Saturday, September 3, 2022

Danube Road Randonneur

A 1400 kilometer brevet in Romania with less than 7000 meters of climbing would be a walk in the park (or a stroll along the Danube). Or so I thought. 

Instead, wilting heat, less than ideal roads, sections of heavy and scary traffic, and an inattention to recovery during a busy summer of grand brevets all conspired to make the Danube Road Randonneur brevet a bit of a challenge for me. But as someone once said, I get by with a little help from my friends. Or in this case a lot of help, especially from Christopher (Chris) Graham, my partner in foolishness and a steady, caring companion throughout. 

To make a short story long . . . .

The ride started well. After bike inspection and registration formalities, we chatted with old friends and met new ones. The beginning of the ride was quick and we rode in groups to the first stop at a restaurant. One hitch: My attempt to set up Chris’s brand new wheelset tubeless was less than perfect and he had to stop a few times to top off, a circumstance that would repeat itself for the first three days until one last valve adjustment solved the problem for good.

With the night start and an exceptionally flat first part of the ride, my plan had been to ride 500km through the first full day to an already-booked accommodation. By early afternoon, however, the heat of the near-40C day took a toll on me. I grabbed a few things from my drop bag in a sweltering arena in Dabuleni and searched my phone for hotels nearby. Chris signaled his flexibility and we stopped in the next town for a meal and an air conditioned sleep stating in the broad daylight.

This stop was early enough that we had eight hours off the bike and were still able to have “breakfast” at a nearby pizza place before it closed. Rolling by midnight, we tackled the 200km to Drobeta-Turnu Severin on the Danube. Halfway there, we passed near a border crossing to Serbia and had to navigate around dozens of trucks parked in the right hand travel lane with no way around except on the left with traffic. Later, as we approached Drobeta in heavy morning traffic, I remarked to Chris that I didn’t see how the riding could possibly be any less pleasant. Hah. 

With no food at the Drobeta control, we figured we’d ride the 25km to Orsova and hunt up an early lunch. On the map, this section looked especially scenic, hugging the Romanian bank of the river through the Iron Gate Gorge and passing a major hydroelectric facility that we had been told was quite impressive. 

I’m sure the gorge featured spectacular scenery, but I didn’t have a scintilla of attention available to observe it. Between scanning my mirror in search of the truck that would bring my doom and looking for a line among the potholes and disappearing shoulders (replaced by raised curbs within centimeters of the travel lane), every bit of my concentration was deployed elsewhere. Twenty-five of the worst kilometers of my riding life provided a clear answer to the earlier question of how a ride could possibly be less pleasant than that section. The next day a new Bulgarian friend asked our opinion of this stretch. “Not good,” we responded. He corrected us: “No, it was suicide.”

We calmed our nerves over a pleasant riverside lunch in Orsova. As the day heated up, we abandoned the notion that we could make it 130km to our planned sleep stop. Instead, we set our sights on the village of Svinita about 50km away. A quick scan of lodging booking sites suggested a couple of possibilities with available rooms where I could sleep off the afternoon heat. It took a solid 3 hours to cover that 50 kilometers as I halted our progress for shade (and two nice roadside springs) several times.

Despite the lovely scenery along the way, the oasis of my fevered dreams eluded us in Svinita. The options there, most of which were perched up on a hot hill, were deserted or had no vacancies. (Sometime the next day I would realize that, like Billy Pilgrim, I had come unstuck in time and had been searching for availability on entirely the wrong day.) Eventually, Chris coaxed me back onto my feet (wheels?) and we headed down the scorching road in search of alternatives. 

The next 27 kilometers took 3.5 hours. We stopped at a guesthouse with significant signs of life but no one to open the door. It also had a bench where my plan B to just nap away the hot hours proved completely unsuccessful. We stopped at another spot with no rooms, but a lovely riverside terrace with cold drinks. We stopped at some sort of egret-themed resort (possibly a hallucination?). I don’t know if they had rooms available, because the resort was also the scene of a divine intervention. Or near divine, anyway. Somewhere along the line, Chris must have informed his wife back in Switzerland of the sad plight of his pathetic traveling companion and Kristy had gone to work. So instead of an egret room, Chris got a text from her that we had a booking just up the road. 

The Belvedere “Yachting Club” marked the turning point of the ride for me. The joyful sounds of kids playing in and around a swimming pool greeted us before we found the German-speaking proprietor. “Zwei zimmer,” we splurged. Air conditioning proved more inviting than the pool. Food was ordered and delivered to the room. Plans were made to leave at 3am - another nearly 8 hour stop.

We thoroughly enjoyed the next section of the ride as the third day began with quiet traffic-free riding along the river to the far western point of the ride and then around a loop away from the river over the highest climb of the ride. A lovely sunrise yielded to a cooling rain(!) as we returned to the river. At a grocery store stop (featuring hot dogs with “aroma of bacon” sauce), we ran into Lupo, with whom we had ridden some on the first night, and we would ride with him off and on until the finish. In an unwilted state, I could enjoy the scenery on the return section along the river back to Orsova. Near Dubova, we lunched on Romanian food (including the somewhat polenta-like mămăligă) at a roadside food stall.

The rain was gone and the day was heating up, so we planned to sleep at the next control town of Drobeta (100km short of our original plan for the day). Somehow the 25 kilometers of “suicide” road seemed to have been upgraded to merely “shockingly dangerous” on the return trip. Not enough of an upgrade to enjoy the scenery, but soon we were in Drobeta, where we raided our drop bag in another oven-like arena, found a nice hotel a couple kilometers down the route, and found kebabs and wraps for dinner (and breakfast) at the “Dooby Doner” kebab restaurant.

On the fourth day, our night start saw much lighter traffic on the Drobeta-Calafat section than we had endured outbound and after Calafat we left the highway and the traffic behind. We raced horse-drawn carts, mostly unsuccessfully, and tried to beat the rain showers, again mostly unsuccessfully. 

A tailwind took us to lunch with Jovan from Bosnia in Bechet, a look at our drop bags (clean jersey? nah, I’ve come this far; why change now), and hobo rando dining on the pavement in front of the Lidl supermarket in Turnu Măgurele with Lupo from Bulgaria. The tailwind deserted us, yielding to hills and heat for the last stretch to our planned overnight in Roșiori de Vede, where we would finally sync up with our original ride plan. 

The local volunteers turned out in force in Roșiori de Vede. A stylish lady on a city bike escorted us through town to the control (although we didn’t quite realize  at the time that we were being escorted). We passed under a banner strung above the street by local officials to welcome the ride to town. The control had sandwiches and drinks aplenty. 

We desperately wanted nothing so much as a cleansing shower and comfortable bed, but apparently one of the selling points to the local officials was that the “president of randonnepuring” was coming to town on the ride. Much excited chatter (unintelligible to us except the word “president”) ensued and we doped out that we were expected to wait for a meet-and-greet and photo op with the mayor. Upon his arrival, I’m sure he was less than overwhelmed with the reality of the situation, but gamely posed for pictures and listened while I profusely thanked him (equally unintelligibly, it would appear) in English for his and the town’s hospitality.

Up again well before dawn for the last day, we met up with Lupo again as we headed to the penultimate control - at a mostly closed gas station. Dawn brought rain showers and a weird post-apocalyptic sunrise through the rainclouds as we approached Bucharest. About 30 kilometers from the finish, as we dodged truck traffic and carefully navigated chaotic construction zones, Chris remarked that he figured it would be “pretty much like this the rest of the way.” Little did we know. After one particularly hairy section I asked whether by “pretty much like this” he really meant “pretty much way worse than this.” 

Through the city we tried using bike lanes that would disappear, plunge over curbs, or be interrupted by bomb crater sized potholes. We tried hugging the side of the right lane. We tried taking the lane. We plotted course across every-man-for-himself traffic circles. We played chicken with taxicabs. We finally found relative tranquility (and I mean relative) in the bus lane. Eventually Lupo, Chris, and I found the finish and a celebratory beer (or two or three). 

Precious few pictures. Caught in my slimy sweaty pocket in the heat, my phone alternated among making emergency calls to family members at inappropriate hours, taking pictures of the inside of my pocket, and going into security lockdown from repeated phantom unlock attempts. (Apparently, at one point, I was one errant slime-click away from doing a full reset of the device). Some of the pictures are courtesy of Chris, Lupo, ride volunteers, and the folks documenting the summit meeting at Roșiori de Vede.

Thanks to Chris for the steady company. Thanks to Iulian Ene for organizing. Thanks to the many volunteers. Thanks to our fellow riders, including Iulian. Thanks to Carolin for all her help. Thanks to Kristy for the timely booking assist. And as always, thanks to Chris Thomas for putting up with yet another hare-brained trip of mine.

Good news postscript - The organizers are already developing a route for the next edition that will eliminate the worst sections from this time

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