Poprad to CP4: The Transfăgărășan Highway

Last post:  Bratislava to CP3: High Tatras

Start here: TCR No 5 – The Start

Target: CP4

I slept fairly well at the back of the petrol station, woken at around 3.30am by a delivery driver dropping off some fresh (!) 7 days croissants, I imagined. He gave me a quizzical look, I waved and he went about his day. Being disturbed, I was reluctant to try to sleep more so figured I’d decamp and get rolling, aiming to get ahead of the heat wave before it kicked into the day. I also checked the tracker, now very interested where everyone around me was, with both 131 Robert Carlier and 12 Stephane having moved ahead in the night, but were showing as stopped.

I’d stopped the night before on a hill, which meant starting the day descending. After one more short climb, I was again descending all the way down to the town of Presov, where hunger made the decision to grab some breakfast easy. I got a good mix of food, including my first 7 Days croissant of the trip. I always made a point of getting some fruit juice in the mornings, in an attempt to get some good nutrients over the servo junk food that was everything else. I’d been mixing Berocca and hydration tablets in my bidon, but these were turning to dust in the tube and was keen to keep vitamins, electrolytes and hydration in check. The day was going to get hot, so this was going to be important.

After Presov, I went west to go around what I thought would be busy roads, and found even busier ones. The first two hours after Presov was probably one of the most stressful of the trip until then, with heavy traffic in both directions meant having to hug the dual carriageways hard shoulder, which often would just turn into a single white line with little room.

Traffic passing was giving some space, but without really slowing down. I figured I had to just get my head down, and focus on getting to some smaller quieter roads that I knew were ahead.

I’d decided to use my backup Wahoo today, one that I’d been using for the past year but had gone a little mental on a very wet ride from London to Bristol the weekend before the TCR. I think some of the moisture that had been giving problems tracking elevation was causing problems with it in the heat, and was constantly dropping GPS. First problem I’ve ever had with a Wahoo recording a ride, so in order to ensure I stayed on my mapping track I stopped to switch back to the fully charged new unit. Better safe than sorry!

The rest of the morning was something of a struggle. My quest to avoid busy roads and some climbing had seen me lose some ground on #12 & #131, and I was start/stop through the rest of Slovakia. The heat, some saddle sores, and confidence in my route was getting to my head a bit. On top of this, every time I stopped for water I ended up coming away with fizzy water. Buying water in this part of the world is a minefield. 90% of water is fizzy, with some variance or other in natural, carbonated, light, full gas, and a hundred different flavours. All I wanted was some cold fresh still water. The disappointment is immense, as pointed out by others on twitter.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one having this problem, and there were some amusing tweets picked up by avid dot watchers.

In the meantime, I was going for a personal record for number of ice creams in one day. I’d had 5 before midday.

It seemed to take an age to get to the Hungarian border, with the building heat, fatigue and a bit of headwind. This continued into Hungary. I was also increasingly frustrated by my water heating up, becoming hot and not pleasant to drink.

Finding somewhere to buy water was fairly sparse on my route, but I discovered some blue stand pipes. I reasoned that the water was probably not really for drinking so just made the most of a street side shower and cool down wash. I came across some kids messing with a hose at one point, and as I was approaching I urgently gestured for them to spray me with water – I think they’d have done it anyway for fun, either way it was great to get to cool down albeit briefly.

I stopped 4 or 5 times, and it wasn’t until searching for ice-cream at the 5th stop did I realise that the country has its own currency. I’d been paying (over the odds) for ice cream and fizzy water in Euros. The change they spent 20 minute working out the currency conversion for was still in my pocket when I got to the Romanian border, and would remain there for the rest of the trip.

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I stopped for a meal at a hotel as soon as I crossed passport checks. Food was a priority, and took the opportunity to order a plate of spag bol and a portion of chips (the hardest thing to communicate ever, at the time) from the bemused waitress. Must have been a bit of a sight – I’d collected two days of road grime and was struggling to communicate.

Fueled and with water topped up, it was time to get some kays done before the night closed in and I would need to find somewhere to sleep. After the confusion of currency in Hungary, I made a point of searching out the nearest cash machine. Maps.me is great for this sort of thing.

It’d been a tough day, and Romania wasn’t quite welcoming. The evening was drawing in, and I found myself being chased by dogs, harassed by close passes, and roads in something of a state. I felt I wasn’t making enough ground, despite closing in on a 380 km day, the battle of the heat and general fatigue was making me quite grumpy. I think the Wahoo only showing 250km (with another 125 km done on the backup), might have contributed, but I’m not sure. Shortly before midnight (… or so I thought..) I arrived at the town of Zalāu and started hunting for a hotel. I was a bit fed-up, had a sweat on from being over tired, and wanted to get clean and sleep. It’s quite incredible the polarised switch of emotions you can feel, as when I checked the tracker I realised I’d almost caught #12 Stephane, who appeared to be sleeping on the other side of town. I suddenly realised I’d made better progress than thought so kept plugging on.

Straight after the town was a long steady climb in the pitch black darkness. My dynamo light didn’t do so well with rolling slowly so dimmed down, and this always makes me feel a bit sleepy. I pushed on, and finally managed to get over the top.

I carried on for a while, now searching for somewhere to bivvy. This side of the hill felt much colder. Part of me was relieved, but another regretted not bivvying on the warmer side. I eventually found what appeared to be an abandoned service station, found a spot around the side and set up camp.

I can’t have been asleep for more than two hours. It got really cold, and I was forced to get up and keep moving. It was a rough early morning, cold, waiting for the sun to come up. I was having trouble turning the legs and staying seated with some saddle sores complaining, so shortly after sunrise I found a village store where I bought a whole load of random food and drink, finally getting a couple of bottles of still water.

I spent some time looking at the tracker, the road ahead, and set my goal for the day – Checkpoint 4!  There was a road banned between me and CP4 due to it being particularly busy and deemed dangerous. I wasn’t really bothered as I’d already routed around it, so it kind of benefited me more than anything, with others having to take a slightly slower, lumpier detour.

Yet again, the heat kicked into the day early and I’d only been moving an hour or so when I pulled into a service station in Cluj-Napoca. I stocked up on better food, found some more fruit juice, ice-cream, and rolled.. maybe 500 metres before I caught a flat. I fixed it quickly, and started up a long hill out of town. Turns out I’d not fixed it properly, Half way up the busy road out of the town, the rear tyre went down again. There was nowhere to stop safely on the hill so I pushed on rolling up the hill on the flat for about 2 km. With the flat fixed, I discovered the long slow climb meant not enough charge for the Wahoo, which had run out and powered off. Not quite how I was hoping to start today!

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The roads got no better after I fixed my flat, but I was set on grinding out the KM’s, keen to make ground to CP4. To be honest they got worse. Heavy traffic, narrow hard shoulder that would often suddenly disappear, poor road surface and several dead animals (mostly dogs) flattened out on the road.

At one point I had to stop under a tree to take shelter from the heat, only to find that the 50 or so sparrows in the tree rained bird poo down on me to force me to move on. Did that mean I was lucky?

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I finally turned south off the busy road, onto a quieter back route. I was happy to moving in the right direction, but it appeared that #12 Stephane had passed me while I was searching for ice cream. I didn’t think I was going to catch him, and found another service station and topped up on ice cream, cooler water (still!), some chocolate and crisps. As I was feasting outside I spotted Stephane ride past – somehow passed him.

I set off only to discover my rear had got another flat. Not going my way today! I came equipped with ‘only’ 3 spare tubes, I was a little concerned. Patches are notoriously bad at holding in high temperatures, but made sure I found the hole on this flat and patched it, ready in case of further punctures. I worked through the whole tyre and noticed a small bit of wire – what looked like a bit of tyre beading.

Tyre pumped up I was back on my way again. After an hour or so I came to a small town where I bumped into Stephane yet again and had a service station forecourt buffet. I was feeling good – confidence restored in my tyres, #16 Ian To was also stopped in the town, and didn’t look like to be going anywhere soon following a tough couple of days. I ate quickly, not wasting much time in dispensing with a large amount of food before setting off ahead of Stephane. He passed me yet again about 30 minutes down the road, but that was to be expected due to the rolling terrain.

The afternoon was starting to cool with evening approaching, and it looked like I’d be climbing a mountain in the dark again. This time of day is prime for dog chases. I rounded a corner taking in the lovely green rolling countryside when I spot a pack of 7 or 8 dogs. These dogs were organised. 2 or 3 of the faster dogs charged ahead while the bigger slower ones went straight for me. It’s amazing where the sprint comes from, the big kick of adrenaline got me past the initial chase, then the dogs that had pushed ahead swooped in to try to have a go. Another burst of pace from somewhere and I managed to get away.

I caught up with Stephane yet again, chatting to some locals who were partying. I said hello and pushed on, knowing he’d pass me again before long. The road out of town was possibly the worst yet, and that is saying something. A tired old concrete road littered with potholes. Rolling off this onto the main road was absolute heaven!

Stephane had passed me, and stopped at a service station. I joined him, grabbing some supplies. Daylight was slipping away, and I was keen to push onward. I wish I’d stopped for some proper food, but didn’t want to waste too much time. The looming mountain needed conquering.

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Stephane passed me yet again… was getting a little tedious now, wishing I was 20 kgs lighter. I knew it’d take me a while to get up the mountain, but it was a heck of a grind. The sun set on the approach, and the roads were thankfully quiet in the direction I was heading. All the traffic was coming down the mountain, thankfully. I was glad of the evening ascent, I got the impression that the road would be manic on weekends daytime..

I spent a long time climbing, needing to stop a few times to stretch out my back that was getting tight from the constant climbing pressure. That and the previous 2,800 km had taken a toll, and keeping going in the dark was a struggle. I eventually made it to the entrance to the tunnel at the top just as the last tourist shop was closing. I managed to bag some coke, sprite, water, 7 days croissants, cup of raspberries and some sweets. Must have been the most business they’d seen at that time of night for a long time!

I smashed the coke, sprite and a croissant, then headed down the hill towards the checkpoint hotel. The road was pretty awful and my hands were suffering, but was really keen to get off the bike and sleep.

I was greeted by the checkpoint staff waving flags, flashing lights and cheering in the road. Glad they did, as in my quest to rush down the mountain I’d probably have sailed past them! The CP volunteers and Apidura staff were welcoming and such a sight for sore eyes. I got my card stamped and chatted while scoffing the raspberries and various bits of food I had, cleaned up in the hotel bathroom, then set up the bivvy. Stephane had laid claim to the wendy house so I pitched on the ground, choosing to use my foil blanket for extra warmth in the mountain night air.

Stats:

  • Distance:  683 km
  • Elevation:  5,273 m
  • Moving Time:  30 hours 56 minutes
  • Strava: File 1, File 2, File 3, File 4
  • Ice Creams: Lost count after 10
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Bratislava to CP3: High Tatras

Catch up with the last post here: https://mattonabike.com/2017/11/13/cp2-to-bratislava/ 

To read from the start of my TCR, start here: https://mattonabike.com/2017/09/23/tcr-no-5-the-start/

Recovering in Bratislava

Having arrived at the hotel in Bratislava at around 4 pm, I had all afternoon and evening to relax before deciding my next move. The hotel was right next door to a McDonald’s and a shopping centre with a food court. I had a long bath, washed my bibs and base layer and headed downstairs to explore in my hotel slippers, off bike shorts and t-shirt.

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It was a scorching afternoon, and was quite glad at my decision to stop for the afternoon and night, but had a nagging feeling a top 10 finish in the race was slipping away from me. I’d stopped in around 8th – 10th place. I popped into McDonald’s for a bounty McFlurry (amazing!), and headed into the shopping centre to find the food court. I feasted on some Chinese food – lots of rice and noodles, before heading back to the hotel for an early night.

I needed the rest, time off the bike to help my knees relax and soak up the Voltarol. When I was heading here, part of my mind was thinking this might be where I would scratch, but before going to sleep I reasoned as long as I could still turn the pedals, I had no good excuse to stop. Plus, after the 1,800 km to this place, I was fairly set in my mind about keeping going. I was less stressed about aiming for a top ten finish now, the focus was about easing back into the race and ensuring a finish without trashing my knees again.

Back On It

Turns out I was still restless. I was up and out of the hotel by 2.45 am, and onto the empty Slovakian roads. It was painful to see all the ground I had made the previous night had been lost, but I was reinvigorated with some quality time off the bike and a good 4 hours in the cool dawn to make some ground up to stay in touch with the top 10, still in around 12th spot.

I made good time very quiet roads, stopping shortly after sunrise in a service station to scoff some sandwiches, coke and ice cream – a perfect breakfast?! It turned out that a number of my planned roads were motorways, so I spent quite a lot of time detouring around them and planning the re-routing.

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Sunrise In Slovakia. This is going to be a hot one

I eventually figured that others would be having the same problems, and through checking the tracking site free route, I was able to see where other riders ahead of me also had the same issues, so solving some of the trickier re-routes was a little easier by following some of their tracks. I stopped for an early lunch in Zvolen, finding the magical golden arches at the edge of town. The day had warmed up considerably, and the hint of the heatwave gripping southeastern Europe was beginning to bite the day so I was grateful of the familiar aircon, cool water, coke, big macs, nuggets and bounty McFlurry.

 

 

 

 

 

I’d barely got going again, when at the town of Banská Bystrica, my planned route was once again a motorway with no obvious way to route around it. I stopped in a service station to rehydrate, fuel up and plan way around. Scanning other riders routes proved interesting. Rider 146 abandoned the road and headed south, ultimately to go all the way around, a detour of at least a hundred km’s or more. Using a mix of mapping apps and free route, I found a path along the river until the road turned from motorway into legal road.

Next up was a pass over the Low Tatras in order to access the next valley, and the CP3 parcours up to Horsky Hotel Dom. The name the ‘Low Tatras’ is a bit of a lie really. It a fairly significant climb, topping out at around 1265m (est.), it was quite challenging in the heat of the day. I had to pull over into the shade early on, and took a moment to air my feet which were starting to show signs of hot feet. This is possibly the best way I’ve found to manage this issue, and whenever I stopped I take the chance to free my toes.

At the top I stopped quickly to take some coke on board, added one to the pocket and topped up the water bottles. After a really fast and fun descent, I was starting to see the High Tatras grow on the horizon. The afternoon had clouded over slightly, and the day was beginning to cool. I could see CP3 was in reach and was hoping to make it by sunset. I was really starting to enjoy the day!

 

 

 

 

 

A quick check of the tracker showed that #12, Stephane Ouaja was closing in. Coincidentally, we both arrived at the TCR No. 4 CP3 Hotel (Aleghe) at the same time last year, it seems we’d be likely to do the same. The roads were rolling, and after a quick hello and chat Stephane pushed on, able to ease up the hills being lighter and with a bit more energy.

CP3 – The High Tatras

Stephane must have stopped at a service station, as just before turning up to the parcours I passed him again. By now I had my phone playing tunes, the sun was setting, and I was in a happy place. I was back into 10th place (still a long way to go though), and my knees were no longer complaining. The CP3 road surface was rough and steep, but that didn’t matter at that moment. I was smiling and had Gramatik pumping on the phone. A happy place.

By now I had my phone playing tunes, the sun was setting, and I was in a happy place. I was back into 10th place (still a long way to go though), and my knees were no longer complaining.

Part way up the climb a car pulled up alongside, with Juliana Buhring, race director, who I’d not seen since the first night at CP1. It was so nice to have a chat and brought the race back into focus. She also mentioned there was a buffet waiting at the hotel, which gave me an extra spring in my step – I’d only had the can of coke to get me through the last stretch to CP3 and was getting hungry!

After a short chat, they headed on up to the checkpoint leaving me to grind out the last few km. It was great to see Robert Carlier #131 coming down, always nice to bump into a familiar face and say hello. These were some rough roads so I made a note of it, conscious that I’d need to descend this in the dark soon after. Would be a sketchy descent for sure.

I was welcomed into the checkpoint with Juliana jogging beside me for the last bit of motivation, and was a definite highlight of the race. I got my stamp, finding myself in 10th place. This was a bit of a surprise considering the time off I’d had yesterday, but had made really good progress. I was really happy after a great day on the bike.

I found the buffet and started piling up my plate with absolutely everything without a clue what any of it was. I think I did make a slight effort to take fresh veg and fruit as well, but I was really hungry and it was all good stuff. I was joined by Juliana, James Robertson and Stephane, chatting all things TCR, discussing possible race strategies, the field ahead and what was possible with the days remaining. Stephane was convinced I was playing mind games, but I was still in the frame of mind of focusing on finishing over race position, but he was convinced I was playing him. I suggested he could have 10th place for the price of a beer in Meteora.

After a bit of faff, re-stocked water bottles (it tasted weird, but was fresh from the mountain apparently), and rolled off down the hill. Stephane had left a little earlier to cement his top 10 position, but with a fair part of 2,000 km to go, it wasn’t going to make much difference.

The descent was super sketchy, lots of potholes and melted road meant for very slow progress. It was a glorious evening, with the lights of Poprad shimmering below, and with the one remaining checkpoint ahead, there was plenty left to play for. I was feeling pretty good, thinking I could make some good ground.

I noticed on the tracker, that Stephane had stopped at the bottom of the CP3 parcours. I figured he’d found a bush to bivvy in for the night, but it turned out he’d caught a flat on the way down. After coming off the steep descent, the road became fast and I flew down to town of Poprad, making excellent time on empty roads. I decided to put a few KM’s in between us before finding somewhere to bivvy for a few hours, but after a short time I found myself on a steady climb feeling sleepy. I’d been up since 2am so it’s not surprising, so pulled into a closed petrol station, set up my bivvy out of the way and got my head down.

Stats

  • Distance: 385 km
  • Elevation: 3,955 m
  • Moving Time: 17 hours 33 minutes
  • Strava File
  • Ice Creams: 4