It is the morning of the third day of the Purple Lines MTB Camp. For the second time in a row, the pink blooms of the rhododendron have slipped through our fingers, and the snow and trees that have fallen here and there have blocked some of the track I had designed for the day. Which forces us to return, for lack of a better word, to plan B. Our day and our route was going to start with Number 3 of Baia Borsa, a neighborhood of the town of Borsa that has few tourist attractions worthy of note.Ready?In the morning people already looked significantly more tired, and all conversation was hushed, the energy that had vibrated on the first morning before the ride having faded considerably. We were going to use cars to get to the start, so we had to leave earlier… or at least try to. I arrive in Baia Borsa at about 11 o’clock, probably with the last car. Everyone else was already there, waiting for me so we could begin the ride. Ahead of us was a rather long climb, ending in a genuine wall. We were going to start slowly, on an asphalt road, continuing on the concrete road to Gura Baii, a place that one would have a hard time describing in just a few words. All of the riders start in one group, and while we expected the climb to split us into smaller fractions, the plan was to regroup once we reached the top. Those who were willing to push themselves were going to follow me from there and I was going to take them on a foray in the Vaser Valley, an area close to the Ukrainian border and which has definitely seen very few mountain-bikers from other parts of the country.The climb isn’t exactly steep at first, but the road is covered in badly damaged concrete slates and that forces you to change your line frequently and lift your ass from the saddle… if you’re a diehard racer and are riding a hardtail, of course. After about 20 minutes of climbing you begin to see the eastern slope of the Toroioaga Peak, a steep versant that has been recently devastated by several fires. The road you’re riding on passes below several structures, most built as a defense against the rocks rolling of from the steep slopes and towards the road. Perhaps the engineers who designed them also kept in mind the risk of avalanches, since the narrow valleys that the road cuts through are certainly a threat in winter. However, all mining operations were closed down completely, sometime around the year 2004, if I’m not mistaken, and the remaining buildings and infrastructure are by now mere ruins.

LAt the end of the concrete road the eye wanders to the former mining buildings that are now close to collapsing and you can’t help trying to briefly picture what the place must have looked like 30 years prior. Nevertheless, we don’t have time for daydreaming. At this point the climb becomes badass, and even though the first 3-4 series of turns can still be easily ridden through, the situation changes abruptly. Leaving the road behind, you go right, and the grade becomes challenging enough to require your full attention just to stay on your bike. So I try my best to focus. Suddenly I feel like the5 kg backpack has become even heavier, and my breathing is labored. I grind my teeth and somehow manage to pass through the first series of turns without taking my foot off the pedal. The previous year I had seen Wouter complete the entire climb on his bike, all the way to the refuge and without even stopping, so, driven by my competitive spirit, I try to do the same. Behind me the rest of the riders were pushing their bikes uphill and everything was going according to the plan. The next segment waiting for us was a climb over a road in an extremely poor condition, riddled with moving rocks, which would have required a full-suspension bike to have even the slightest chance of riding through it.The road seemed to have worsened since the previous year, but I knew all I had to do was push past the first turn to the right and I would have been done with it. Somewhere in the middle of that effort I hear over the radio: “Rob, answer me”. I naturally choose to ignore the request, knowing it was Wouter who probably wanted to ask me some silly question. My pulse was through the roof and I was focused on getting past the rocks. Wouter keeps trying to reach me and his tone sounds pretty serious, making my pulse go bonkers. Damn it. The wheel loses its grip 3 times in a row and I’m forced to balance one foot on the ground. I was some 15 m from the turn… Next time.

Îl întreb pe Wouter dacă sunt probleme, iar acesta îmi confirmă la final că e totul ok și nu era nimic special. Bun moment. Fac niște poze pe urcare cu primii 10-15 veniți, toți chinuindu-se în felul lor. În afară de Urzică, care parcă urca cu liftul în stilul caracteristic.

After a short while we regroup on our bikes, and Wouter, along with some of the camp participants, walk to the water spring to refill the bottles. The rest of us enjoy the sun and feast our eyes on the view towards Ukraine. Dark green thick spruce forests made us wonder at the incredible richness of the vegetation that still survived there. Despite the excessive logging operations, nature still holds its own and, whether or not out of sheer luck, regrows and is reborn year after year. As if trying to teach us a lesson to just let it be already, to come see its beauties, to take care of it, but not destroy it.

Salome

After a brief discussion I and a handful of riders get on our way to Vaser.

Off we go!

To get there we had to ride through a long and not particularly exciting descent, ending up in the middle of nowhere. We did find, at some point, a trail that I hadn’t recorded on my gps. Or maybe I had and just deleted the track by mistake. Anyway, I was supposed to cross through a bunch of juniper trees to reach the trail, one which was rather long and led to a forest road. But somehow I missed my entry. So we stuck to the classic track and, after descending through a multitude of rivers, we eventually reached Vaser.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group, led by Wouter and Cristi, had turned east towards the ridge and were going to descend on the forest road that would eventually get them back to Borsa. All we were doing was an extra loop on the Vaser Valley. Which forced us to cross the river a dozen times or maybe more.

Marinica is victorious in his confrontation with the climb.

Our only aim was to stay in the saddle, knowing full well we’d end up all wet anyhow. The Vaser Valley was chockfull with roads in a terrible condition and swimming in mud. In terms of actual pleasure, this foray didn’t deliver much, but that was compensated by the feeling of wilderness and the thrill of exploration.

Meanwhile Wouter and his riders were having fun with the road crossing the ridge, with the horses on it, and getting busy scaring the ram in the picture. Both the boys and the girls cross through the river without complaining. I was probably the one who complained the most. We ride past the railway more than once, but don’t expect the traditional steam train for tourists to ever reach these places.The only beings you’ll encounter here are the trees and, every now and then, border patrol agents, tourists being a rare occurrence. We pass by a horse and a rather large, though sweet-tempered, dog. The owner of the horse doesn’t seem exactly surprised to see us, but neither is he inclined to chat with us, so we move on. Shortly after we begin climbing towards Galiu.It’s a short climb, requiring only some 25 minutes of effort, but since we’ve spent these three days riding, and after the difficult crossings through the river, it proves challenging enough to keep us all on our toes. We finally get to Saua Galiu, which we had visited two days earlier. From here we had planned a descent over a quite exciting trail. It’s usually neatly kept in shape because its upper half is often crossed by flocks of sheep. This time, however, it kind of looks like crap and it’s riddled with fir-tree branches fallen on the ground. I decide the descent is a bit too risky and we wouldn’t want to spoil the three days of fun that were coming to an end. We could have ridden it, but everyone was tired and it would have been stupid to take that kind of risk right on the last descent of the camp. So we go with the more “boring” version, which is the forest road, still in pretty bad condition itself.

On this particular descent we find ourselves riding fast, too fast considering our level of exhaustion. I stayed ahead of the group and, because I was riding a little faster, I tried to brake smartly before every turn, so I could signal to the ones behind me in case anyone was coming from the opposite direction. Fortunately we almost complete the descent and I decide we need to regroup before the last section. One of the camp participants, Stefan, takes an additional 5 minutes to arrive, giving me plenty of time to decide to go back for him and check that everything’s all right. Stefan had crashed his bike and had a shallow wound, though it had bled enough to make it look worse than it really was. Fortunately he didn’t seem like the kind to cry and wail, so we were soon back on track and shortly after reached our cars.

A happy ice-cream with its human

Normally we would have chosen to assign 2 guides for each group, one to ride at the front and one at the back, to better ensure the safety of the group. However, this would have meant finding 6 people for the 30 camp participants. Kind of impossible to do, not just because of economic reasons, but also in terms of human resources available. It’s hard to find mountain-bikers with the proper technique and fitness level, who have completed a first-aid course and are perfectly capable of applying it, who have at least some training as a local/national/mountain guide, who are familiar with the area and the evacuation routes, the various options for shortening or lengthening the tracks, who are able to handle unexpected situations and who can avoid becoming themselves a burden to the group. All too often I have encountered situations where the riders were forced to wait for one or the other of the guides… quite the professionals! Furthermore, ideally each of the guides should have solid knowledge and the ability to communicate such knowledge to all camp participants who request information on site, as well as be good bike mechanics and be willing to bring along all necessary tools. As for the character, that pertains to another dimension and, therefore, another debate. Even if you manage to find someone with the required skills and training, they still need to pay sufficient attention to the group dynamic and to be able to exert their authority when the situation demands it, to keep in check those who tend to push it and take excessive risks, as well as to exert a certain measure of control over such decisions as eating and drinking, rather than giving camp participants full liberty in this respect; in addition to that, they also need to be flexible enough to refrain from competing against the group, to be able to correctly read weather conditions, to be endowed with a sense of responsibility, but to also have the ability of giving in when it’s for the best that they do. All right, you get my point, this ends my divagation.

Once we’re back at the B&B, some of the participants leave for home after having quenched their hunger with a delicious serving of polenta and salty sheep cheese, whereas others decide to extend their stay, since Monday is still a public holiday. The afternoon and the evening is liberally garnished with beer, conversation and watching pictures in a relaxed atmosphere, with people who, while slightly tired, appear to be happy.

When the cook ain’t home…

… and everybody’s busy cooking something

Monday morning the weather proved unfriendly enough to allow those who had stayed overnight to pack their bags and leave for home. We stayed behind and went for a hike, a perfect occasion for me to nap for a while under Saua Gargalau.

Next year we’ll improve the routes even further and we will add more trails, all of which will naturally require us to ride through long… climbs. The route for the third day will be changed either in part or in its entirety and we will probably introduce a completely new track for one of the days. There are plenty of mountains here, all we have to do is find the climbs to get us where we want to go, because, out of the abundance of trails, ideally we want those that we can ride our bikes on, instead of resorting to ice-picks and crampons or riding on asphalt roads.

We’ll see you at Colibita in July, or in Austria in September, and, who knows, we might even organize something in Bucovina mid-September. Until then, best of luck in everything!