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%.

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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.

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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.