Photos: Roaming and Racing Across The Hills of Romania

Dec 21, 2022
by James Shirley  

Racing is one of the best excuses to travel and it opens up so many opportunities to connect with like-minded people – even across different languages in faraway lands. The original plan was to do an EWS qualifier, doubling up as the Romanian National Enduro Championships, which seemed like a sure-fire way to guarantee some good riding. After emailing the national governing body as well as the EWS themselves to get an entry, it turned out that the race didn’t actually exist! We’d done sufficient research on the area by this point though to know that Romania really was a cool place to visit...


It’s always nice to travel with a sense of purpose so Liam and I were still keen to do some kind of event whilst we were there. Combined with the city’s music festival, a fun looking downhill race popped up in Piatra-Neamt in the North East corner of Romania. With our entries confirmed, flights were then booked. I considered driving but thirteen Euro flights were hard to resist.


Neither of us had been before and we didn’t really know what to expect. We have met people who come across to the UK in search of work but no one at home tends to talk about going in the opposite direction. However, I do remember a charity worker came to my primary school to give us a talk about the poverty he had witnessed in certain parts of Romania and how he was trying to help improve the living conditions there. This was a while after the Iron Curtain had fallen but when the economic struggles were still on going. He talked about their need for warmth and shelter. He educated us on the continental climate with its relatively hot summers and cold, snowy winters. Stories were told about the nature, the landscape and all the various animals including Brown Bears, Grey Wolves and the Eurasian Lynx that still roam wild today. He talked about horse drawn transport and how the people there made the best of a simple life. It was a very different world to the one that I was growing up in but it all sounded quite refreshing an exciting.


Flying over Romania and coming into land at Bucharest airport there were vast open plains beneath us and forest covered mountains just visible to the North. It’s a big country with a relatively small population - the density is only 84 people per square kilometre which is low for a European country. In comparison, the United Kingdom has a population density of 281 people per square kilometre. Of course, the Scottish Highlands where we come from has only 8 per square kilometre which could explain our occasional lack of social skills!


Bike boxes collected and big flashy hire car office found, the paperwork was signed, keys handed over and we could finally roam free.


With Romania being part of the EU, travel rules are all very familiar but the big difference is that Romania isn’t part of the Schengen agreement. This means that the visa-free 90day per 180day European travel limit doesn’t apply. Instead, visitors are granted a fresh 90day allowance to use in Romania over any 180day period regardless of how long they’ve been in any other country. I’d spent a big chunk of time in the Alps already and I needed a little break to survive until the last race of the season so this was an added little bonus.



Sinaia, a beautiful ski resort town was our first port of call. On the edge of the forest, at the top of a rough cobbled street, we stayed with this lovely old lady. She made us fresh pink lemonade and we soon felt at home, in the mountains with riding from the door.



The next morning was consumed by a curiosity for the countless cathedrals, cabins and incredible palaces they have dotted around. After lunch, we found the bike park and its fast modern gondola with around 400m of vertical. The next cable car above would have added another 650m but we didn’t have time to give everything a go.



The riding, once we got round to it, was pretty cool. The trails obviously didn’t get much action and we didn’t meet many riders either but they were clear from debris and reasonably well kept for an area that sees a lot of thunderstorms and heavy rain. The forests of the Carpathian Mountains contain big mature pines with dark, moist, loamy soils. If you could picture ideal bear country then surely this would be it. Funnily enough though, the first bear encounter we saw was with one casually crossing the road in front of us on the way back up from town! The next scare was from a little one sitting up in a tree. It scurried down quickly and ran out of sight before we could properly set eyes on it.



From Sinaia, the race venue was a five-hour drive. We left the mountains, crossed miles of agricultural land and passed through numerous little townships. The further East we got the more fascinating it became. White Storks were now nesting on the roof of buildings and on top almost every lamp post on either side of the street. Presumably the Danube Delta wasn’t too far away. Horse and cart became common sighting and then eventually our route took a ninety-degree left to give a more North Westerly direction for the final part of the stint. Urban development began to expand and arriving in Piatra Neamt we were greeted by a big Hollywood style sign that arched like a bridge across the top of our busy, congested multilane road.


I’ve been to many different events and this little city didn’t seem like the place to hold a race. We parked up and our accommodation was a concrete, communist style tower block with graffiti on the walls and broken glass in the communal grass. Liam said it was the cheapest he could find and I wasn’t terribly surprised. However, looks can be deceiving as the inside of our apartment was immaculate: super clean, modern and stylish with plenty of space for our bikes and kit.


Sign-on was a walk to the park and the gondola was a cruise down the busy main street. Now it looked like we’d arrived at a downhill race: a huge queue was stretching out of the gondola area, down the stairs and onto the road. Already we’d gathered some attention and I guess we did stand out from the crowd. Especially Liam with his big ginger mane and already bright pink skin from the heat and sun. Young, friendly kids were coming over to talk in what was at first quite timid broken English which then flourished into fluent conversation as they quickly grew their confidence. It was really cool to see and hear. Neither Liam or I have any particular lingual talents but Italian is my second-best option and it shares a lot of similarities to Romanian as both are born from Latin backgrounds. Having said that, I could only understand a quarter of the words so I wasn’t much use. We were relying on them to speak our language and most people we came across did so remarkably well. As a general observation, I’d say anyone under 50 speaks a bit of English and most people under 30 can speak it to a very high level. I shared a cabin with a Juvenile rider who was there on his little hardtail. I asked if it was his first bike to which he laughed. He said this one was for fun, to practice his skills. His proper carbon downhill bike which he raced on last year was his back-up. I couldn’t believe it. I felt slightly inferior with my one and only trail bike.


The majority of riders were teenagers, students and other young adults and some of them definitely took their racing quite seriously. A lot of people were in teams or clubs, they mentioned their coaches, there was talk about the National squad and how they would travel to get to the races. All pretty exciting stuff and yet everyone was super chill and friendly at the same time. The vibe was so cool with so much enthusiasm for the sport. This was the 17th edition of the Tare ca Piatra downhill event and… possibly the last. I’ve been told that the Gondola facility, which represents such a strong symbol of the city and attracts many other tourists as well as just bikers, is undergoing some economic and political issues right now and may cease to operate. There is a big public campaign at the moment to try and save it so any positive comments below will be very welcome to the Romanian biking community. The battle may be won if enough support can be heard.


The gondola departed and gracefully glided above the cityscape with grand, golden domes glistening in the sun atop the innumerable Orthodox churches. An abrupt end to the concrete development was brought about by a sudden rise in gradient and the beginning of a short but sweet hill with just over 300m elevation gain. The slope below was shaded beautifully by big broadleaf trees and every now and then the race track would come into sight, neatly marked out by white tape that fluttered in the breeze. Apparently, the track used to be really natural and challenging but new changes for this year saw big berms and jumps like most other bike parks you tend to find these days. In a way, it isn’t my preferred style but if there is only one track from the top to the bottom then it may as well be something that is fun for everyone to enjoy and it hits that brief rather nicely.


Same as with most downhill races, we had practice, qualifying and a single race run to end with. A festival atmosphere was starting to build in the finish arena and at the final section where the trail meets the tarmac, they built a big wooden stepdown along with a matching wooden landing on the other side of the road to welcome riders into the carpark and keep the spectators entertained. Professional motocross rider George Cabal was first, Romanian DH and Enduro National Champ Remus Bonta was second, Liam was third and I was close behind in 4th. In fact, competition was on a high level and the times from us all the way down to 7th were all super tight! A big party ensued and so many great recommendations were handed out for where next to ride. We deliberately hadn’t planned the rest of the trip in case this might happen so with our new found local knowledge we booked up the next batch of accommodation the following day. Unfortunately, none of our recent race friends could join for a mid-week ride and we seriously considered changing our flight home to a later date so we could squeeze in the Romanian Enduro Champs which had now been postponed and moved to Brasov. It was to be the following weekend but, in the end, we stuck to the original plan so Liam could get home to see his little monkeys.

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In full contrast to the previous couple of days we set about a big mountain adventure to the Cabana Dochia mountain lodge in the Ceahlau National Park. It took a couple hours of climbing and pushing to make it above the tree line but the views at the top were well worth the sweat. After a quick water stop, we were on our way to complete the loop with a long traverse across the mountain and then back down another trail we had seen on the map. To be honest though, the actual riding wasn’t epic and in hindsight we probably should have done the route in the opposite direction but it was stunning up there. You can’t beat getting out in the mountains - apart from when the weather comes in and that is exactly what it did! A thunderstorm began to roll its way toward us and without much daylight remaining either we didn’t mess around and boosted back to the car as swiftly as we could.


Travelling West from Bicaz on the 12C road between Bicaz Chei and Lacu Rosu there is an incredible little tourist market in the middle of a crazy looking canyon. The walls are so steep that they appear to overhang and the floor is so narrow that there is only just room for the river, the road and two lines of narrow stalls. After stopping off for a quick gander we kept cruising along as the roads are not the fastest and it takes a while to wind your way to the next destination.


Hours later we arrived at a big guest house located in Rasnov. To the West is the town of Bran where Dracula’s infamous Bran Castle lies. To the East is Poiana Brasov which is an absolute must for any mountain bike enthusiast. It’s a ski resort in the winter and for the summer they’ve recently opened a new bike park. I want to say that it’s the best place ever… but that would be a lie. It does however have potential to be absolutely incredible. It’s just not quite there yet. What is true is that I had an absolute blast of a time.


In Poiana Brasov there are only really 2 main runs. One is a little bit flat, a little bit boring and it’s marked as a blue. The other is marked as a black downhill run and we spent all afternoon lapping it out. It had a couple of big bikepark booters that scared me, in a good way, but then the rest of the trail was mostly all steep loamy tech with roots and rocks for over five minutes of non-stop race speed riding. In two and a half hours I did over 4,500m of descending. In the morning we used the gondola to explore some of the off-piste stuff through the woods. It’s all on Trailforks so relatively easy to find but for once I didn’t think it was really worth it. It took too much time to get out and back so it seemed like a waste to ride anything other than the bike park after having paid for the gondola ticket. Hopefully a few more runs go in soon and then it’ll be a difficult place to stay away from.


The final day saw us take a trip to Brasov and we stopped off at the shops to get some goodies. I bought a traditional blazer which I thought would make for a nice alternative to a Christmas jumper. Liam bought a bizarre looking fluffy orange gilet. With souvenirs acquired we then hit a local spot on the very edge of the city. There were a few cool turns that were easy to find and at the top of the hill, a set of dirt jumps and a little pump-track were awaiting us. Not long after our arrival, a couple of kids showed up followed by an adult with rake and shovel in hand. He was father to one of them and proudly set about maintaining the area. Liam and I were wearing our new, slightly questionable, attire at the time and didn’t know how well our presence would be received but in true Romanian kindness these guys were delighted to find us. We made polite conversion and shared some runs together in a little train around the pump track and over the jumps. They needed a bit of encouragement for the bigger features and were really eager to learn from us so we’d let them follow behind to judge the speed and get the landings dialled. It was a lovely experience to share that moment in the woods – a group of boys of completely different ages all bonding together over a love for bikes.

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That evening we drove an hour south to see our favourite lady in Sinaia again. It felt like a nice way to round off the trip and we knew she had the space we needed to get the bikes boxed and the hire car all clean and tidy. Early the next morning, bumping down the rough cobbled street for the final time, we were on our way to airport.


If it wasn’t for the race calendar on the EWS website then the spark to go to Romania might never have ignited and without the downhill race in Piatra Neamt then we wouldn’t have connected with the community in the same way. I think it was one of the coolest trips we’ve done and I'd definitely consider going back. Maybe next time I'll take the van and see a few more places and do a few more races along the way…



Regions in Article
Romania

Posted In:
Travel



20 Comments

  • 5 0
 Love it... proper adventure, bit of racing, some locals, some laughs ! Awesome... made me smile on a dreary UK damp December day.
  • 1 0
 Magic, glad you liked it! I'll try and get a few more stories bashed out in the future... Haven't written anything in ages!
  • 2 0
 Another place that you can visit is called Resita , that place had the first enduro competition few years back.Im glad that you enjoyed our country probably you seen like 30 percent of all trails out there , there so much to see trust me...
  • 1 0
 Sounds great, thanks for the recommendation! Definitely more to see and hopefully I get to come back again sometime soon. Cheers!
  • 2 0
 Glad to read your story as a local! I also recommend visiting the Apuseni Mountains near Cluj-Napoca: Marisel Bike park, Baisoara and Buscat resorts, which has really nice natural trails. If you happen to come in the area we could organize some guidence with the locals. Also, there were some nice races this year, hopefully next year will be even more!
Keep up these stories!
Cheers
  • 1 0
 Wow, sounds like there's loads to come back for then! It would be great to see more of the country that's for sure. Glad you enjoyed the story too. Thanks!
  • 3 0
 Thank you for being such a great ambassador to my country and my hometown! Luckily, Tare Ca Piatra turns 18 in 2023, it seems that common sense won and the gondola will live to see at least another year!
  • 2 0
 I genuinely enjoyed my time in Romania so it wasn’t difficult to find nice things to say. That’s great news about the gondola too. Hopefully I’ll be back to enjoy it again soon. Cheers!
  • 2 0
 I spent a week in Romania around 7 years ago, visiting Brasov etc. Was checking out the mountains and restaurant by the ski lift, thinking this could be great for biking, glad to see it's flourishing
  • 3 0
 Oh cool. Yeah, it’s definitely all going in the right direction. I’d be interested to visit in the winter as well to see how the skiing compares. Such a cool place in general though. Loved it!
  • 2 0
 thanks, great reading, would love to go there! And hopefully they will keep their gondola!
  • 1 0
 I could highly recommend! Definitely, me too, I hope the gondola stays and the race lives on. Would love to go back! Cheers
  • 3 0
 Cracking read and pictures - cheers!
  • 1 0
 Cheers man! Glad you liked it. Mix of phone pics and proper pics in there and actually it’s hard to tell too much difference in quality between them so quite pleased with how it’s all come out. Thanks for the feedback!
  • 2 0
 So happy to read your story, especiallyas a local. Thank you for your kind words. Hope to have you back soon. Cheers.
  • 2 0
 So nice to hear you liked it but the pleasure was all mine! Such a cool place. Thanks!
  • 1 0
 How much of a risk is bears? In real life.
  • 1 0
 Way more likely to get mullered by a car than a bear but the prospect is still quite a frightening one! Haha
  • 2 0
 superbbb
  • 1 0
 Cheerrrs!





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