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Resident backmarker Kieran Longworth navigates the chaotic world of Endurance motorcycling at an event where even finishing deserves a medal.
Writer: Kieran Longworth
Photography: RedBull Media House
As events go, hard enduro’s ‘Romaniacs’ remains very much in its infancy. Dating back to 2004, this year's event was its 20th edition. Aptly nicknamed ‘The Impossible’, the promise was that it would be longer, darker, and altogether harder than ever. And that’s despite it already being the sport's most difficult competition.
In a sport where it being ‘difficult’ is the main premise (two preceding events, Erzbergrodeo and Xcross having already knocked chunks out of most hopefuls), that’s certainly something to shout about. With such high levels of impossibility seemingly the main selling point. It pulls in 750 competitors and their entourages, there to help conquer the Carpathians.
The Nations Parade showcases flags representing locales from Rio to Bolton. With everywhere in between. In total covering 55 other nationalities. Those ‘passing colours’ marking out folk from Reunion, Ethiopia, and New Zealand, with the rest (a significant majority) from Europe.
The broad intent of the event is for adventure-seeking riders to complete six days in the saddle. Simply finishing the two qualifiers and four legs of the world’s hardest rally exists as the marker for success. And just finishing is no easy task.
IMAGE | Red Bull Media House: Day Zero - Things are about to heat up at the prologue, Sibiu awaits 'The Impossible'.
Sibiu plays host. It’s a beautiful Romanian town wrapped around a medieval centre. For the event’s prologue (from Latin, prologus, the opening of a play), industrial obstacles, some seemingly insurmountable, make up the fixtures and fittings of a spectacular view. Potters Tower, perched atop the old city walls, casts a centuries-old shadow over the relatively new event.
Popular literature has this picturesque Transylvanian town as the residence of Dracula. With the event’s be-werewolf’d logo lending to what is already grounds enough for insomnia.
The first of the full-blooded action sees whining two-stroke engines tackle all manners of man-made obstacles; tractor tires and shed-sized digging buckets lined with rusty chains are the apparent fan-favourites, if the crowd these elements draw is anything to go by. For the lesser competitors it constitutes broken bikes and bones – five ribs on one occasion – with most barely making it past the first third.
The slightly off kilter brain behind this often-extraordinary view is Andy Fazekas, “Each year I try to create a prologue that will have flow while featuring a few killer traps,” he told Red Bull TV, with a wry smile. Those traps are certainly capable of swallowing bike tyres whole, whilst rendering even more competitors powerless and motionless.
At first glance, it all looks a bit hap-hazard, with any number of last-minute modifications and rough edges making organisers appear mostly disorganised. But it’s only after listening to founder and ex-Olympic snowboarder Martin Freinademetz that this starts to feel all more intentional than it looks. “Mixing things up makes Romaniacs what it is,” he says. “There are as many surprises as possible at every stage. Keeping competitors in the dark makes the race all the more exciting.
“Obstacles change – are changed, in fact, in an effort to keep riders in a state of anxiety.”
IMAGE | Red Bull Media House: Martin Freinademetz, the mastermind behind 'The Impossible', takes a call from world number one Manuel Lettenbichler asking for a helping hand.
In terms of the wider event, hot dog stands and beer kegs line the streets for fans, jostling to catch a glimpse of their favourite riders. With nothing but fresh air – and an inch of temporary fencing – separating the keenest spectators from the spinning wheels, boots and helmets.
Thirty bikes at a time thrash around the circuit sounding like an angry swarm of bees. A few of the more spectacular crashes – and there were plenty – manage to break through those defences, only serving the purpose of further exciting an already feverish crowd, rather than deterring them. And there’s almost too much to watch for those in the thick of it.
And that’s because the action occurs on both sides of watchers, thanks to Fazekas’ figure of eight-course design. And rather strangely there’s traditional Romanian folk dancing being performed in the middle of it all.
As the afternoon rolls on, dark clouds roll in and the flautist is swapped for something a little more rock ‘n’ roll. Wireless Emergency Alerts ping on surrounding phones for there is a storm brewing.The close of play – now considerably darker than it was 30 minutes prior – produces one of the many excellent and wholesome features of this event, seeing world-beaters share the same walk home as their fans. Autographs and selfies aplenty, before that aforementioned thunderstorm puts a halt to proceedings. And signings.
There’s not a minute's rest for anyone. It’s to the paddock – an old and long-since abandoned Soviet factory – for mechanics to fix up and look sharp before the start of the main event. It exists as the very picture of chaos and an insight into what’s to come.
In the race proper, the appropriately named fan-favourite, William ‘Billy’ Bolt, is first followed (and soon overtaken) by Redbull poster boy Manuel Lettenbichler. These early leaders would dictate orders over the next week’s proceedings with Bulgaria’s Teodor Kabakchiev joining the party late on day three.
The route has points of reference that feature evocative names for spectators to enjoy. They include among them, Carl’s Diner (pronounced dinner by most), Gold Digger, Leaking Helmet, Never Ending, and the new ‘Snipers’ uphill. With a maximum riding time of 10 hours each day, the whole course is difficult. With those sections warranting a name just feeling that little bit more impassable for getting a title.
Navigating their own way through the neighbouring forest – only permitted GPS, emergency contact details, water and a lighter – riders are required to reach manned checkpoints before the fatal and race-ending (yet invisible) ‘time bar’ rules them out.
Showing off the Romanian spirit, people and picturesque countryside was Freinademetz’s motivation for masterminding this facade. He believes “there’s some real wilderness not yet to be explored here – untouched with no breaking bumps or ruts it’s the purest riding on earth.”
IMAGE | Red Bull Media House: Stormy skies roll in at the close of Day One.
Crystal-clear blue skies again make way for darker versions, making pure riding an impossible task. Romania’s predictably unpredictable weather takes a greater hold on all those involved. With riders deep in the back of beyond when the rains come, there’s little place to go in the escape of near-apocalyptic showers.
The only source of light in the now pitch-black forest is frequent lightning strikes and nine-volt LEDs strapped to the front of each bike. Ducking and weaving through the now treacherously wet forest floors is Lettenbichler, who’s perfectly controlled riding style – on show on previous sightings – has been changed for a more practical no-nonsense approach.
With storms passed, mud-covered faces tell their own story. Over half of the race starters are unable to finish day one. Neil Hawker, Dakar rally regular and BMW skills instructor tells spectators, with his eyes as dark as the skies above him, “That was the hardest day of motorbiking in my life. It’s terrifying out there.”
Perhaps avoiding the worst of the rain, ‘Mani’ Lettenbichler is handed a can of Redbull almost immediately after stopping his bike. This is business after all, before saying, “The last hour was so difficult, I actually called Martin (Freinademetz) to ask if he could help me get out of there,” if there was ever any doubt about this being the world’s hardest rally.
And that was the consensus among many, glad it was all over, and certainly not ready to tackle another 120km in less than 10 hours. The fact they’d committed to the €2,000 entry fee – plus baggage – was now the only thing keeping remaining riders pointing forwards.
In the paddock on day two, and with the sun now beating down, the smell of petrol is the first thing that hits you – an ever-present feature of this event. The scorched engines only make the already uncomfortable weather yet more uncomfortable as mechanics graft away in the dust. It’s dry, chaotic, hot and loud. The exact opposite of the day before.
Competition-wise, the rest of the four-day week would see much of the same, despite the weather remaining equally turbulent. Second-placed Trystan Hart suggesting that, “the event felt like a couple of laps around the whole of Europe. I was just surviving,” he added. “It didn’t feel like much of a race.”
That final remark is perhaps exaggerated by the aforementioned German powerhouse that is Manuel Lettenbichler winning the race by over an hour. It amounting to an otherworldly performance, one that saw the 25-year-old win his fourth Romaniacs title and extend his lead in the FIM Hard Enduro World Championship.
IMAGE | Red Bull Media House: Billy Bolt looks back on what has been a pretty tough week.
With battles nearing conclusion, riders are welcomed at the finish by what amounts to a 100-foot climb up the anti-climactically named ‘Final Hill’. Separating the wheat from the chaff, a fatigued minority are perturbed enough by the prospect of summiting the climb, that they bail out after upwards of 30-hours in the dirt. For them is to return home without a finishers medal. Their sacrifice, so tough, falls second behind a cold beer.
For context, Britain’s Billy Bolt testifies this as the toughest competition of the lot. Placing fourth, the Brit typically gave it everything right to the final flag, placing 16-minutes back from Teodor Kabakchiev, “It was all a little frustrating,” adds the Englishman. “We all knew it was going to be tough, the races are always tough, but this week was the hardest, that’s for sure.”
The locals around the finish line seem blissfully unaware of that significance, watching ever-curiously before getting on with the rest of their day. In these parts it means farmers going about rounding up livestock for the days close. It’s a slow burn for them, by comparison. But equally fulfilling, no doubt.
Which brings the week to an appropriately juxta-posed close. For the few ‘Finishers’ it means a flight back home with a thousand tales to tell. For those who came so close, those stories exist of equal importance, just without the fairytale ending. It’s tough out there on the trail. Tough as it gets.
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