Disclaimer: If you came here to get a 2-minute-reading-but-meaningless review of yet another stage-race, you’ve got it all wrong. The story below is written with memories and emotions clear in mind, so enjoy instead – time is too valuable for nonsense ;)
Where it all started
As I’m doing like 30-35 races a year in one big mix of running and biking events, I happen to know the quality of the races – at least at Balkan. I’ve done quite a few in Greece, but for some reason I never had the pleasure to race for glory in Romania. That said I’ve always wanted to see, what that would be like, so there were no really second thoughts, when I accepted the invite from a fellow athlete.
Just by glancing at all of the available material I had the feeling, that the organisers had a way more serious approach to the race compared to what I had been used to. That only in good ways.
9 of 10 questions were answered just be reading the material, and before even heading to the somewhat forgotten Eastern European country, the organisers managed to answer my emails faster, that I could ask my questions. Simply amazing.
That said – concerns started to build up days before the race start. Keeping an eye on the weather report for the resort was a 10-times daily action. And the ongoing forecasts for both snow and cold weather did bother. A lot.
Despite worries we took off, and the arrival at the race village confirmed the beforehand impression of organisers wanting to set a new level of organisation. Racenumber and start package pickup with big smiles – yeah, those guys at that point already knew, what we were about to witness. Which suffering we were about to be put through! :D
I went with the wifey (hey, it’s actually nice to have a private masseuse knowing every inch of my body!), so we had a double room and man (!) – that was an amazing place, and as we were staying for a total of 4 nights, it was somewhat important, that everything was in place. They even prepared a welcome thingy for us with fruit, sweets and.. beers!? ;)
I always love to prepare. When heading for races, I normally do the first 2-3km and the last 2-3km just to know.. just to feel. So for the 5km prologue I checked out several parts of the track several times, and from that point it was perfectly clear to me, what the organisers meant with “rugged” and “epic”.
I was truly expecting somewhat easy 5km, but what they organisers welcomed me with was a never ending and very technical up and down, rocky and sandy and with nowhere to hide and nowhere to relax. That combined with the altitude of 1.300m, where the air seemed in lack of way more oxygen, that I’d expect, that prologue took the best of me. After finishing I met with a few other riders and we all agreed, that what was to come would for sure be.. well, very rugged and so very epic. I’d love to say ‘bring it on’ but I didn’t really mean it! :D
Stage 1 – The Queen Stage
I like to think of myself as a clever and smart rider – not because I’m great on a bike and got a lot of talent, but because I really believe, that 50% of the performance comes from what you do before and after biking. By that I mean the preparation before a stage as well as the aftercare after a stage. So when heading for a good night of sleep after a light massage, I felt like I knew, what I was doing. But the fact, that I only managed to sleep around 2 hours due to chest and stomach issues, was like a huge warning sign about, what was yet to come. And 57km with +2.800m would be quite a challenge.
By the morning buffet at the hotel I was offered everything I could ever imagine to prepare for the day, but the stomach went on complaining, so I could only manage to eat half a bowl of oatmeal and half a banana. Not really the best preparation for The Queen Stage. The buffet was stunning though. Everything from the unhealthy corner to the very right and spot-on athletes choice. Amazing work by organisers, really!
The first stage started at another location than the race village, so huge busses made sure, that we were taken the 1 hour to the start. I tried to get some sleep in the bus while other riders shared memories and impressions from other events – most probably in attempt to hide nervousness for what was about to come. At location the organisers had been up early, as all for a professional stage start was there. All in place. All in order. Start boxes with riders numbers on based on the riding time from the prologue. There was really nothing to be mistaken about!
I managed to get a decent warm-up despite the body issues, so for some reason I tricked my mind to believe, that all was ok. That I was ready. Did I remember to underline “tricked”?
But after the gun went off and the first 500m were behind us, I was reminded, that sleep and well-being are really important factors to be able to perform. I was close to done, and we didn’t even start the party yet!
As a lot of professionals participated, I decided from that point to keep my own pace and see, where that would bring me. Here it would have been lovely to be able to write “and that brought me to the finishline as a winner” or “I got to the peak with a big smile on my face”, but the truth is, that the climb to the summit of the Bucegi Mountains took my mind, body and soul to very dark places, where I had never been before. The first climb of almost 22km and from 1.000m to 2.400m ripped all apart. I was devastated when reaching the peak. Truly. But towards the peak I did notice, that all of the other riders were also practicing the good ol’ looking-at-the-stem exercise – you know, the one, when you’re really under hard pressure!
You know what they about hard points in your life – that it’s all in your mind, right? To me on that day on that spot my mind was empty. It was all out. Nothing to go with. Nothing to help. Walking the last km to the peak in minus degrees with zero visibility and with the loss of sensing in four fingertips, I was ready to give up. Yes, you read it right. Mr. Dudek, who never ever at any point give up, was there. At that spot. Ready to toss the towel. Seeing a rider in a 4-wheel driven buggy being transported down from the summit in his silver-keepwarm-survival-carpet confirmed to me, that this was 100% rugged. 100% epic. This was one for the memories. One for the great stories told later in life in great company.
Don’t judge me, but just writing the following words make the eyes a tad wet – for what happened next.. well, to be honest, those supporters at the summit were nothing but amazing.
The yelling. Smiles. Cheering. All of that together was like one huge hand pushing me through. Getting me through that huge dark spot spreading all over the Bucegi Mountains that day.
And in some way I managed to gain speed and belief, that it could happen. That I would actually reach the finish line at some point later that day. The same evening I met the same girls at the hotel, and while greeting and passing by, I thought to myself, that they didn’t even realise, what kind of darkness, they had helped me overcome earlier that day!
At the peak there was a long so-called flat (no way that was flat!) section, and at some point I reached some low but rough bushes, where the very narrow path made it impossible to ride. I wasn’t really aware of, how long that bush section was, so I lifted my bike over my head, and started walking. 200m further into that section I realised, that this would be a very long walk. I gave in and put the bike back on track, and then tried to just force it through the bushes not caring about the equipment. I’m not sure exactly how long that bush section was, but it felt like on the wrong side of 1km! The combo of no visibility, stormy weather and very low temps did not make it feel shorter, to be honest.
Anyway, at some point the bushes stopped and turned into a steep and rocky decent. To me at that point it was still too much and too hard, so there was quite a bit of walking going on in the beginning, but a bit further down it seemed more human. More ridable. That combined with the temperatures rising just 2-3 degrees, so we came above zero degrees, was a game changer to the mood.
Heading down those rocky single tracks suddenly made me enjoy riding again. My style was not beautiful as my body was still under-performing, but I managed to make those forced curly turns, that make you wanna smile. It was not a huge smile, but it was a smile. And it was needed to keep motivation. And the fact, that the next 24km was only about getting down, where it was even warmer and more pleasent, was a huge deal to me at that point.
Meeting yet another check point with even more happier supporters asking to my well being with me replying and lying over my ass, that “I had never felt better”, was amazing.
I took my time at the checkpoints, as my finish time wasn’t really a factor anymore, so enjoying the huge variety of nutritional offers, while the supporters cleaned my chain as well as my bottle, felt like a luxury, that only professional riders were entitled to.
When reaching that extremely steep downhill section before the village of Cheia a smile started growing. I knew, that from that point it was only about asphalt. Sure, one 5-6km climb, but one doable, nice and black asphalt. When reaching the finishline later that day I met Linda.. and she already knew by the looks of my face, that this one had been epic to my mind. Epic to my soul. I said, well.. almost whispered to her, that this was it. I would for sure not do the next day. I would not be at the start line for the next stage!
Linda – being just her and knowing me by heart – talked me into preparing both bike and other equipment before heading to bed. Just in case I’d change my mind. Wise pushing of the wifey :)
Stage 2 – River Rolling
I DID actually feel better in the morning, so with a “thanks a million” to wifey I settled for a solid breakfast, while the upcoming 54km and 2.400m of climbing was rumbling in the mind. That didn’t sound too bad. But with Queens Stage and body situation in mind, it was for sure more than enough.
However, the good part this day was, that there was no transport to the start area, as both start and finish was at the race village. That made preparations much easier with breakfast, a small relax at hotel room and then preps of clothes and equipment.
But you all know, that sometimes – no matter how great you prepare – something just wanna go wrong, so when I was more or less ready to get out for warmup, I grabbed the GPS on the desk (carrying a GPS is mandatory at Carpathian), and even though it had been charging all night, the battery was only 37% full. 37% could be enough for a short 2 hour ride at home, but here in the EPIC Romania I wasn’t really sure. That created that almost-last-minute-panic, that I truly hate.
I made a fast decision, let the GPS at the charger, and told Linda to bring it 10 mins before the start. That would give it additional 20 mins to charge. But after the first 5 mins of warmup I came to realise, that the organisers by all good means would call in all riders 20 mins before the start to take their positions at start boxes. Off the bike again, running up the stairs at the hotel, grabbing the GPS and a fast kiss for wifey, and then out again on the bike heading directly to the start boxes without a decent warmup. Preps could have been better – indeed they could :)
In most cases I wouldn’t enjoy those 20 mins – I mean, standing still that long before race start is really not a great thing for the body, but to be honest – it made me relax. All riders were in great mood, so there was a semi-nervous chit-chatting going on, which nonetheless removed focus from what was about to happen. That said – 2 mins before start all music in the big loudspeakers at the start were silenced, and a nerve-wrecking and loud heartbeat sound started to cover the area. I mean – on purpose the organisers put that sound out.. and tension rose.
Anyway, long story short: The gun went off, and the Top 20 riders were out of sight within seconds :D
I had the day before in mind, so without a question I lowered speed a bit and settled into a decent pace trying to follow.. myself. That wouldn’t last long, as I felt like I was missing out on the great spots 10-15 positions ahead, so I pushed harder as I needed to know, what I could do. I came to ride with 6-7 other riders – 3 of them being the fastest PRO women – and pace went up. It felt really good, and we started catching riders in front of us – one by one.
The first stage presented a neverending +20km climb, but this second stage was different. It was up. It was down. It was in. It was out. Wide farm dirt roads with lots of options to gain speed and keep it over the smaller climbs. The pace still made it tough, but in some way I settled in and found a quite fast pace. I found myself at the frontpart of the amateurs and suddenly started enjoyed riding. A humble smile appeared on my face. Grateful to be back.
The previous days were all forgotten (do NOT ask how!), and the word “epic” suddenly had a good meaning. I started to notice the surroundings and was amazed. High mountains all over with narrow paths in between. The combination of the endorphines tapdancing my brain, and then the Romanian beauty surrounding me made all the good reasons for biking coming back. I was on a roll. So when surface changed from hardpacked soil to rocky and technical paths, I was truly enjoying it all. I felt alive and went through flawless.. till a certain point!
At 40km when ascent changed to descent, I tapped the remote, and my Magura post dropped me down to a safe height. I flew through, and at some point there was like a corridor, where two supporters stood like a gate warning the riders to keep speed low due to a very technical descent. I always trust authorities, and lowered speed to a safe point.. but only 15m down the descent my front wheel came in between two rocks and got locked – crashing was inevitably.
Sometimes when crashing, you already know how bad it is going to be even before hitting ground. I knew as well.
But the cracking sound from the right knee when hitting the rocks hard was a kind reminder. I wanted to get up fast but.. the knee wouldn’t flex properly. I tried, but had to stay down for 5 mins. The supporters came running, but there was nothing they could do. I gritted my teeth and got back on the bike trying to roll down the first 50m hoping the pain would disappear or at least just a bit of it. It wouldn’t. Riders came from behind passing me fast with worried looks in the eyes. But then I remembered some old mental exercises about pain gate, and made it work somehow blocking the peak of the pains. I started to gain a decent speed again. I started to move forward.
I remembered from the briefing the evening before, that “some river crossings” were mentioned. I couldn’t remember the details, but I just came to a point accepting, what the track gave me. So when reaching the river shore and it got too deep to ride, I simply jumped in and fast-walked through. But as the tough ascents the day before, those crossings were also endless. I would have expected 2-3 crossings and maybe 100-200m in the river, but without checking facts, it felt more like 10-12 crossings and several km in the river.
Up and out of the river, and the inner GPS could sense the approach of the final. Not a lot further and the beautiful view of the race village came out of the mist. It was more than welcomed, and with the final in sight, the pain gate trick stopped working like hitting a bricked wall. The last km seemed like forever, and reaching the finish line felt like coming to the surface after half an hour under water. I was devastated.
A few minutes after finishing, I was chewing the first (Roo)Bars, while the bike was at the free Bosch wash, and after picking up the bike, I went for a shower – and to make some damage control. Only a bit swelling, but pain was saying something different. I decided to go to the doctors, but I came a bit too late, as they had left 15 mins earlier. So with my experience in taping in mind, I went to the physiotherapists. Amazing actually, that such a race includes all of this! At the spot, however, I had to wait 15 mins, as a lot of riders had appointments for massage, but eventually I was up, and they decided for taping as I had hoped for
Dinner, briefing for next day and.. early in bed :)
Stage 3 – Are we there yet?
Admitted, there were warnings about the peaks and descents for Stage 3. We had been told. But for some reason I decided not to listen that much. Not that I didn’t believe them – sure I did. But I had come to realise, that not only the mentioned parts during the entire race were EPIC – no, all of them were EPIC. All of it was to be taken serious.
With that in mind the Stage 3 was kicked off, and the first 10km were very speedy and very little hilly. But that was soon to change. I’m not very fond of pushing my bike, but I’m even less fond of TRYING but not being able to push my bike. But when incline passed 45% and got very closed to 50%, then all was lost. When then a supporter on a crosser failed to climb the hills, then you know it’s serious. Then you know it’s Romania. That it’s rugged and far beyond epic!
Anyway, climbing those first hills made me realise, that there is actually one thing worse than pushing your bike up an more than steep hill – and that is reaching the peak just to see, that it’s so darn steep, that you have to push it down as well :)
Passing the last high peak after 25km of ride relief came: Downhill for 15km but not only download – no, RIDEABLE 15km. And not only this – no, really enjoyable, curvy, narrow, packed forest singletrack with jumps and A- and B-lines made childhood comeback. For some reason all tension gathered during the past days went away. It felt like 5 billion endorphines went into the brain simultaneously and exploded in a big cascade of fireworks.
I was flying down those trails. I was catching riders. I was overtaking at impossible places, and all fears were.. well, there were no fears!
The dropper post went up and down like.. well, like something, and I felt happy and alive. And some point I reached two other riders, and while they went on the less steep B-line, I went straight into the very steep A-line like a rocket with only destination in mind. And.. to be honest I truly hope, that I can find that courage at other races one day. I was.. on fire! :D
With a little less than 10k to the finished we reached a very steep section which was also a part of the final at the 1st stage. At that point we were 3 riders together. Together with one of them, I took off on the steep section and we reached the bottom and with this the asphalt at the same time, and started the last climb of 6km on asphalt together.
Without words spoken we agreed to cooperate to see, if we could catch other riders and.. we succeeded. We caught one.. and one more.. and one more. I guess at that point we both were so eager to get to the finish line, that all pains, worries and demotivations went away. My partner in crime reached the finish line seconds before me, but at that point it didn’t matter anymore. Due to the combo of sickness and then a really tough set of stages, this event became more about getting through and trying to enjoy the moments, than it was about winning. And I was happy and grateful, that it all ended with my enjoying it all and finishing with a big smile and great emotions!
I have to say, that before heading to Romania, expectations were high. Very. But within the first few hours at the Race Village I came to realise, that here was something extraordinary. Here was something, where organisers wanted to stand out and make a statement about how a true professional race has to be done.
If they succeeded? Oh yeah – indeed they did. I’ve never experienced such professionalism. And one of the biggest differences from many other races were, that at Carpathian MTB Epic they treated all riders the same – from the hobby rider to the professional sponsored rider. Amazing to be a part of this.
Considering going yourself? Well, I can’t make that decision, but you should really go, if you want to challenge yourself big time while riding through amazing landscapes and at the same time be treated like a professional.