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The Alps vs the Carpathians

The Alps vs the Carpathians

The Alps vs the Carpathians

Mountains are a cyclist’s playground, a place to test the limits of both their physical and mental capabilities. None of us really know why we search far and wide for the most grueling climbs, all we know is that there’s some kind of weird, masochistic joy to be gained from pushing our bodies to the absolute extremes.

There’s no place better to do just that than in the Alps or Carpathian mountain ranges, two idyllic playgrounds separated by the Danube River and centuries of social, cultural and political evolution. Cycling in eastern Europe and the Carpathian mountain range has always been the less popular of the two, however, with some of the longest and most beautiful climbs, the cheapest travel options and the most diverse collection of cultures in Europe, it comes as no surprise to learn that more and more of us are now choosing to head east.

From the climbs and mountains that pockmark the regions to the food that fuels their peoples, here’s how the Carpathians stack up against the Alps…

Highest mountain pass

The Alps

Peaking at just over 2,800 m, the Ötztal Glacier Road in Austria takes the crown of the highest paved road in the Alps, as well as the second highest in the whole of Europe.

The climb is a one-way up access road from the town of Solden below to the Rettenbach glacier, a popular spot for skiers. It’s a grueling ascent, not necessarily for its length (10.2 km) or average gradient (11%), but for its altitude – the oxygen is so thin here that many riders struggle even to make it to the summit.

The climb has featured as the finale on two recent editions of the Tour de Suisse where it took word-class climbers like Warren Barguil, Laurens Ten Dam and Robert Gesink over 40 minutes to complete.

The Carpathians

While the highest climb in the Carpathians may be dwarfed by the Ötztal Glacier Road, it’s certainly no less tough. The Transalpina Highway is an exquisitely paved mountain road located in the Southern Carpathians, making it the perfect feature climb for cycling tours in Romania.

The one and only Transfagarasan climb in Romania.

The one and only Transfagarasan climb in Romania.

The Transalpina, or Urdele Pass, dominates the area’s skyline, peaking at an impressive 2,145 m. The climb snakes its way up the mountainside for 25.5 km, an excruciating distance once you learn that the average gradient is 6% with pitches as steep as 20%.

The fastest riders complete the climb in just over 80 minutes, but for mere mortals, anything close to the two hour mark is respectable.

Longest climb

The Alps

There are several climbs in and around the Alps that claim to climb for 60 km+, but upon closer inspection of their profiles and continuous uphill gradients they’re a whole lot shorter. The climb that often takes the top spot as the longest in the Alps is the Col de l’Iseran, a climb that tops out at the dizzying height of 2,764 m.

The road climbs for 22 km from the small town of Bessans where it gradually ramps up from 3-4% for the first few kilometres to a killer 10% average gradient for the final 12 km. It’s often used as the ultimate test of strength on the Tour de France and regularly features as the highest point on the entire route.

The Carpathians

The Transfagarasan Highway has been described by both cyclists and motorists alike as the most beautiful road in the whole of Europe. Gradually rising at a 5.2% average gradient, the climb snakes it way up the northern face of the mountain for 30 km, taking in countless hairpin bends and crossing numerous bridges along the way.

Transfagarasan again. The South Side.

Transfagarasan again. The South Side.

Its impressive length makes it one of the toughest climbs in the Carpathians and the focal feature of the Transfagarasan Epic, one of the best two-wheeled Balkan holidays that we offer.

Taking just over two hours to complete, those that ride the Transfagarasan Highway are treated to a long and stunning display of mountain vistas completely devoid of any other humans. For those who enjoy the simple solitude of riding, this is the perfect place to visit.

Landscape

The Alps

Separated geographically by only the Danube River, the Alps and Carpathians actually share a very similar looking landscape. However, with higher peaks in the Alps, you’re much more likely to encounter snow and frozen mountain tops.

The Alps. Yes, they are amazing.

The Alps. Yes, they are amazing.

The Alps are also littered with ski resorts which can often blight the otherwise beautiful mountainous landscapes. To see the most stunning landscapes in the Alps, you’ll have to head deep into the centre, braving the isolation and distance from civilization.

The Carpathians

With fewer cloud-crested peaks, the Carpathians see a lot less snow, making for a much greener rolling landscape. A lot of the southern Carpathians in Romania are blanketed with dense pine forests which are home to native wildlife likes wolves and European brown bears.

The Carpathians. Not too bad ;)

The Carpathians. Not too bad ;)

There are also far fewer tourists in this neck of the woods, the only evidence of civilization being the roads that you’re cycling on. This makes for some of the most stunning and uninterrupted natural vistas in the whole of Europe, the best of which can be seen from Bâlea Lake at the top of the Transfagarasan , or from the peak of the Transalpina , Romania’s highest paved road.

Affordability

The Alps

Whether you’re on a tight budget or looking to splash the cash, there’s a lot of choice when it comes to cycling in the Alps. From budget B&Bs to fancy 5* ski resort hotels, it’s up to you how you choose to spend your hard earned cash.

What is a little hard, however, is finding cheap flights to the main Alpine airports like Geneva, Grenoble or Turin. You’ve also got to consider that it may be even more expensive during peak seasons like winter and summer – not that you’d really want to cycle the high Alps during the deep dark depths of winter.

As cycling in the Alps is extremely popular, the prices of package holidays and cycle tours can often be hiked up to astronomical levels, preventing anyone operating on a smaller budget from joining in. It gets to a point where your options are planning your own independent tour or looking towards the east where prices are a lot more favorable to the budget conscious traveler.

The Carpathians

Travelling to and from airports in the Balkans and around the Carpathian mountain range is extremely affordable. Flights to Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania are incredibly cheap, particularly during the off-seasons around early spring time and the end of summer.

Ah, the green landscapes of the lower Carpathians.

Ah, the green landscapes of the lower Carpathians.

Travelling around the Carpathians is also remarkably inexpensive, with inter-city train fares costing an average of just £4 – ideal for those looking to ferry their bike from one city to the next. Accommodation is just as cheap, with a night in a private room, delicious sit-down meal included, available for as little as £20, even in the more popular places.

Organised cycle tours in this area of Europe are also a little cheaper than those in the western Alps. In all, a cycle tour in the Balkans and across the Carpathians is the perfect choice for those cycle tourists who appreciate a good bargain – in other words, all of us!

Food and drink

The Alps

An abundance of cloud-topped cols isn’t the only reason the Alps are considered a haven among cyclists. As much as we enjoy battering our bodies up vicious climbs, nothing can quite beat the euphoric feeling of re-filling the tank post ride with copious amounts of savory and sugary treats.

Nestled deep in the Alps are countless tiny communes, each with their own unique palette for food and drink. High up in the mountains, these people rely on rich, creamy dishes such as raclette and tartiflette to warm their bones, and calorific blueberry tarts to fuel their bodies.

Wine, of all colors and varieties, is extremely popular in the Alps but perhaps the most popular drink among the locals is Le Genepi, a traditional herbal liqueur made from a common plant that grows all over the Alpine peaks.

The Carpathians

Simple, hearty and delicious are just three words to describe Carpathian cuisine. Like in the Alps, palettes change across the towns and villages that litter the mountain range, offering a diverse range of food and drink to sample as you tour the region.

Home smoked meats such as beef, pork and fish, are extremely popular, as are hearty potato and mushroom stews that warm you right to the core after a long, cold day in the saddle.

Beer is a firm Carpathian favorite and if you’re lucky, you may just happen across a town with its own unique brewery, offering beers that you can’t taste anywhere else in the world. One of the most popular post-ride beverages is a traditional fruit brandy called Pálinka, a drink that is guaranteed to put hairs on your chest.

Beer is probably the favorite recovery drink after a long and hot day of cycling.

Beer is probably the favorite recovery drink after a long and hot day of cycling.

As you can see, it’s not just the Alps that boast the best landscapes and cultural experiences for a once-in-a-lifetime cycle tour – it’s about time we started to look to the east and the Carpathian mountain range for our two-wheeled holidays. Click here to learn more about our cycling tours and where we operate, and be sure to check out our inspiration page for ideas on where to head next
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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.