My Personal Transfaragarasan Challenge
by Robert Thorpe, Editor in Chief
by Robert Thorpe, Editor in Chief
It’s over a week now since I arrived back from Sibiu in Romania. It’s a place that I love dearly, for its amazing history, the beautiful mountains nearby, and for its people – some of whom are like family. Riding up the Transfaragarasan Highway was one of my life moments – something that I’ll remember forever. I can remember the very moment that Larisa suggested the event and I immediately wanted to ride it. It’s a transfixing place, and you’re immediately drawn into its wild and rugged beauty.
Several times over the last 2 winters, I’ve set my Elite Suito Interactive Trainer to the route and pedalled away, almost standing on the pedals, as I get used to the continual nature of the steep gradient. Here in North Yorkshire we have lots of hills –steep hills – but nothing to compare with the relentless length of the Transfaragarasan. It’s a brutal but beautiful place and somewhere that perfectly fits the word ‘sublime.’
I awoke on the morning of the ride quite calm, even excited; a croissant and a banana for breakfast, coffee and then start to get things ready. I’d already brought along my favourite Elite Fly 700ml water bottles, and so I filled these with Voom Electrolyte drink. I laid out my Voom Pocket Rocket bars, before dressing myself in our Pedalnorth Presca kit, placing my shoes into a mesh bag. Gloves, glasses and bars were placed with the helmet and I wheeled the Bianchi through the quiet morning streets of Sibiu to meet Cristian and the minibus. We were off.
Arriving at the Tourist Complex Pastravia Albota, it is a superb spot and well organised for holidays and events. Crowds of riders and support people were already in attendance and the set up looked amazing and well organised. Parking was easy and we were able to speak with Michael, the event organiser and his team. There was a seating area for riders, a social media photo spot, registration tent, mechanics are, Decathlon support and of course the tourist centre itself, with tables and chairs under a canopy of trees to keep you cool as the temperature rose towards 26 degrees. Cristian headed for the top with Callum, ready to capture the racing, whilst Beau, Christie and I simply prepared and waited. I felt relaxed and happy, despite recent events.
Less than 7 weeks before, my mum – who’d influenced my sport and my cycling – had died. This was only 1 year after I’d also lost my older brother, who I’d soon be older than, so yes… recent events had demotivated me and caused some wellbeing concerns. I’d been angry with the world, with certain people, and unsure of life in a way. Thanks to a few amazing people though, I’d somehow got myself through this period with their support – my amazing wife, Clare, my wonderful sons Ben and Josh, and my very special and kind hearted Larisa, always checking in on me and yes, often telling me to be more positive. I’d been out training on the hills over the last 6 weeks, and so I knew that I could cycle uphill easily enough for 3 hours. This and the winter indoor work on the Elite Suito had given me confidence. More importantly, as I started the ride that day, I knew that my brother was with me, on my shoulder, telling me ‘you’ve got this’.
Other riders set off at a rapid pace and I noticed a steady 27kph for the first 13 km, which felt fine. However, as the tree lined mountains began to rise, I simply looked around at the beautiful hills and let the sun blink through the trees onto me as I smiled and cycled upwards. Today wasn’t about racing, as it dawned on me that the only race today was with myself. I wanted to simply ride myself better and get back to being me. The bike was feeling good, I had a steady cadence and my heart was fine and I enjoyed the moment, as I took regular sips of my drink and ate small pieces of Voom Pocket Rocket bars. Passing Balea waterfall near halfway, I saw others pulling over for a rest, and nearby was a water stop from the organisers. I wanted to ride non-stop though, on my own challenge, and so smiled and kept on going at the easy pace I’d set myself, meditating and living through my childhood memories again,– the good and the bad.
Reaching the open plateau, where the ribbon of road seems wildly scattered in a series of chaotic curves, I felt my heart beat to the rhythm of the mountains. My soul felt at home and I looked towards the summit area – so near and yet with so many twists and turns and hairpin bends, still so far. Each section was taken as a target and kept the steady pace and I weaved my way towards the summit. The heat of the lower slopes was eventually taken away by clouds and dampness in the mountain air that refreshed me. Looking down at the route on my phone and my position as Strava moved me along; I saw only 2 bends left. Then Callum came into view, running alongside me with a camera, before I saw Beau – already finished and changed – kneeling ahead with a long lens camera, so I smiled and kept on to the top.
Then, the final bend led to a lessening of the gradient, as small huts lined the sides of the road and the finish arch lay before me. I smiled and my body buzzed with excitement as I realised that I done it – I’d not only beaten the Transfargarasan, but I’ ridden all the feelings of sorrow and tragedy out of me and I felt bloody amazing. Cristian was there at the finish line, shouting me on and encouraging me and I loved him for this – this wonderful friend. Crossing the line, a medal was placed about my neck and I finally stopped turning the cranks and relaxed. The Voom hydration had done its job and I felt okay. My legs didn’t ache, as in truth I hadn’t pushed myself. I had another challenge to beat that day and I’d achieved it, whilst enjoying the sublime beauty of these wonderful mountains.
Quickly changing, Cristian looked after me with drinks and food and I then became a cycling writer, as I now had a job to do, capturing things and waiting for the UCI riders and their race. However, I did it with a wide smile and with so much love and joy in my heart. I was good to be alive and it was good to be me again – that little boy who’d pedal along and try to keep up with mum on her bike, and who stopped breathing when my brother would sit me on the saddle of his bike and race downhill. Only this event and the mountains could have had such an impact on me – and yet it was the impact that I needed… it was my challenge.
A day later I was sitting in Piata Mica at Sibiu, drinking lemonade with 2 wonderful people – Adrian and Irana Chinces – and sharing my ride with them. It was a beautiful warm evening and like family, we relaxed and ate sweet puddings and laughed and talked and felt the warmth of each others company, with the eyes in the historic red clay rooftops of medieval Sibiu looking down on us and smiling too. My happiness had returned and was no longer an veneer that tried to hide a broken heart. I was genuinely at peace with events and felt good.
The Transfargarasan is now part of me, who I am; it is in my opinion, the best road in the world, and the people of Romania and Transylvania are aming the best people in the world. This undiscovered place is simply breath-taking and the Transfargarasan Challenge is a young event but a world class one. My advice to you is this: stop those silly cycling trips to over-populated islands elsewhere and get yourself to Sibiu and ride in these mountains, and let the magical spirit of Transylvania wash over you and transfix you too, as you ride your own challenge on this unbelievable road.