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  • Writer's pictureLauren O'Bryan

Transfăgărășan: Romanian Word for ‘Pain’

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Someone had mentioned to me the Transfăgărășan highway, a road spruiked by Top Gear as one of the world’s greatest driving roads, and as a result a hugely popular route. It runs north-south over the spine of the Carpathians in Transylvania and is the second highest paved road in Romania, reaching 2000m elevation.

It’s also a pretty popular cycle route, but I hadn’t cycled anything that high or with such a drastic elevation gain. I could have taken an easier route and followed the edge of the Carpathians around to Brașov, but where would the fun be in that (check out my route through Romania).

The imposing Carpathian Mountains that I would cycle up.

From the base to the top is about 35 kilometres, but about 1600m elevation gain. The navigation app on my phone is notoriously generous, so I knew it would take me longer than the 5 hours suggested. I found a campground close to the base of the mountain where I could get a good night’s sleep and get going early to try to get some distance on the mountain before the heat of the day kicked in. If possible it’s good to try and reduce some weight from the bike before attempting big climbs, typically excess food.

In hindsight, in the scheme of my fully loaded bike a little bit of excess food probably doesn’t make much difference anyway. At that point though I was intensely focused on eating down my food bag so as to not have excess food for the cycle up, but failed to plan ahead. I bought a strange donut thing at a shop when leaving the campground and assured myself I’d find something else to snack on along the way, but didn’t.

By 10am I’d eaten the donut, was starving and barely a quarter of the way up the mountain. Yes, I had underestimated this road, but I was determined to cycle every inch of it even if that was at a crawling pace with rest stops every 100 metres. I’m not fast, I’m not graceful, but I can be pretty determined.

I passed several other cyclists, but to add to my melancholy none of them were fully loaded, they had all left luggage at campgrounds below and were just cycling up for the night and back down. I met a lovely French couple who stopped to chat with me several times, eventually, they got concerned about me and began asking if they could take some of my luggage. ‘It’s ok, I’ll get there eventually’, I said as confidently as possible, half trying to convince myself and reassure them. The lower part of the range is quite pretty and covered in conifers, however in the higher altitude the trees almost completely disappear leaving me exposed to the sun at the hottest part of the day. I was struggling big time.

This section was pretty cycling.

By late afternoon I had about 5 kilometres remaining until I reached the top, it was tantalisingly close, yet crushingly I had switchback after switchback to get there. I decided to stop looking at the top and just kept going, telling myself that I was going to cycle to the top even if it takes me until sunset (which at that time of year was around 8:30pm).

Slowly, bit by bit, putting on an ‘I’m fine’ face whenever I caught up with the French couple – I made it to the top. I imagined a different feeling after accomplishing this, more of an over-the-moon elation, but it was an anticlimax. It was just my achievement like I was in a little bubble with everyone around me completely unaware.

I felt dazed, but calm and content as I took some photos from the top and got a bit emotional reflecting on the ride. I made it to the top at 5:30pm, nearly 10 hours after I’d set off.

Aside from not having much food left, I also didn’t have much cash on me – fail #2 (not sure what happened to my brain that day). I bought the cheapest, most filling dinner at the only restaurant at the top and ventured to the lake to find a camping spot for the night. Camping at the top is technically illegal, but judging by the number of tents around I figured I wouldn’t need to hide. I got settled in and spent some time mulling over the day and watching the stars – that was a tough 35 kilometres.

I wasn’t feeling certain my onward route to Brașov, I would have to drop down from the Făgăraș and cycle a zig-zag back up the Carpathians to get to Brașov. The thought of cycling up the Carpathians again was unpleasant, but I did want to visit Brașov.

The thing about type 2 fun is it only exists in your short term memory, I would of course cycle back up the Carpathians to Brașov.

Spectacular views to reflect on.

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