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Is this climb better than the Stelvio?

Is this climb better than the Stelvio?

Is the Transfagarasan Highway better than the Stelvio?

Transfagarasan Pass. © Martin Cycling Adventures

Transfagarasan Pass. © Martin Cycling Adventures

We’ve all heard of the legendary Passo Dello Stelvio, the crown jewel of the Giro d’Italia and a popular pilgrimage location for cyclists the world over. But what if we were to tell you that there’s a tougher and even more beautiful uphill stretch of road nestled in the Romanian Carpathians – the Transfagarasan Highway.

Head to head, peak to peak

We climb up mountains for a number of different reasons, but if there’s one thing that unites all cyclists, then it’s the overwhelming sense of satisfaction as we reach the summit. To get there however, one needs to gauge their effort and know a little about the road that lies ahead.

For beasts like the Stelvio Pass and Transfagarasan Highway it’s all well and good to know what’s coming, the steepest inclines, diciest hairpins and places to rest, but soon enough you’ll have to abandon all knowledge and channel the last scraps of energy into just moving the bike forward.

Knowing exactly what lies ahead on mountains like these, or cycling in the Alps, Pyrenees or Carpathians in general, is a double-edged sword, sewing seeds of doubt before you’ve even reached the foot of the climb. However, failing to prepare for such a climb will only leave you in a much worse predicament – gasping for air, stranded on the side of a mountain and at the mercy of Mother Nature.

To prepare for such colossuses, we need to be aware of the cold, hard stats of the mountain. Both the Stelvio and Transfagarasan share a similar looking list of numbers, but when it comes down to the cycling experience, they couldn’t be more different.

Stelvio Pass. Photo by  jean wimmerlin  on  Unsplash

Stelvio Pass. Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

Starting with the Stelvio’s most popular ascent, the 24.3 km climb from Prato allo Stelvio, the road soon settles into a constant, but wholly unforgiving gradient of 7.4%. The gradients are abated by the 48 hairpins that snake their way up the mountain, but they very rarely drop below 7%, making for one incredibly tough climb. The final kilometer is the toughest, not only does it peak out at a lung-busting 2758 m, but it’s also the steepest section of the entire climb with ramps reaching a leg-breaking 9.5%.

Passo-dello-Stelvio-Prato_profile.jpg

The Stelvio can also be climbed from the Bormio side, a less scenic but arguably tougher route – the final 3 km ramp up to a cruel 11% average. The Passo Umbrail, on the Swiss side, is yet another route to the summit and climbs for just 16 km, starting at a higher elevation than the other two approaches.

All three converge at the same snow swept peak, the views from which are some of the most iconic in cycling. Looking back, you’ll see the thin sliver of asphalt that paved your way to the summit, paling in comparison to the huge valley flanks that surround it. Alongside the Alpe d’Huez, the Col du Galibier and the Col de l’Iseran, the Stelvio Pass is one of the kingpins in an Alps tour by bike.

Like the Stelvio, the Transfagarasan also snakes its way up the side of a huge mountain via a collection of numerous hairpins. The length of its southern ascent is also similar at 25 km, but once you look at the 29.4 km-long northern side, climbing from Cârtisoara, you’ll soon understand why the Transfagarasan is in its own truly monstrous league.

The northern side of the Transfagarasan, while incredibly long, manages to stick to a relatively consistent average gradient of 5.2%. It’s not the kind of gradient that will shatter your legs and force you to get off and push, but it will slowly eat away at you, leaving you totally exhausted by the summit.

Transfagarasan-south-climb_profile.jpg

Climbing the southern side is the more popular choice, thanks to the shallower gradient of 4.7% average and the arguably more beautiful scenery. Starting from Lac Vidraru, the site of one of the largest hydroelectric plants in Europe, the road starts to snake its way up the mountainside, offering stunning views of the lake behind. You’ll pass through tunnels, cross bridges and scramble up even more hairpins as you forge on towards the summit. All the while, incredible sights of man-made engineering and natural scenery will catch your eye at every opportunity.

The summit of the Transfagarasan is marked by Balea Lac, a vast glacial lake some 2034 m above sea level. Its shores are lined by two rustic chalet complexes which offer a warm welcome to the weary traveler.

History makers

Both the Stelvio and Transfagarasan have their own tales to tell and while one may be steeped in richer cycling history, the other is quickly garnering the attention of some of the world’s top endurance athletes.

The Stelvio Pass was first used in the Giro d’Italia back in 1953, 17 years before the Transfagarasan was even built. In that year it saw perhaps one of its most memorable moments in cycling history: Fausto Coppi cresting the summit solo before barreling down to Bormio to take both the stage win and an unassailable lead in the general classification.

As the second highest mountain pass in the whole of Europe, the Stelvio often features as the Giro’s Cima Coppi prize, an award for the first rider over the highest mountain on the route. This prize has been a rite of passage for many legendary cyclists before they later went on to win the race overall – Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Laurent Fignon and Marco Pantani to name just four.

The Transfagarasan hasn’t seen such legends traverse its sinuous ramps; in fact, the climb is nestled next-door to a region known more for its vampires than its cyclists. That hasn’t stopped it from carving its own niche in the cycling community over its short 44-year history, however.

After the road was completed in 1974 as part of a strategic military project to connect the north and south of the county over the Făgăraș Mountains, the climb quickly caught the attention of cyclists and motorists alike. Having once been a road only of myth and legend, lurking on the other side of Europe to popular climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees, the highway is now a hotspot for both adventurous cycle tourists and ultra-endurance athletes looking to test the limits of their bodies.

It earned the prestigious title of ‘best road in the world for driving’ from Top Gear back in 2009 and just eight years later it featured on the epic Transcontinental Race, showing just how good it was for cycling, as well as driving.

It may not have the pedigree of the Stelvio cycling-wise, but the Transfagarasan is slowly but surely making its own history. Who knows, in 30-years’ time it may just be the featured climb of a new, Eastern Europe-based Grand Tour…

Balea Lake, Transfagarasan. © Martin Cycling Adventures

Balea Lake, Transfagarasan. © Martin Cycling Adventures

Our verdict

You could say we’re a little biased, after all, the Transfagarasan Highway is quite literally our local cycling playground. But if you’re a cyclist on the lookout for a new kind of adventure, one that tours the lands beyond western Europe and the all too familiar Alps, then a boutique cycling tour in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is perfect for you.

Cycling is all about adventure and discovery and mountains like the Stelvio, Galibier, Alpe d’Huez, Tourmalet and Ventoux have all been done to death, either by yourself or your cycling heroes on TV.

It’s time to tread new ground, follow the road less traveled and add the Transfagarasan Highway to your cycling bucket list. We’ve prepared quite the tour for you featuring the Transfagarasan Highway as its star: the Transfagarasan Epic.

To learn more about our cycling tours and where we operate, click here. If you’re in need of some inspiration for your next cycling tour, then click here.

Transfagarasan vs. Transalpina. What's the best road for cycling in Transylvania, Romania?

Transfagarasan vs. Transalpina. What's the best road for cycling in Transylvania, Romania?

By now, everybody knows that Romania has at least one famous road, namely the Transfagarasan Highway. Featured on Top Gear as "the best road in the world for driving", this road has had its share of the spotlight and it keeps attracting aspiring drivers as well as sporting enthusiasts from all over the world.

Perhaps not that well known is the fact that only 100 km away to the West, lies the Transalpina Highway or "The Kings Road", as the locals call it. It's said that its history goes back thousands of years to the time of the Roman Empire. 

I decided to put these two European landmark roads head to head and see which one takes away the prize for the most spectacular road for cycling.

TRANSFAGARASAN HIGHWAY

The final km of the Transfagarasan.

The Transfăgărășan (trans [over, across] + Făgăraș) also known as Ceaușescu's Folly, is a paved mountain road crossing the southern section of the Carpathian Mountains. It’s the second-highest paved road (2.042 m) in the country after the Transalpina. It stretches 90 kilometers (56 mi) between the highest peaks in the country, Moldoveanu and Negoiu. The road, built in the early 1970s as a strategic military route, connects the historic regions of Transylvania and Wallachia. It has 833 bridges, 28 aqueducts and 5 tunnels, the longest one being 880 meters long.

Transfagarasan is the more popular road of the two. The small distance from Sibiu and Brasos makes it easy for tourist to hop in their cars and arrive at the base of the Transfagarasan in less than one hour. The road is also included in national and international cycling races such as Sibiu Cycling Tour, Transfier Triathlon and (big news!)...Transcontinental Race in 2017.

The elevation profile of the road is pretty straightforward. When you're riding in from the N, you have 30 km of climbing to the top of the Transfagarasan, Balea Lake. It's mostly all downhill from there, around 60 km, with the exception of the occasionally rolling hills.

The road is open every year between 1st July - 30th Octomber.

cycling tours in romania

Transfagarasan Cycling Tour

 

TRANSALPINA ROAD

The Transalpina Highway

The Transalpina is a paved mountain road located in the Parâng Mountains group, in the Southern Carpathians of Romania. It's one of the highest roads of the Carpathian Mountains and the highest road in Romania. The road was built under the rule of King Carol II and rebuilt during World War II by German troops. It is called "The King's Road" by the locals because King Carol II and his family opened the road back in the 1930's. Also a story has it that Nicolae Ceauşescu had the Transfăgărăşan Road built during the communist regime just to surpass the Transalpina.

The road has its highest point at the Urdele Pass, where the elevation is 2,145 m above sea level. Given the high altitude, the road is closed during the cold months of the year. Works began in 2007 in order to transform this spectacular road into a modern highway (148 km), allowing a rapid transit between Oltenia and Transylvania.

The elevation profile of the Transalpina and it's length (+60 km when compared to the Tfg.) make this road a more demanding one for cycling. At the end of the day, you'll feel your legs a lot heavier than after cycling the Tfg. When you start riding from the S, you have 30 km to get to the top. After a couple of km of descending, you start a brutal climb that sucks the rest of the energy out of your legs. Wait, there's more. After a nice and peaceful descent, you still have 6 km of climbing and 10 km of flat roads, until you get to the final, long descent. Yeah, it's quite demanding!

HEAD TO HEAD

Before we drill into the results let me first tell you what are the criteria I selected to analyze these two epic roads. Landscapes - it's all about the glorious views that you'll remember; the higher the score, the better the views are. Car traffic - the higher the score, the less cars there are on a regular day. Road Quality - the quality of the tarmac, if it's new tarmac, if there are pot holes, etc.; the higher the score, the better the road quality. Accessibility - how easy is it to get to the base of the road, how close is it to large cities; the higher the score, the more accessible the road is. Extras - how easy it is to find decent food, drinks or accommodation while on the road; the higher the score, the more decent options there are. The maximum score for each category is 5.


Landscapes

TFG: 4

TA: 5

Car Traffic

TFG: 3

TA: 4

Road Quality

TFG: 3

TA: 4

Accessibility

TFG: 5

TA: 4

Extras

TFG: 4

TA: 3

OVERALL

TFG 19/25

TA 20/25


There you have it. The score is tight, favoring the Transalpina slightly. I know I'm a bit subjective and I have to admit that I kind of wanted Transalpina to win. The road quality is better, the road is longer by more than 60 km and the elevation profile makes this road a lot more demanding. All of this, make it my favorite cycling road in Romania.

You can read about the other epic road cycling roads in Romania and, if you can't decide what road to cycle on, you don't have to. Join our Transfagarasan Epic Cycling tour to ride them all.