … where?

The Transfăgărășan Highway is one of the many infrastructural legacies of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Concerned that Romania would be easy pickings for the Soviet Union after they marched into Czechoslovakia in 1968, the road was built by the military and for the military as a speedy route north. That it is one of the highest roads in Romania and was constructed in little more than four years says a thing or two about Ceausescu’s thinking and force of will. The best we can say of him is that one of those was beyond question.

That I was even riding the road was such a freakish turn of events it forced me to shut up about certain New Age-y beliefs, like that if you just put your intention out into the universe, you’ll achieve what you seek. This was no long-awaited homecoming that fell under the sheer weight of inevitability. I’d learned of the road less than two years before in watching a rerun of the BBC show “Top Gear.” I can’t say I’m a motorhead, but I’m in for any discussion of what makes a high-performance machine special. During one episode of Top Gear the hosts went to Romania to check out a viewer’s assertion that the Transfăgărășan Highway was, bar none, the greatest road in the world. The hosts drove an Aston Martin, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini on their way to determining that the Transfăgărășan was, without doubt, the finest road ever constructed. You might have noticed that I left out the particular models the hosts drove; that’s to make a point. I suspect that it hardly matters which models they piloted. To take such super cars on such an exotic piece of asphalt summons a rather inescapably stellar experience. So long as you’re not driving a Ford Pinto, the road is special in the way Giselle Bündchen is special.

Top Gear’s segment on the Transfăgărășan filled me with such a covetous urge I was scouting airfares to Buchareșt before the week was out. And suddenly, here I was, dropping down the south face of the climb on DN7C—its designation on the map—actually riding a road that I’d spent hours scouting on Google Maps and Map My Ride, going so far as to inspect the elevation profile and even checking out how to navigate to the foot of the north side of the climb from Buchareșt. My fascination for the road served as the incendiary fuel for an adventure that seemed too good to pass up. Roman candle, meet match.

Inspecting a road on a map, or even going so far as to traverse it in 3D as my photographer Greg Page had done with the help of Google Earth, is a bit like looking at a photograph of a sculpture. You only get a piece of the story. Judging the greatness of a road isn’t about the mountain, it’s a referendum on the skill of the engineer who designed it. Road building is an art form, a kind of sculpture in its own right, with the mountain serving as the marble blank. The question are: How much imagination did the road builders have? And, would it provide a sufficiently challenging experience for riders to test their skill?

Not a highway
In preparation for the big ride, Greg and I rented an SUV big enough to hold our bikes. This being blue-sky August, seemingly every vacationing Romanian was driving up the mountain. Cars carried—at minimum—three people, though most seemed to need four or five to induce the requisite seasick roll in turns that prevented anyone from driving faster than about 15 mph.

Greg’s driving was as speedy as seemed reasonable—there didn’t seem to be a Romanian policeman within radio or cell phone range to hand out a speeding ticket—and masterfully precise. He has some experience in autocross, though driving a Miyata, not a lumbering SUV, but the skills were paying off like an insider trade; I’ve got an inner ear moody as a teenage girl and yet not a single switchback produced a hiccup in my breakfast.

Toto, we’re not in …
In France, when you reach the top of an Alpine or Pyreneean col by car or truck, you pull off into a dusty parking lot, get a bite at the café and then maybe pick up a trinket or two at the souvenir shop. Or if you’re properly French, you unload a picnic setup worthy of Tanglewood or the Hamptons and then spend the next four hours dining in style. What you don’t do is pay to park. At the top of the Transfăgărășan a kid in his teens whistled like some sort of herder of cars at all the unsuspecting drivers who would pull into the gravel lot expecting to park for free. You’d hear the tires grind to a halt on the gravel and then the gearbox slot into the unmistakable whine of a car in reverse. The charge was five Lei, which I believe worked out to about $1.25.

Once changed into my kit, I headed for the first lookout to the north, which was less than 100 meters down the road, at the first right-hand turn. Before me lay a great basin of stone. It’s a feature common to many Alpine mountains: Following a long and steady grade covered with forest, there comes a break in the slope and on the shoulder of the mountain the treeline gives way to a view of rock and meadow. It’s as if a huge chunk of wrapping paper has been torn from a Christmas present. This is the real mountain; the forest was but a winter coat that hid the mountain’s shape.

For us, as cyclists, a mountain’s contours are not the slopes that fall away from the peak, the shoulders and elbows of granite that run to the larger mass that makes up the base of any great mountain. While these may be the mountain’s true form, the contours we learn are those that are reactions—responses by road builders that end up being how we remember the mountain.

Looking north from my promontory I had the sense that I was standing on the altar of a massive stone cathedral; a great U-shaped ridge ran from my left, back behind me and down to my right. And laid before me was a ribbon of asphalt that might only be imitated by yanking yards of videotape from its case. No less than 16 switchbacks were visible before the road finally passed through a notch and turned right, a notch perhaps only a mile by crow from where I stood. It’s rare that a cyclist gets such a stunning view of road. My response was Pavlovian.

Riding above treeline—correction—descending above treeline is the great gift of hors categorie mountains. Descending in forest isolates the rider in the present, his future often limited to as little as 100 meters—or less—of asphalt ahead. But when above the treeline, a rider gains the opportunity to see several turns ahead. This provides key insight into what sort of speeds can be sustained, or are even prudent. Equally important is the ability to see what traffic lies ahead. Drivers of vehicles coming up the mountain gain an opportunity to see you, and while it doesn’t ensure they will take any action to give you more road, in Europe my experience has been that drivers will make a greater effort to stay on their side of the road, giving me the full width of my lane.

It is in passing cars also on their way down that the increased view afforded by riding above treeline becomes particularly useful. If I catch a car I’m better off passing it immediately, while I still have my full complement of speed, and being above treeline lets me know if there’s any approaching traffic. Slow to the speed of a descending car and making the acceleration necessary to pass and drop the car requires an effort nothing short of a sprint.

But the best part of descending a mountainscape devoid of trees is the ability to use the full width of the road in turns. Doubling the effective width of the road does something remarkable to the speed a rider can carry in turns; other than switchbacks, few turns require any braking at all.

Views can be deceiving
There’s a point to the zoom, that is, a purpose other than an ever-faster passage over the buckles and bumps of the earth. There comes a speed where the forebrain, that insistent I, shuts off. There’s no magic number to the velocity; it’s different for every road, and worse, it’s different each trip down that road. Pit challenge, i.e. speed over an unknown road, against sufficient skill, i.e. concentration on just the task at hand, and your brain enters a tango with the moment. Descending a mountain road at 45 or 50 mph is a potentially lethal act if done wrong, but under the right circumstances the nervous system plays bartender. Simply put, there’s a reward for being good, very, very good.

Pain fades as the world turns several shades more Kodochrome and the fun meter pegs in a way that a roller coaster just can’t match. That’s why I chase after these mountain descents; done right, it’s a bit like mainlining joy into my bloodstream. But there were times when descending the Transfăgărășan that I had the sense that what I was seeking was just ahead of me, that I was chasing down an invisible breakaway and going not quite fast enough to catch it.

That incredible serpentine of asphalt ended up looking more interesting than it rode. The fact is, it wasn’t all that steep—averaging less than 6 percent—and my favorite descents average more like 7 percent. There was a straight stretch of roughly 4 percent just before entering the forest where a car I had previously passed started to make up ground on me … no, that’s not gonna work. Worse was the fact that the road isn’t that well maintained. Potholes and uneven patches dot the road and occasional grooves in the pavement dug in by snow plows make some corners a dicier proposition than I generally see in the Alps.

The south side of the Transfăgărășan starts well enough. Though the view isn’t quite so dramatic as the north side, the first six miles offer a number of sections in the 7- to 8-percent range, which gave me the chance to pick up enough speed that using the whole of the road wasn’t just fun, it was a necessity.

Late in the afternoon, as the shower eased and the sky cleared, the sun began to set over Lake Vidraru. The straight, parallel trunks of the trees that lined the lake were silhouetted against the orange light reflecting off the surface of the water. It was a view of such unexpected beauty that I sat up a bit to air brake and get a better look. I found myself wishing I had a GoPro camera to record the scene but suspected that only a truly gifted filmmaker would be able to capture the experience I was enjoying.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that the Transfăgărășan wasn’t what I expected. It’s not that it was a bad road; I’d had fun on the drops and regret is the furthest thing from my mind. Could it be that the Transfăgărășan is the greatest road for drivers, but cyclists just require something a little different? Well, that’s possible, but thinking of the stiff suspension found in most performance cars, I think I could nominate a road or two that offers all of the twisting, technical challenge, but a smoother surface for more positive engagement. Taking that question a step further, though, I’ll add that while I think bikes and cars both benefit from well-manicured surfaces, the very best roads for cyclist are ones where a bike can achieve speeds that most drivers won’t attempt to duplicate.

The experience has me examining the question of just what constitutes the greatest roads for cyclists. Sure, they ought to be beautiful to behold, the way the Transfăgărășan is, but they need a fair amount of pitch because our internal combustion engines spit out methane, not CO2, making acceleration more a function of gravity than muscle. On the best roads, the turns are frequent, rarely more than several hundred meters between them to keep things interesting and to prevent cars from catching up. As I mentioned, they also require a reasonably consistent surface for uninterrupted traction. Finally, the very best among them are high, high enough that they sport miles of snaking black top laid out over Alpine meadow above treeline.

What’s the greatest road for a cyclist? The Transfăgărășan isn’t it, but it’s got me ready to search for the one that is.


By the numbers
The Transfăgărășan is, by any measure, a proper Alpine climb. The north side is the greater of the two challenges. It ranks as hors categorie. The south side features a brief-ish Category 3 climb followed by a 6.4-mile flat before arriving at the foot of the Category 1 climb.

South side:
Length: 15.7 miles
Ascent: 3713 feet
Average gradient: 4.5 percent
Category 1

North side:
Length: 15.9 miles
Ascent: 4701 feet
Average gradient: 5.6 percent
Hors categorie

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