Since the Top Gear-team suggested that the Transfăgărășan road might be the world’s best driving road, the Romanian pass has become immensely popular with motorcyclists from all over the globe. But does the Transfăgărășan live up to its reputation? We hopped on the Honda XL 750 Transalp, equipped with a set of Bridgestone AT41’s, and rode all the way to Romania to find out.
The Transfăgărășan Road, a serpentine highway that winds its way through the awe-inspiring Carpathian Mountains, was the ultimate challenge for the diversity of the Transalp and the Bridgestone AT41’s. Depending on which side of the 100 km long trail you choose as a starting point, the fascinating city of Sibiu is either the start or the end of a great adventure. Whatever you do, if you run in to a bunch of cars and bikes, you know you started too late. The early bird may catch the worm, but the early biker enjoys traffic free roads. Leaving at 6 in the morning is a good idea if you want to enjoy the legendary road to the fullest.
A bit of history
The Transfăgărășan was constructed between 1970 and 1974 during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu as a response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Ceaușescu wanted to ensure quick military access across the mountains in case of a Soviet invasion. It was built mainly by military forces and the road had a high financial and human cost. Work was carried out in an alpine climate, at an elevation of 2,000 meters, using roughly six million kilograms of dynamite, and employing junior military personnel who were untrained in blasting techniques. Many workers died; official records state that 40 soldiers lost their lives, but unofficial estimates by workers put the number in the hundreds…
The road was officially opened on 20 September 1974. And it closes every year. Between October and April snow and extreme weather prevents you from crossing the Făgărăș mountains.
The bear necessities
The Transfăgărășan Road is a masterpiece of engineering and snakes its way through dense forests and past crystal-clear streams. The dense canopy of trees creates an ever-changing mosaic of light and shadow. As we left (very) early, the road, marked as C7, was empty, and the sense of isolation and freedom was overwhelming. A rare reminder of the raw beauty that nature offers when left untouched. And that not only goes for plants and trees, but also for animals.
The sleeping dogs along the road are countless, but what really amazes, is the number of bears you run into – well, so to speak. The big – and as far as we know – friendly animals are used to seeing tourists and they show up almost everywhere in the forest. Food is their major motivation. But, because you are less protected on a motorcycle than in a car, it’s best to keep your distance and to always remain careful. But nevertheless, it’s an impressive thing to do: stop on side of the road, open your visor and stare a big brown bear right in the eyes…
Leaving from the Curtea De Arges side, you cross about 30 km of forest and then bump into the great Vidraru dam. Here everybody attempts to capture the magnitude on a smartphone photo. But that is next to impossible, because the dam is huge: 165 meters high and 305 meters long. On the right-hand side is an enormous drop, on the left is lake Vidraru. During the day it gets quite busy, but as we left this early, there were only a few cars and one motorcycle: the Transalp!
After the dam, there is quite a bit of winding forest road left, until quite suddenly… you get to the tree line. Then the scenery changes and so does the road. You arrive at the most winding part of the Transfăgărășan. The views are breathtaking, and the asphalt is…average. This doesn’t look nor feel like a fresh circuit surface or a new road. This part of the Transfăgărășan is rough and there are some holes in it. This is the kind of challenging surface the Bridgestone AT41 loves and the grip and feedback these tyres provide, offer us the confidence to attack every corner. Late braking, nice angles, good acceleration. The guy on the KTM never knew what blew by him!
As you approach the Nogiu summit at just over 2000 meters altitude, you ride through the Balea tunnel. It’s a long tunnel, the longest in Romania even, but on the other side of it, there is more beauty and an even more impressive scenery. Lake Balea is a tourist magnet, but as it’s still early the place is almost deserted.
In the afternoon, on the way back, we’ll notice first-hand how busy it can get on the top of the mountain. But at 8 in the morning, it’s still quite calm. Calm enough to take 15 minutes to see the impressive lake that pushes its water out to the southside. We’ll pass along the waterfalls this lake creates a few minutes later. But before that, we witnessed how the lake’s sapphire waters sparkled in the crisp mountain air. We stopped and took a moment to soak in the serenity of the place. It was a moment of Zen, a moment to appreciate the raw power and rugged beauty of nature.
But enough Zen, the northern part of the Transfăgărășan was waiting. It’s safe to say that the descent of the mountain – or the climb of the last part, depending on where you start – is the most spectacular. One impressive corner follows another and from the top you have an overview of what’s waiting in the next kilometers. And yes, we had quite some time to admire the waterfall as we got stopped by a herd of sheep just in front of it. Did we mention bears and dogs? Well, there are sheep too.
After that unexpected stop, we continued the descent, with a growing stream of cars and motorcycles heading in our direction – up the mountain that is. It was a good thing we left early, because we hardly had any traffic, and had the chance to fully admire the beauty of the Carpathian road and nature. But most of all we enjoyed riding. This road is breathtaking from start to finish. Even though there is a speed limit of 40 km/hr in most parts. Of course, we respected that!
So, is this a great motorcycle road? Yes, because it has all the right ingredients: a string of great corners, draped over a mountain. Scintillating views as you ascend or descend. And a nice, remote location. Not sure if it’s the greatest road in the world, but it’s the best one we have ever ridden. Too bad that you must leave quite early to fully enjoy it. Anything between 10 AM and 5 PM is very busy. The lesson here? If you find a nice road, don’t tell too many people about it. And of course: do not promote it on Bridgestone’s Gripping Stories. Ooopss…