Leaving behind the topsy-turvy weather that seemed to be a hallmark of this spring, the beginning of June promised a marked improvement, not just in terms of weather conditions, but also with regards to leisure time. Not entirely on purpose, we somehow ended up pushing forward the date of this year’s Purple Lines MTB Camp, so that it started two weeks later than the previous edition. Reasons for doing that? There were plenty: the hope we’d get to see the rhododendron in bloom, to enjoy warmer weather and to ride over relatively dry tracks were just a few them.
Except winter decided to extend its stay long after the two weeks we had anticipated, which meant the mountain-biking camp in the Rodna Mountains had pretty much the same prospects as it had had the year before. Even so, when we retraced our possible tracks one week before the camp, we found less snow than during the previous year and more accessible trails. Most importantly the weather forecast told of high temperatures and weather simply perfect for high-altitude mountain-biking.
After the long wait the evening of June 1st saw us all gathered at the feet of the Rodna and the Maramures Mountains, within the premises of a tourist resort severely spoiled by “neo-communist” architecture seemingly inspired by a preschooler’s drawings, and hosted by one of the few local bed & breakfast facilities that have maintained a pleasant style. It was just us, people looking for an outdoor adventure, or perhaps mere mountain-bikers sharing the same arduous desire to explore this little piece of heaven located in the far north of the country.Surrounded by the grand scenery provided by the peaks of the Rodna Mountains and the extensive spruce forests or the natural wilderness of the Maramures Mountains, we had everything we needed to enjoy three days of mountain-biking, a simple activity devoid of overblown complications or too many artificial contraptions. We had left behind the cable cars, the busy chaos of the roads, the noise, pollution, clayish soils, the traffic or the sheepfolds with more dogs than sheep.Friday morning was ruled by a blinding sun, and the clouds were nowhere to be seen. The resort was suffering at the hands of numerous tourists, some of which had brought along way too much laziness and not enough love for the mountains. But we had a different direction, different goals and a different route. After a rich breakfast we left the B&B, getting ready to take on the Maramures Mountains. The first climb found us all in a large group, with the guides riding up and down to make sure everyone was heading in the same direction… and perhaps to give themselves short breaks from all the zone 4 training. At the end of that climb we were going to split into groups for the remainder of the day, with my own group heading out for more adventurous and more exposed tracks, whereas the other one, led by Wouter and Cristi, was going to pursue a well-defined exploration, over a less exposed but equally beautiful route. After a brief round of negotiations I decided to take the more numerous group and lead them to the most challenging of the available routes. Though job ahead!We all made it safely through the first descent, which had us riding over a river bed covered in spruce branches and riddled with pitfalls ready to swallow our front wheel, which would have sent us flying into uncontrolled front flips and landing on a much too rocky surface. Fortunately we were all experienced riders, which meant no derailleur suffered any harm, nor did anyone sacrifice even a square inch of their skin. Having completed that descent, we filled our bottles with water that was only relatively mineral, then spent the next 50 minutes pedaling vigorously to reach the Saua Galiu. This brought us to a nice climb on a neatly maintained forest road, which rewarded us with increasingly beautiful views as we got closer to the summit.Once on the peak we all regrouped, only to have our endurance tested by a segment that some of us almost managed to complete without any pushbike… almost. Apparently more fuel was needed. From the point of highest altitude we began a new descent, careful to avoid the fallen branches on the ground and the deep water pools.We reached a place that had been recently deforested and where a breathtaking view made us stop for a short while. Next came a 15 minute climb that got us to the highlight of the day… “The War Road”.A neatly cut trail, where the vegetation is slowly taking over everything artificial created by the human hand, was waiting for us to enchant our mountain-biker hearts over the following kilometers. After a short section that ended in a clearing we discovered that Victor had gotten a flat. Still, it was only a matter of minutes before we got back in the saddle. Waiting for us was the best part of the best part. Meaning the very best of the best.But you shouldn’t expect to enjoy it too much. It’s a ride that requires solid technical skills, strength for short climbs, and a lot of experience in the saddle. Otherwise the crème de la crème will end up giving you diabetes and you’ll find yourself swearing through your teeth as you read this. The trail becomes even more neatly defined. In the past, during the war, there used to be a strategic paved road here, rather narrow, measuring 1 and a half meters in width, perhaps 2 m here and there, and which cut through the forest-covered slope of the Jupania mountain, getting as close as a few kilometers to the Ukrainian border. A look at the Romanian map would surely make you feel like you were about to just drop off from the map into another world. Nature is still wild here and the thought that there’s no significant human settlement anywhere close gives you exactly the sensation I believe you had been searching for.I sort of enter a trance and struggle with the trail a bit. I win. A tree that’s fallen over forces me to get off my bike and pass underneath. The only person behind me is Zsolt, a rider from Hungary with a Scott Genius and the same level of technical skills. The rest of the group is close by, I hear derailleurs and bike chains working. I get back in the saddle and ride slowly. The trail forces me to really push on the pedals, but without leaning too much over my handlebar, it makes me look straight ahead, while still keeping an eye on the obstacles in my immediate vicinity. The trail is in decent shape, reasonably clean, but even so I still get whipped by the occasional twig – nevertheless, the sound of my tires on the blanket of spruce needles covering the ground and the feel of my wheels sticking to the rocks push me into a trance. I see a viper. A really large animal, thick and with superb colors. I don’t care much. I call back to Zsolt, in Hungarian: “A snake”. Zsolt avoids it, and, like any other wild beast, even though this one is a reptile, the viper takes off, leaving us alone and confirming once more that stories are just that, stories told by people with a rich imagination and not enough experience in the wild. The trail becomes narrower and riddled with turns and corners before getting us out in a clearing. Where we stop. We’d been separated for 10 minutes and we needed to regroup.The final kilometers are somewhat less thrilling, but everybody is in seventh heaven. They can’t help themselves. We are once more out of the forest, close to a former sheepfold and in the middle of a small timbering operation. A short ride later we reach Tarnita Balasanii, the former passageway to Moldavia before the Prislop Pass came into being. This was our first option for leaving the track if the situation required it, but also the point that would put a brief cap on our pleasure. Two flat tires… A Continental Race Sport that’s held up all too well considering the day it’s had and another Ikon, the version without puncture protection. Predictable victims. We sort it out, fix the punctures and have some refreshments, then start climbing towards Fantana Stanchii, from which point we head full speed towards the Prislop Pass. The ridge of the Rodna Mountains keeps tempting us and we have a hard time keeping our eyes on the road.Meanwhile the group led by Wouter and Cristi manages to complete the long but satisfying climb on the Taslisoara valley. It’s a forest road that makes you really work for it as you climb through a thick forest of young spruce and fir trees, somewhere in the back of the Cearcanul Mountain Peak. When we finally get to Prislop I see that everyone’s already dug their fingers in too many pies… quite literally. To hell with nutrition. I follow their lead and eat two myself, a combination of fat and fried dough, just what the doctor ordered before the 1 km neck ahead of us. We replenish our water bottles from Iulia’s van and head out to Stiol.
Iulia gets a few shots of us before we muster the courage to begin the descent towards the Horses Waterfall. The road has been widened here and what was once a trail is now a genuine dirt road, not exciting.
And it’s filled with tourists. We slow down and take an extremely cautious approach, to avoid causing any kind of scare to those who walk along the road. We pass the Horses Waterfall and afterwards we can afford to release the breaks a little, as we near the end of the ride.
The trail is all over the place, but we choose the perfect lines and manage to complete the descent without getting off our bikes. Once we reach the Fantana Street we switch to a more relaxed and happy riding style and that’s how we get back to our B&B… It was a perfect day!
We cap it off with beer, food and a presentation about the hole in our fitness that we just dug that day, at least metaphorically speaking. All the while looking forward to the second day and a new perfect adventure… this time in the Rodna Mountains. Stay tuned!