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
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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