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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%.


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.


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.

The Best Alternative Cycling Destinations In Europe

The Best Alternative Cycling Destinations In Europe

Europe is home to some of the most challenging and beautiful cycling in the world. The French climbs of Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, the Italian giants of the Stelvio and Passo di Gavia and the Hellingen of Flanders attract huge crowds year after year, drawn by the desire to test their mettle on the same hallowed ground ridden by their heroes. But what if you want something a little different? The same challenges, the same majestic mountains and dramatic scenery, but without the crowds.

Why not pack your bags and head east, out of your comfort zone and right into the heart of Eastern Europe? From cloud-topped cols to sprawling forests and sapphire coasts, the east really does have it all.

Here are some of the best cycling destinations in Europe that you’ve probably never heard of. Grab a notepad and pen; it’s time to plan your next adventure…

Crossing the Carpathians: Romania

Transfagarasan Highway in Romania. Copyright Martin Cycling Adventures

The Carpathians arch their way through Central and Eastern Europe like a curved spine, providing stunning, mountainous scenery to rival that of both the Alps and Pyrenees. Forests sprawl through clandestine valleys as rocky peaks poke their heads above the dense canopies, providing the perfect backdrop for a pedal-powered adventure.

The Southern Carpathians are home to some of the largest swathes of forest in Europe, as well as dense populations of brown bears, wolves and lynxes. It is here that you’ll find some of Romania’s toughest, but truly rewarding stretches of road.

The Transfagarasan Epic is an aptly named seven-day voyage across some of the hardest climbs this side of Europe, with the Transfagarasan Highway (2,042m) and Urdele Pass (2,145m) both featuring on the route. The countless hairpin bends and heart thumping descents will evoke images of the Tour de France, but the complete isolation will soon reign your imagination in and remind you why we all started riding bicycles in the first place – for the simple thrill and freedom that a two-wheeled adventure brings.

The Transfagarasan King of the Mountain itinerary offers inspiration for a tamer, four-day adventure that teases rather than torments riders with its stunning climbs. The masochists are welcome to their seven-day epic, but for many of us the KOM tour is just perfect, striking the perfect balance between adventuring on two wheels and touring the local towns on foot. We can build you a bespoke tour around this itinerary, so be sure to reference it if this is the one that appeals to you.

Cycling Eastern Europe isn’t all about crushing cols and coming face to face with free-roaming wolves, our Transfagarasan cycling retreat itinerary offers the basis of a slightly different cycling experience. Based close to Sibiu in the region of Transylvania, you’ll meet vampire hunters in Brasov, tour the rolling hills around the valleys, sample delicious local food and sit back and relax in the hotel spa. Cycling holidays abroad don’t get much better than this.

An Alpine alternative: Slovenia

Cycling the Julian Alps, Slovenia. Copyright Martin Cycling Adventures

Nestled in the armpit of north eastern Italy and deep within the Julian Alps lies the relatively unknown cycling haven of Slovenia. Boasting the same idyllic mountain scenery as its western cousin, Slovenia offers an Alpine alternative devoid of tourists – an untarnished playground for you and your bicycle to explore.

The best way to tour this paradisiacal country is via the Julian Alps cycling tour, an experience that offers a unique take on Slovenia’s most epic roads and climbs. On this 4-day adventure, based around the alpine town of Kranska Gora, the Mangart Saddle (2,055m) and Vršič Mountain Pass (1,611m) lie in wait, as does the world-renowned paradise of Lake Bled, where restorative waters await to rejuvenate your body after a long day in the saddle.

You arrive and depart from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and a green city in motion. This is where city meets nature, a proud bastion of environmental awareness; it’s no wonder this city was awarded the European Green Capital of 2016. This is truly one of the best cycling vacations Europe has to offer.

Cruising the coast: Croatia

Cycling in Croatia. Copyright Tour of Croatia/KL-Photo

Not all of our adventures head for the skies, some head for the shorelines and beaches of Croatia. As experts in Balkan cycling experiences we can put together a bespoke, two-wheeled tour for those riders with a passion for sun, sea and sand.

Lying on the eastern Adriatic Coast, the scenery around coastal Croatia shines with a sapphire hue. Islands litter the horizon and act as fantastic way points for you to forge your own adventure, hugging the clifftop paths as you go.

Start with our Croatia Islands itinerary as motivation for your own adventure. The route explores both the mainland and islands of Croatia, snaking along the Dalmatian Coast as it passes through tiny, quaint villages and bustling, seaside towns. Both Dubrovnik and Makarska are explored on this seven-day tour, as well as the lesser known Pelješac Peninsula – an area that Lonely Planet describe as, “Croatia at its most relaxed.”

A tour on Croatia’s coast is no easy affair, however, and thanks to the rugged landscape you can expect to climb an average of 1,200m every day. It’s this up-and-down landscape that has attracted one of the most important cycling stage races in Central and Eastern Europe to these shores – the Tour of Croatia.

For an altogether sterner test, take a look at the Tour of Croatia route itself, an eight-day expedition that follows in the shadows of the world’s best professional cyclists. Ride the same route as the world’s best among some of the most spectacular scenery the country has to offer.

A snapshot in time: Prague to Budapest

Budapest. Photo by Keszthelyi Timi on Unsplash

This border-hopping ride starts in the Gothic city of Prague before heading east, freewheeling its way through four different countries as it heads towards the finish in Budapest. Time stands still along this route, with UNESCO World Heritage sites and historic relics blending into the surrounding eastern European architecture.

The Czech Republic soon hands you over to Austria and its capital, Vienna, where you’ll then follow the Danube River east, sampling the rich riverside treasures as you go. As you straddle the feet of the Austrian Alps, take a moment to drink in the views and let out a sigh of relief – you won’t be climbing any Alps on this trip.

The Danube continues to act as your compass as you leave Austria behind and pass through Bratislava, Slovakia, a capital city that sits on the border of three countries, combining the rich and unique cultures of each one. Hungary is soon reached and the finish in Budapest beckons, but not before you leave the comfort of the Danube behind and tackle the final hills that stand between you and the finish line.

This tour showcases the very best of Central Europe, taking you on an adventure that passes by ancient castles, former bastions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the famous wine-making region of Moravia. The melting pot of cultures in each city is sure to make this a cycling holiday that you’ll never forget.

Searching for solitude: Baltics

Perched in the north east corner of Europe are three criminally underrated cycling destinations boasting vast swathes of untouched landscape. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are ideal destinations for those riders averse to super steep climbs and long mountain passes, their flat, unspoiled marshlands providing the perfect playground for leisurely cycle tourists.

Starting from Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, and heading north to the Baltic Sea, you’ll soon swap the fairy-tale architecture of the city for the unbridled beauty of Mother Nature. This untouched haven is utterly devoid of humans, allowing you to revel in complete serenity and solitude.

Latvia’s capital, Riga, soon appears and throws you right back into civilization, plying you with delicious local dishes laden with dill and potatoes. From there the route continues north, following exquisitely tarmacked cycle paths along the Baltic’s most beautiful beaches and hummocky sand dunes.

Once again, you’re thrown back into the welcoming arms of Mother Nature, the sprawling beaches and Baltic sea on one side, and the vast, marshy plains on the other. You’ll pass through yet another national park, Gauja, before crossing the border into Estonia, the final country on your intrepid Baltic tour.

The route finishes in the castled city of Tallinn, Estonia’s cultural hub. The skyline here is dominated by steeples and spires, showing off the city’s stunning 13th-century architecture. It’s the perfect end to a perfect ride and easily one of the best cycling holidays Europe has to offer.

As you can see, it’s not just southern and western Europe that boast the best bike riding terrain – it’s about time we started to look east and see what the road less traveled has in store. To learn more about our cycling tours and where we operate, be sure to check out our inspiration page.

Why the hell should I visit Romania?

Why the hell should I visit Romania?

In case you're still asking yourself "Where is Romania?" or "Where is Transylvania?", perhaps you should read this article first: "Where is Transylvania"

Look, I know there are plenty of articles out there written by people that have already visited Romania in the past couple of years and have had an incredible, positive experience. Here are just a couple of them if you'd like to read them:

Things you didn't know about Romania by Travel Away

Here are some reasons to never ever visit Romania by Happy Traveler

9 reasons you should be afraid to visit Romania by Heart My Backpack

Lets not forget that we also have Lonely Planet recommending Transylvania (you know, that more famous region in Romania) as their 2016 region of choice. That's quite something, right?

Nevertheless, I'll still take my chance at bringing something new on this subject since people that come on our tours are more adventurous, cycling or trekking savvy and not that keen on cultural or historical aspects.

So, I'll mostly share my five reasons and one anti-reason for "Why the hell should you take a cycling or trekking holiday in Romania, in 2016?"

1. It's the nature, baby

View of the Piatra Craiului National Park in Transylvania, Romania

Most of the experiences above, mention the breathtaking nature as one of the main reasons for coming to Romania, and that's not without justification. We've been blessed with all types of land forms: the Black Sea, the Danube Delta, the Transylvanian Plateu and Hills and, of course, the Carpathian Mountains. So basically, in just 6 hours you could taking a bath in the Black Sea and then trek on top of Moldoveanu at more than 2.500 meters above sea level. This gives you plenty of options for exploration and practicing various sports on your holiday.

2. The Mountain Biking trails are awesome. And not crowded at all.

Mountain Biking trails in the high Bucegi Mountains

I actually believe that Romania is one of the least known high quality mountain biking destinations in Europe and quite possibly in the World. With a forest cover of roughly 30%, quite similar to Switzerland or Norway actually, there are endless single tracks options through the woods. Let's not forget the Alpine routes in the Carpathian Mountains. And as I mentioned at #1 you could practice MTB on all types of terrains: from the shores of the Black sea to the ridges of the Transylvanian Alps. Check out my more detailed article on the "Five of the the most beautiful off road cycling holidays areas in Romania".

3. The Road Cycling is intense

The Transfagarasan Road, Transylvania, Romania

Maybe you were actually thinking that the roads in Romania are bad, crowded and not suitable for road cycling. You wouldn't be that far from the truth. Actually I'm not encouraging you to tour Romania on a bike - although other people have done it and it's not that bad, it seems.

We have some epic climbs that are actually worth doing at least once in a lifetime. I'm mainly talking about the Transfagarasan and the Transalpina but also other nearby routes. One of our fellow cyclists and clients from Norway, has actually mentioned that climbing the Transfagarasan on a road bike was one of his childhood dreams. How about that for a new tagline: "Martin Adventures is making dreams come true". Check out my more detailed article on the "The five most difficult cycling climbs in Romania".

4. The accommodation is authentic

Inn on Balaban in Bran

I never thought that I'd put this on my list, but yes, I'm actually doing it. Most accommodations in Romania are bad and customer service sucks. I know. But, look, I'm not talking about the average places now. In the past couple of years some forward thinking B&B owners figured out they could just have decent service and that alone could take them ahead of the competition.

They managed to keep the local atmosphere and flavor, improved on the comfort level and the client service and there you have it. They are pretty successful now and others are following their lead. I can easily recommend ten great accommodations in Romania such as Inn on Balaban. You'll find them in the "The Adventure Travel e-Guide to Romania" you can opt to receive at the end of this post.

5. The community

Me with my friends and family

Me with my friends and family

Us Romanians have learned to believe that "we're a friendly and hospitable folk". This is more or less a myth. One guy, and by this I mean "a scientist", actually made a serious study on the subject and we didn't come out as friendly as other people in Europe. But here's something else that he found out. Things radically change when we're talking about small communities. Romanians tend to organize themselves in these small, trust based and niche communities.

What I'm saying is that, if you manage to make your way into these kind of niche communities, you'll be surprised by how much people are willing to give without asking anything in return. These means that, when you're planning your trip in Romania, adventurous or not, you should look for signs that the local provider (B&B, host, tour operator) has ties with the local community and they are willing to let you in.

6. (Not for) Dracula and Vampires

Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania

You won't find any vampires here in Transylvania and for that matter...not anywhere the world. You know why? They don't exist. Grow up! :) Really now, if your only reasons for visiting Romania are the vampire stories and the castle in Bran, you'll surely be disappointed. Of course, there will be plenty of people trying to make some profits out of this story but most Dracula tours, restaurants or birth places, etc. are just a waste of your time. Believe me. If you don't, read this very long article by Livescience on The Real Dracula.

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What do you think? Do you agree with my views on this or not? Looking forward to reading your comments below.

Where is Transylvania?

Where is Transylvania?

Transylvania is the travel destination for 2016 according to Lonely Planet and other experts. Here are a couple of general facts about Transylvania and Romania. In case you're wondering, I did answer some of the Dracula questions. Enjoy!