Algarve Photographer – Lee Downham

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Red Bull Romaniacs 2012

Red Bull Romaniacs – “The World’s Toughest Hard Enduro Rallye!”
A little over a year ago on returning from my blogging and photography work at Red Bull Romaniacs 2012, I wrote the following article which was published in the Portuguese magazine “REV – Motorcycle culture”.

As it was coming up to Red Bull Romaniacs 2013 and this article had never seen the light of day in English language then decided to share it here for the rest of the world to (hopefully) enjoy and get a sense of what all those poor souls signed up to the tenth edition of Red Bull Romaniacs had in store for them!

 

The World’s Toughest Hard Enduro Rallye!

When you think of Transylvania your first thoughts are probably of vampires and of a totally different kind of blood sucking horror story, but if you are at all interested in Enduro motorcycling then you will no doubt have heard of the Red Bull Romaniacs – the self proclaimed “world’s toughest hard enduro rallye” which is based out of the medieval city of Sibiu and runs through the Carpathian mountains of the Transylvanian region of Romania. This event may not quite suck the blood out of its competitors or turn them into nocturnal monsters (at least not until the final night’s party), but it most definitely would drain the blood from many a man’s face at the thought of what the riders have to endure on their motorcycles in order just to complete one of its extreme and unrelenting 5 day tracks.

Take for example the Prologue, a manmade and fairly tortuous “obstacle course” that you would probably not be wrong in thinking was designed with the sole purpose of totally breaking and humiliating the competitors in front of the huge crowds that gather along its path each year to cheer the riders on as they battle the city centre course. Perhaps the real idea behind The Prologue is to dull the riders’ nerves and warm them up for what awaits them out in the Carpathian mountains over the coming four days, or maybe it is simply designed to weed out and scare off weaker entrants who might not actually be up to the off-road course. Whatever its purpose, it’s a great annual spectacle for the crowds, but many of the competitors quite rightly look very, very anxious on first seeing the criss-cross of tree trunks, piles of boulders, ramps, jumps, old cars and other treacherous obstacles including ones that move on rails or ropes … top professionals can be stopped in their tracks, let alone your average Hobby class rider.

All this and they have not even left the city limits!

 

 

 

The results of the Prologue define the initial starting positions for the off-road stages, which is where the Romaniacs starts to really bare its teeth and test the riders to their utmost limits.

Four days of back to back riding over some of the hardest terrain and steepest mountainsides imaginable, each day takes between 5 to 8 hours to complete and covers up to 180kms. Leaving the hotel start at around 06:00 each morning, competitors receive their GPS (Global Positioning System / Sat Nav) from race officials. Each day a totally new track is loaded on to the GPS with a previously unseen adventure on it. From here competitors use mainly tarmac roads and may ride for up to one hour to the official off-road start, where the day’s real adventure begins!

The sun is just starting to rise and a light shower blows over. It’s a ridiculously early 05:45am, partly due to fighting off a cold I only slept around 4 hours the previous night and I’m stood at the start of off-road Day 1 where a host of regular Romaniacs Pro riders are tentatively gathering and getting ready for “the off”; Graham Jarvis, Chris Birch, Xavi Galindo, Andreas Lettenbichler to name but a few. Ahead of them though is perhaps the surprise Prologue winner and newcomer to the event, a young British rider called Jonny Walker. At only 21 years old he is a good few years younger than many of his fellow competitors, but only days before he had shown just how talented and fast he was by taking the win at The Erzberg Rodeo. Thing is, he now has to lead off into the relative unknown finding the course ahead of his rivals, but he has never used a GPS before let alone raced an event in which its usage is essential in order to ensure that you don’t get lost. In the paddock the previous night though he could be seen getting lessons on its use from pseudo teammate and super nice guy Chris Birch.

The riders are all understandably apprehensive this morning about what might lay ahead, and a moment of mild panic strikes the American newcomer Kendall Norman as he looks at his GPS and isn’t sure if the day’s GPS track is actually loaded on there! His panic subsides quickly though as a couple of guys help him figure things out and it’s confirmed that all is OK. Then one by one riders head off under the “Red Bull-bow” and are away up the mountainsides to find out what delights the track managers have lined up for them today.

Specially named harder sections along the course are thrown in to test the riders to their limits. “Please no rain”, “Appetizer”, “Black Mamba” and “The Beast” are but a few fondly named sections, and whenever a rider encounters such a named section, they know up front that they are in for some real punishment, or fun, depending on their perspective!
This is probably a good time to explain a little more about the different classes of The Romaniacs.

First there is the Hobby class. This relatively is the easiest route through the four off-road days, but do not be misled by the term “Hobby”. Casual riders should not enter here! This is not just a gentle ride through the mountains of Romania, this is a test not only of your riding abilities but also your stamina, nerve, and psychological strength. You need to be able to keep pushing on even when you are battered, bruised and beaten, or when you are exhausted, sleep deprived, and feel like you have no energy left to continue. You need to block out your fears and keep your nerve whilst traversing goat herder tracks along near vertical drops. And just when you think you are nearing a service area and designated rest stop you have to switch your engine off and walk your bike down 2km of insanely steep descents (“The Beast!”). Then of course there are the extremely steep, never ending mountainous climbs or ridiculously angled hillside traverses, plus narrow forest trails with streams and river crossings, and descending from an altitude of 1900 metres to 900 metres in around 20 minutes, only to find after the fuel stop at the bottom you have to climb all the way back up to 1650 metres again on a steep, rocky, loose, dusty hairpin trail. When you think you can climb no more you turn another corner and find more narrow tracks heading skyward. Tree trunks of varying sizes lie across the track to slow your upward progress, then even steeper forested climbs covered in leaves, loose soil and tree roots meet you higher up the trail and do their absolute best to bring you to a halt or throw you unceremoniously off your bike and on to the ground, again!

Eventually you break free of the tree cover, but what goes up must come down, so after snatching a glimpse of the breathtaking views it’s time to descend again on more insanely steep and washed out tracks or any other break that can be found in the steep terrain where incidentally one tiny slip finds your front wheel plummeting into a 1 metre deep hole and your entire body is launched head first off the bike and straight into a fir tree (yes, this is personal experience talking!).

Portuguese rider Pedro Oliveira lost his bike down one such 4 metre hole, luckily he did not follow it. With the help of two other riders and 45 minutes later he managed to recover his bike and continue, but this small mistake cost him overall victory in the Hobby class.

Another unfortunate rider fell with his bike some 200 metres down a tree filled ravine! Luckily he did not seriously injure himself and walked away with only a couple of broken fingers (!!?), but it took a team of 5 or 6 Romanian workers an entire day, plus over 500 metres of cable and heavy lifting equipment to recover his motorbike!

The descents seem to be nearly as never ending as the ascents, and even here you can be blessed with amazing sights such as eagles with several metre wingspans carrying their prey and flying at over 50 km/h right alongside you as you both descend through the forests.

 

With the GPS saying you are just a few kilometres from the day’s finish and as you near the valley floor you might think you can start to relax and that you have perhaps overcome the worst of the day’s difficulties. But this is where the next psychological and physical blow strikes as the track managers throw in a final series of river crossings, near impossible hill-climbs, plus the odd hillside traverse and log crossing section where the only option might be to haul your bike over the log and then follow it by throwing yourself over too. The track managers feel the necessity to really ensure that you have properly earned your “free” plate of noodles in the paddock that night!

But if the Hobby track sounds like a bit of a holiday, then there is always the Expert or Pro classes to give yourself a bit more of a challenge, and this is where riding abilities are pushed into new realms of extreme. One of the track managers explained the difference in track difficulty to me as follows: The Expert class is perhaps 30% more difficult than the Hobby class, and the Pro class, well that is at least 60% harder than the Expert class!

Pro rider Chris Birch once joked, “Romaniacs is beautiful, but make sure you pick the right class … and if you want to have a good time in Romania, don’t enter the Pro class!”

Experts and Pros follow the same basic route as the Hobby class riders, but then their tracks split for a few kilometres before rejoining the base Hobby track. Many of these Expert or Pro sections are specially named sections and are where the hardest of the near impossible, vertical forest or river climbs and descents begin.

Event creator Martin Freinadamitz and track manager Klaus Sørensen believe that if they themselves can do the tough sections then the Pros can also do them, but beware, they also believe that there are only around 50 riders in the world today who are capable of completing the entire Pro track! Their view of the Hobby class is that it should challenge the riders and push them to their limits but it should not be totally impassable or completely stop them. The main rival for most competitors especially those in the Hobby class is the course itself, and just finishing the event is the primary goal for many entrants. Competitors can often be seen teaming-up during the event to help one another through the harder sections, and I even heard Pros exclaiming that without the help of another rider there was no way they would have finished certain sections. Perhaps sometimes this teaming up also helps out psychologically, but what is quite obvious is out of all that adversity and difficulty comes a strong bond between the riders, a kind of Romaniacs brotherhood where everyone looks out for one another and it creates a fantastic and friendly atmosphere in and around the paddock.
Back to day 1 and fast forward a few hours to the service area where you see pit crews and helpers for all the Pros, Experts and Hobby class riders anxiously await the arrival of their riders. Here and many more times throughout the rest of the week I enjoyed casually chatting with people like Jonny Walker’s manager Julian Stevens, or had Xavi Galindo’s young but very skilful mechanic try to help fix the headlight on the beast of a machine I was assigned for the week (a 2012 Husaberg 570 FE). All the riders and teams you meet at The Romaniacs are really grounded, down-to-earth people. Totally approachable and very unaffected by their own personal abilities, achievements or status. Egos have no place here. The whole paddock is about the event, the love of enduro riding, and no matter who you are or what your story is, as long as you share that passion then you are one of the team.

The organisers had said that the first morning would be relatively easy, but then get harder as the week progressed. It seems that this was the case as all the top Pro riders confirmed this and arrived pretty much together. Jonny Walker gave up his several minute lead having waited for Xavi Galindo after experiencing a few GPS navigation troubles where he went off course once or twice and was chased by mountain dogs which I was told are trained to attack bears in order to protect cattle. I heard of one of these dogs chasing a bike at around 45 km/h, and Jonny later confessed that being chased by them was one of the scariest parts of the whole event – it’s perhaps a good job he didn’t encounter one of the wild bears that roam around the mountains freely then!

At the service area during the enforced 20 minute rest stop, I catch up with previous Romaniacs winner Chris Birch. He is looking in considerable pain and explains how his left foot is hurting after a piece of wood got smashed into the top of his boot as he rode along. Did he whinge and moan though or did he quit? Not likely, this is hard enduro not football, so he continued on, battling with the near impossible obstacles and tracks of the Pro class, and having to change gear with his heel because he was in so much pain. Perhaps he was slightly disappointed at finishing off the podium for the first time since his debut in 2007. Taking fourth overall only minutes behind third place podium spot nears a superhuman achievement at the best of times, but it becomes the stuff of legend when it was later confirmed that he had ridden almost the entire event with two broken bones in his foot!

The Romaniacs surprisingly suffers very few serious injuries though, and whilst chatting to race director Dougie Maclean after the event he informed me quite proudly and perhaps somewhat amazed himself that this year’s event had only four hospital admissions, but all of them were released the same day.

After some four and a half hours of riding in humid 30ºC heat and now in first place, the extreme enduro legend that is Graham Jarvis passes under the “Red Bull-Bow” which marks the end of the first day’s finish. He has pulled out a 20 minute lead on his nearest rival and quite honestly looks amazingly fresh. Graham like many of the top riders seems rather humble and could perhaps be accused of being a little shy. Despite his talent he does not shout about how great he is nor does he need to as nobody with any experience of riding an enduro needs to be told just how skilful or hard core these guys are. Instead he just goes out, does his thing and gets on with it. Actions speak louder than words. A few post race interviews for live internet broadcast are taken care of by many of the top riders in relatively the same way, “This morning was OK but then it got a little tougher. The ground was dry so the course was very fast and perhaps not as tricky as it would have been if it were wet. I’ll have to keep pushing tomorrow as this lot [the Pro riders] will be going for it every day until the finish!”.

The other riders from all classes begin to arrive at the finish, and some riders can still be found arriving more than 4 hours after the race leader crossed the line. Most though look very happy and relieved to have made it through the first day as they compare broken bike parts, cuts and bruises or simply laugh and joke with one another whilst sharing wild stories about the events from their day’s riding out in the mountains.

 

Day 2 and I get an extra hour in bed compared to the previous day, but still my alarm is set for 05:15! An hour and a half later I am at the off-road start where a slightly tired and jaded group of riders are beginning to gather. Their apprehension does not seem quite so high as on the previous day, but aches, pains and tiredness have taken its place.

At 07:00 the first riders set out once more on another new and totally unknown track, disappearing out of sight and off into the wilds of the Romanian countryside. All of them will be pushing their limits with many more extreme challenges to endure over the coming 3 days, but if they are successful in overcoming these challenges then time and time again they will be rewarded not only with amazing riding and breathtaking scenery, but for the rest of their lives they will be able to say with great pride that, “I completed The Red Bull Romaniacs, the world’s toughest hard enduro rallye!”

 

© Lee Downham 2012 and beyond All Rights Reserved
This article may not be reproduced in part or full without prior written consent from its author Lee Downham

 

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