The Romanian border guards didn’t seem all that interested in Scout’s papers. In fact I’m not convinced they even knew I had a dog in my trailer. I think I just smuggled a dog. We cycled out of the border, the roads lined with Turkish lorries (notoriously dangerous road buddies) but even at 7.30 the heat was beginning to get to us. There were, of course, no cycle lanes and although the roads were ok and not too busy the heat in the end forced us back into the van. We found a petrol station for coffee and wifi and discovered news warnings of Heatwave Lucifer burning its way across Eastern Europe (way to be dramatic and scary, weather guys). We deemed it acceptable to drive the rest of the day. Scout was extremely pleased with the decision.
My original route through Romania was a completely different one, a ‘shortest, easiest route possible’ one. But Anthony mentioned a very special road that he thought we needed to see; The Transfagarasan Highway. It was out of the way and didn’t fit with my 5 week plan, but it seemed churlish to miss the opportunity and so knowing we had the van I plotted points we would have to drive to make up the time and distance out of the way. I also knew that as the TH was 100 km of nearly 3000m of ascents and descents (as in; it rises up to 2040m altitude but in real terms because of the the hills and nature of the roads you’re actually cycling up hill for 3000m and going down for the same) that it couldn’t realistically be achieved by me without weight reduction.
It’s talked about as one of the world’s best roads to drive, with tens of hairpin bends and 1000ft drops without barriers and breathtaking views. It’s also a lot higher and therefore potentially cooler than anything at sea level so we resolved to give it a go despite the severe weather warnings (again with the dramatics!).
We drove on to Pitesti and the start of the Highway. It cuts through the mountains north to south and while the south side is a relatively steady straight incline over 70km from Curtea de Arges, the north side squishes all that height into just over 30km. I thought the slow, gradual ascent would be easier but Jeremiah, the Canadian American cowboy we met on our second day in Bulgaria and who had done North to South didn’t think we’d enjoy it all that much. We hoped he was also being dramatic.
At a busy roundabout in Pitesti we found ourselves behind a couple whose transit had broken down and we hopped out to help push them to safety. Anthony, ever-ready to help, offered them a tow. They were Romanian but she spoke some Spanish and between us we worked out that they lived very close. She hopped in the cab to direct us and Emma sat in the car with the Romanian man. We set off, brimming with the self satisfaction of good Samaritaning when, at the busy round about, the nervous Romanian braked on the tow (more than a few times) and managed to rip the entire engine out of the bonnet. His horn was also broken (along with his windscreen), and he was unable to alert Anthony for a good fifteen seconds as we proceeded to drag his car through the city, and spill its guts out even further. We eventually realised and pulled over. Emma sprang out of the car, desperately trying to suppress her inappropriate giggles as wife called someone and husband cried on his knees in Romanian at the twisted mess we’d made of his car. I thought it was going to be one of those ‘back away slowly, get in the car and leave’ situations as, through tears he detached the tow. But remarkably he began searching for a part of the car that was more solidly attached to the rest of it and insisted we get him home. Emma could not stop giggling. A little more Spanish revealed home was not far and Anthony finished what he’d started, taking off once more only to immediately stop as the bumper tried to abandon ship and had to be stamped on to detach and stuff through the passenger window. We deposited them at their home, wildly unsure if we’d actually achieved any samaritaning to be smug about. Hmmm, on to the highway then.
At 5pm on Saturday we began the little routine we would become experts at (bikes and trailer in or out of the van) and donned our highvis again and set our lights – it wasn’t dark but it was busy and the roads were small and windy and we wanted to give people as much chance of seeing us as possible. We were warned that weekend Transfagarasan traffic can be a bit silly but we didn’t find it too bad – people seemed to give us as much room as possible. I like to think it’s because they were so very impressed with us. I’d already decided that if we were going to tackle the TH then I would under no circumstances be doing it with my panniers. It was something we could only do with the support van. I would, of course, take Scout but only water and snacks besides her. Our first evening’s ride took us up and around the large lake/reservoir at around 800m. After first rising up above the lake we continued to roll up and down beside it, losing any altitude we gained but it was shady with large trees and smelled piney and fresh and was the first time we’d been cool in days. Anthony leap frogged us to take pictures and check in every so often and just as the light faded we saw him in a grassy lay by next to the river. It was cool and quiet (apart from the rushing river and spirits were high for a 6am start and a push for the top. By my calculations it looked like only 20-25km to the top and nothing much worse than we’d done before just without the relief and rest of the downs that followed the ups on days one and two in Bulgaria. We’d be there in time for lunch we said. That evening we geared ourselves up to bathe in the mountain river. Scout danced around the rocks beside us, never bold enough to take the freezing plunge herself and I recalled all my Welsh sea childhood training but still got brain freeze after dunking my head and trying to wash my hair. Utterly refreshed and invigorated and we slept with our ears and the van doors open to the river.
The morning was gentle and gradual and we felt like we were making good progress. Although I think Emma struggles with mornings and never quite wakes up until coffee and second breakfast around 9am, Scout absolutely adores the early hours. She naturally wakes me at 5.30 even when we’re lying in and the cool temperatures and a good night’s sleep are the perfect puppy combo – she chews, she zooms, she chases, she does big energetic head booping cuddles, so with the roads quiet and cool I set her running beside the bike. She only tried to drag us across the road twenty times and chase after birds fifteen – if the conditions were right (Emma ahead, no left turns, not too up, not too down) she was a perfect pulling pooch. She needs constant verbal instruction – “good girl! Ah ah! That’s it, stay on target, stay on target, nice, No! That’s it, nicely, ah ah, no birds, stay on target….” She wasn’t actually in shot on the GoPro so I now have about 10 minutes of footage of the road and my handlebar bag that sounds like me self-coaching my tendency to swerve into the road after birds. Nice work.
After second breakfast the going was much tougher for me. I couldn’t work out why until I eventually stopped to check the tyres and lo and behold the trailer was lopsided – phew. First puncture of the trip and Anthony had my pump with all the rest of my panniers. Not to worry – he was with us in less than ten minutes and I had to deal with my first puncture…or so I thought. I couldn’t find the culprit on the tyre and the inner seemed to have sealed itself again. There was one tyre that had deflated much more than the other when I left it for three weeks so I decided the tube was leaky and I would just swap it for a new one. It seemed to work and we set off again.
The climbs began to get steeper. The day began to get warmer. We needed to stop every fifteen minutes. At 11.30 I had absolutely nothing left. My legs couldn’t push. We had about 10km to go but were spinning around 4km per hour with breaks for heart-rate steadying and liquorice eating. I dearly wanted to summit by lunch, before the day got too hot and we had to stop for the midday heatwave, but I couldn’t. We took the decision to recharge by the river (even colder up here – my crocced feet went numb in it and Anthony made us sandwiches that I scarfed down and we had a power nap in the van’s suspended bed. Mercifully, clouds started to roll over and the final (actually final) push wasn’t hampered by too much sun and we saddled up yet again, Anthony sending us off with a trademark “get on with it then!” motivational speech. But it honestly was not that easy. Scout was just such a dead weight and it was too busy to have her walking beside me. We’d shared many a bell ring or helmet nod with cyclists descending and wishing us luck but we eventually started to be overtaken by day trippers with nothing but water bottles and cameras to document their insane cycling prowess. Honest to god some ten year old kid and his dad on mountain bikes just sped past us like they had wings. I couldn’t work it out. The final kilometres absolutely sagged by. I cycled, stopped, calmed my heart rate, and started again, rinse and repeat. We never seemed to be getting closer. The top seemed like it was so near we could touch it but it still evaded us. Very near the top there’s a stretch of road with stalls and food sellers and the traffic grinds to a halt as everyone tries to squeeze past everyone else without falling off the edge. We clung the mountain-side and pushed the bikes. My trailer still seemed to be pulling me backwards and I was aghast at how difficult these final few kilometres were. Did I need to call it quits? Admit that this was too much for a amateur cyclist?
After the stalls we had a drink, took some more pictures with donkeys and set sail for what we hoped was the final final final push, for real this time, no jokes and no stops okay? And remarkably, it was. It absolutely was. We rounded a corner and saw the beginning of the tunnel we knew was the passageway to the north side of the summit and not terribly suitable for cycles and the signal for us to van-up. We did it, and as if it had been patiently waiting for us to finally ascend, the mountain exploded in rain and hail and thunder and lightening and we clamoured to get everything loaded up and out of the storm, me only then realising that the same trailer tyre was again, flat.
We sat there for the best part of an hour before the weather and the traffic eased and the other side was clearing so we parked in a cliff-side lay by and watched in awe and horror as the entire world queued up to drive to the summit, park for an hour and go back down. Surely the mountain couldn’t hold this many cars? How many of them fall off every year, I wondered. As the day wore on the traffic eased and we walked up to find some overpriced not very great food before settling in for the night.
That night. Right. Well. That night, at about 2am the thunderstorm came back with a vengeance. The wind, the rain, the lightening, the rumbles of thunder, it all felt a little “get off my mountain” if you’re familiar with the Himalayan folk-lore. While the pass is closed from October to May because of avalanches I wondered what the chances of rock and mudslides were during Summer storms. Anthony wondered the same and Emma, already convinced we were going to be blown straight off our perch, insisted we find somewhere safer. Cue a 3am drive 5km down the highway in darkness and driving rain, me clinging to the back doors and Scout diving under the bikes for cover, Emma buried in her duvet and none of us all that comfortable if I’m honest.
We saw out the storm next to a raging river but safe from rockfalls and mudslides and cliff drops. The van still rocked in the wind and it wasn’t until 4.30 that the storm finally left us to sleep. The rain continued into the next morning, however, and Anthony and I sat discovering and digging out thorns from the trailer tires and repairing three inner tubes. Three. Eventually we decided to drive back up to our old lay by if it was still there (it was), grab some local bread and cheese and think about cycling down. I was sat typing my blog and Emma was still in her bunk as Anthony made the short trip back up. Now, being in the back of any vehicle means you feel the bumps and turns and turbulence more than in the front. This was very much the case as we drove back up and without even a view out the front, the turns, bumps and bends were…somewhat alarming to us cargo passengers. Emma may have emitted some squeals as we wove our way up but suddenly the van swerved across the road and back three or four times, bikes rocking and bags sliding as Anthony overcorrected and fought with the wheel. I’m not a panicky person. I’m calm in a crisis but I was quite sure we were about to slide over the side of the road and could only hope it was the side without the huge drop. After a few more terrifying seconds we levelled out and progressed more slowly and evenly up the hill, hearts in our mouths, adrenaline shooting through us. When we stopped Anthony’s grinning face popped into the side door and was met with tears from Emma and near hysterical laughter from me. Turns out he’d done a ‘couple of swerves’ because he thought we were being a bit dramatic. We have vowed to get him back for this. And it will be sweet.
The descent was long and cool but the clouds prevented the views we had been promised. We had to stop every now and then to regain feeling in our fingertips from the constant braking (sharp turns with a trailer are not allowed) but within an hour or so we’d left the mountain behind and found that flat, straight Romania we’d seen a few days ago. It was a strange feeling, watching the altitude drop so effortlessly when I’d fought so hard the day before to make it climb and given the dramatics of the night before it really felt like we were leaving behind an entirely different time and land.
The Transfagarasan Highway is a road I could and would never have attempted without Emma and Anthony by my side. And I wonder how many dogs have made the trip by bike? Can’t be that many, can it? Apparently it was Jeremy Clarkson who said it was the best road to drive and I’m inclined to disagree with everything he says on principle. It is rather spectacular, I will concede, but actually I don’t need to agree with him – we didn’t just drive the Transfagarasan Highway. We CYCLED it. And it was marvellous.