Queenslander Melissa Bruce recently headed to Sibiu, Romania for the gruelling Red Bull Romaniacs. Melissa lets us know how she went:
As I sit stretched out across two seats in the mostly empty back carriage of a Romanian train heading from Sibiu, to Bucharest, I take the time to reflect on what has been one of the biggest, most eye opening challenges in my life so far.
While less than 48 hours ago I did cross the finish line in the 2016 edition of the Red Bull Romaniacs, the five day race itself can only partly be credited with the massive amount of learning and personal growth that this race has forced me to acquire.
After having made the decision to enter this race in August last year, I have been through a lot. From the tough training, constant fatigue, criticism, dealing with sexist attitudes, loneliness, and financial struggles, to handling very difficult nerves and anxiety that nearly sent me into a depressed state in the two months leading up to the race; I would say I was close to my limit of challenge before I even left.
Even though at home I am not exactly the tidiest person you will meet, when it comes to something that matters as much as a race does to me, I am fastidiously organised. Everything for this race had to be planned and set in order well before I left. Every moment was scrutinised from the travel over, to the travel back.
Add to this, less than three months prior to the race, I made the decision that the Red Bull Romaniacs would not be the only race I would do overseas this year. So my training and travel plans had to be in line with this goal as well. Packing, for instance, was a pretty big deal. Bike parts had to be organised for the bike I purchased which will eventually come back to Australia, but I have to also co-ordinate what can come back with baggage allowances, and what would stay with my mechanic, Andreas, for the next race.
But even with all my careful planning, many things are still out of my control. Before I left, I booked my tickets to the Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey, for the following race. The next day, that airport was bombed. This is a very, very sad international event, which also added more concern I had to put aside to focus on the immediate event at hand.
I was scared to leave Australia, I was definitely more scared about the international connections and travel, than I was about riding my bike around the Carpathian Mountains for 4 days. After nearly 24 hours of air travel, my bus that was supposed to leave the Bucharest airport in Romania, for Sibiu, where the race is held, never turned up, and with this being my farthest trip from home, I was growing very concerned as I began to feel quite stranded, travelling alone. I decided to catch a cab to the city, with plans to stay overnight and arrange transport the following day, however the cab driver wanted to bargain to take me to Sibiu, approximately 300 Kilometres away. We agreed on a price, however within 5 minutes of driving I became extremely concerned when he stopped, changed my bags to a normal car and stopped at the side of the road to get cash from some guy.
I had no clue what was going on. I’m not a really dramatic person, but I was worried I was about to get kidnapped. Should I try and grab my two big bags full of bike parts locked in the boot and run off at the side of the road at night in a country I have no understanding of the language or area? My main consolation was the driver was quite unfit, a chain smoker, and struggled to lift my bags into the cab in the first place, so potentially I was certain I could at least run faster than him…
I tried questioning the driver, and was somewhat guessing he was simply trying to do a job off the books. Basically a ‘cashie’. So I stayed, stayed awake the whole trip, bit all my nails off, and eventually arrived safe and sound in Sibiu at the Ramada hotel where I would be staying for the next 10 days.
The next few days flew by. I tried to stay focussed only on what I was doing at that immediate time, rather than thinking about the race coming up. Mainly the rather crazy prologue, which was slowly being built within walking distance of my hotel.
I actually enjoyed walking around the old district in Sibiu, getting lost in the little cobblestone streets, trying to figure out what the labels on the food in the supermarket meant so I could make lunch.
Then, my brand new Husqvarna TE 300 arrived with Andreas, and I spent two days pulling it apart, and fitting my Force Accessories Bash Plate, Disk Guard, Case Saver, Radiator Guards, my Linkage Guard, Thermo Fan, Clake One, Zero MX Graphics, Golden Tyres and mousses, setting up the suspension, jetting, and zip tying spare parts and tools in every spot possible on the bike to keep the weight out of my bum bag, already full of the survival equipment that is mandatory to carry for this race.
Once the bike was prepped and ready to go, it was time for sign on and technical check. Now this is an experience all by itself. Taking approximately 5 hours, you were given a sheet of paper with about 10 or so tasks to have signed off. GPS hand in, emergency number collection and phone check, passport check, licence check, safety gear check, media interview, technical check and sponsor sticker placement, race number collection, and so on.
There were lines for everything, and I really appreciated the fact that the crew tried very hard to speak English and guide me through the whole process; while it was drawn out, it was actually quite simple.
With all tasks completed, a few of us decided to go out into the mountains for a little ride, to get a feel for the terrain, and I wanted to test the bike out properly the day before the race started the next day.
I immediately struggled with the first hill we tried to climb, nearly sent my bike off the side of a steep trail, and dropped it at least 10 times within 10 Ks. At this point I started crying and couldn’t stop, thinking to myself ‘’oh my goodness you idiot! What have you done coming all the way over here! You cannot even get up the first hill on a trail ride!”.
There was a French guy there who was super nice just like my friend Michael at home, who also has seen the odd teary breakdown over the last year, and eventually I calmed down and started to enjoy the new bike. We changed the suspension to make it “super soft, Melissa, just like a lounge chair is best for extreme Enduro” according to Andreas, and my goodness, it was amazing. We also dropped the forks down and lowered the back a little which made a huge difference over the course of the race.
I woke up on prologue day with a lot less nerves than I had expected. I refused to walk the track properly until the actual morning of the start, because I didn’t see the point in stressing about it when I needed to be prepping, eating, and sleeping.
As we all lined up, I distinctly remember feeling very, very excited. I thought I would be scared, but I was not. I would finally get to try and ride one of the coolest, craziest obstacle courses I have ever seen. I took a very careful approach, dropping the bike just a few times but taking a few moments in between each obstacle to make sure I picked good lines, didn’t push very hard, and I was very happy with how I rode. I finished a long way back around 190th place, so was looking forward to seeing if I could firstly finish Offroad Day One, but also perhaps pick up a couple of places along the way.
It made my day when Emma Broadbent, our other Australian female competitor from Iron class who I didn’t know very well at this stage, met me at the finish line just about beside herself with all the praise in the world for my run! It felt awesome to have another girl be so supportive!
Even though Iron class is not required to do the prologue, and she was very nervous about the obstacles, she still opted to race it, and I had to literally run to keep up with her, cheering her on the whole way, to see her get a time almost 2 minutes faster than I had. I was stoked to see her do so well!
Day one, and my start time is sometime after 9 am, with 120+ ks to travel in a total of 8 hours. I wasn’t sure what I was in for, and had the biggest, scariest day on the bike I have ever had. I was immediately confronted with a couple of pretty big challenges. The downhills in Romaniacs not only go for a very long time, there are sections where you absolutely must walk your bike down if you do not intend on sending you and your bike on a trip hundreds of metres down the side of a hill or cliff. There are also sections where you are riding off camber single trail which is also right on the edge of the mountain. Losing your bike off the edge is likely to end your race, as well as injure yourself and your bike pretty badly. Basically, never look down.
As I worked away at the kilometres, the heat and dust, which I was not expecting in Romania, played a pretty big factor in my making up somewhere around 40 places in the one day. I was very happy to have my Infinit Nutrition in my hydration pack, and tried to do my best at conserving energy and definitely stayed moving 99% of the time to keep cool.
At one point, I walked my bike down a long, extremely steep hill, and came to a drop off where there were about 4 bikes being winched down on ropes. I parked my bike and walked down to look closer, and was in a bit of a conundrum as to what to do. There was no way I could walk it down, I didn’t have rope, I didn’t really want to ask for help, so do I let my bike fall down the edge? Before I come to a solution, an older French guy who had been riding at a similar pace to me walked his bike to the edge, announces “non, non non, we ah ride ah the bike down’’…so he hops on, and dropped down the side of the drop off perfectly!
I thought to myself, if I can do that, I’ll save a lot of energy from trying to lower it down, and potential damage to my bike from kicking it off the side of the cliff, so I did exactly what he did, one foot on the bank, one food on the left peg, and dropped off the edge with no brakes, immediately using a back brake slide at the bottom to turn left onto the road rather than dropping off the next edge immediately ahead.
Yep, I scared the hell out of myself, but pulled it off and rode away pretty chuffed with the results.
I came into the end of day one happy to have survived, and not ‘time barred’.
Day two I struggled a lot with feeling sick early in the day. I wasn’t able to eat as well as I needed to the night before, for the same reason. I would say a combination of heat stress, exhaustion, nerves, and food that really wasn’t very appetising contributed to a calorie deficit. Once again, luckily I had calories on the go in my hydration pack, so as the day got on I started to feel a little better.
I got stuck in a bog hole before the first hour was up, and spent about half an hour getting out. I dragged the bike back as far as I could, however the mud stopped me going any further, so I ended up digging a crosswise rut by doing little power burst wheelies to the right, then dropping the bike on its side so the back wheel came out, falling in the mud (not part of the plan), and picking a different line. I didn’t ask for help, because I figured I got myself in to that, I needed to get myself out. Needless to say, lesson learnt.
About two hours into the day, just after a very rocky downhill section, I came across Emma Broadbent with a broken sprocket. Now, in this race, there is a system for the tracks where it’s not uncommon for riders of different classes to share sections of track. I could not do anything to assist, so I continued along, only to come across her a second time setting a cracking pace, with a quick story of how some German guys up on a hill literally had a KTM sprocket in their car, and Loctite, which got her going again! Can you believe that!? What a story!
So I tried to follow her, but messed up on a rock section we had to climb over, and ended up crashing and then riding into a creek I wasn’t supposed to be in! She rode into the distance, and I kind of laughed to myself because it was a bit funny.
A few hours later, I came across her a third time, this time stuck and crying in a mud pit on an uphill section. This bog hole was pretty bad, and I just wanted to give her a big hug because it’s so common for me to be in the same situation in tears thinking “what on earth am I doing here? I can’t do this rubbish!”
So I told her the funny story about me trying to follow her and ending up in the creek, pointed out a different line we could take to get out of the bog hole, and she rode out perfectly. We ended up deciding to ride together.
We quickly entered this really, really long creek bed section where we encountered the Red Bull Romaniacs bloggers who literally take photos and write blogs from out on the tracks, uploading it to the website as the race progresses. They asked for a quick interview but I was like ‘Nope! Gotta keep moving or we’ll run out of time!” so with Emma right on my tail we rode the rest of the day out, finished under the arches together, and did an interview there as two Australian girls racing Romaniacs. I thought this was so cool!
That night, it started to rain, and everyone went to bed with a certain level of trepidation as to how this would affect our riding the next day. Well, everyone except Graham Jarvis who no doubt was quietly celebrating what would be perfect conditions to silently assassinate all attempts at taking his fifth victory.
Even though I struggled with energy and fatigue a lot on day two, I had still managed to pick up a few more places and started Offroad Day Three in the mid 140’s outright position wise.
I was still struggling with feeling sick, but immediately forgot about this after seeing two bikes lost off the side of the mountain within the first couple of hours. There were quite a few logs blocking the track on slippery angles, which shot bikes off the edge if you so much as made one little mistake, so I decided to get help and give help on every single one of them after I nearly lost my own bike. It wasn’t raining a lot during the day, but the conditions were super greasy from the night before, and there was some issues with one line along the side of the mountain, having to wait for a lot of bikes to clear through.
Before the lunch service point, there was a slippery wooden bridge we had to ride down which had huge drop offs either side, and as I was waiting for the rider ahead to walk his bike down, kids appeared and started asking for money and trying to grab my bike and pull the throttle which was extremely dangerous. I was basically yelling at them to get off it, and rode the bridge as quickly as possible the moment it was clear.
Then, after the lunch point, I came across more kids throwing stones out of trees at the riders. I was thinking “wow, the kids out here are horrible!” Not long after, I came across yet another group of kids, some a bit older, at a massive bog hole with no way around it, out in a village in the middle of nowhere. I was riding by myself, as I did for the majority of day three, and I was very worried.
But, as I have learned very much on this adventure, not everything you are afraid of will hurt you. One of the older boys saw me, came up in the mud, grabbed the tug strap on the front of the bike, and helped drag my bike through the mud hole. What a legend! I thanked him profusely, but he was super cool about it, walking back to wait to help the next bike, with all of his mates cheering him on from the sidelines.
After one very, very greasy uphill followed by a difficult muddy rock section, I came into the second last checkpoint in pouring rain, 10 minutes out of time, to be allowed to go on to the final section. They gave me a piece of paper that quickly turned into a soggy mess with instructions on how to get to the finish line on the roads, and I proceeded to try and find my way to the finish in the craziest rain I have ever seen. Thunder, lightning, mud and rock slides coming down the mountain onto the road all added to the drama of what was already a very difficult day. I recall being slightly disappointed with running out of time to finish, but knowing I did everything I could to be safe on that day, and thankful that I wasn’t currently out on the next difficult section in the current conditions.
As I suspected, the race organisers decided that due to the conditions on the track that day, no one would be ‘time barred’ or ‘abandoned’. Basically, even though you got a time penalty for not finishing the day, you were not given the ultimate penalty of an ‘abandon’, of which if you get two, you get a big fat DNF and get kicked out of the race.
Day four arrived, and for the first time in the race I wasn’t feeling sick at the start. I’d managed to eat well, and was looking forward to seeing what we would have thrown at us for the final day, especially with the amount of rain we had on the trails.
When I was waiting at the start line, I overheard a rider talking to one of the other riders. “Mate, Johno just came back, he got half an hour in, he’s done his knee. The tracks all have the biggest ruts, it’s just not worth it. It’s crazy out there!”
Well, if there is one thing I have learned, don’t listen to old mate. Ever. So I hit the start button immediately and rode to somewhere I wasn’t hearing about how bad it was ‘out there’. I remember thinking ‘’I’ll be the one to make the decisions on how bad it is, thank you very much!”
I got to the first hill, which was greasy, stacked on it twice, and on the second time, the sweep that was helping everyone said something in (I think) a French accident that I didn’t understand until I was half way back down the hill.
“You fast too! No, really, you need it ride like trials.”
Ah! Got it! Great pointer! On the third time I exactly rode it ‘like trials’ and before I knew it, a little technique went a long way and I was at the top.
The next couple of hours were spent in a lot of slippery, off camber forests, hill climbs, and creek beds. I just kept chipping away at it, with one main goal of the day. No getting stuck in bog holes like I did on the second day! It’s WAY too exhausting! So every bog hole was scrutinised carefully, I focussed on picking good lines, and made very good use of the 100 metre rule on the GPS to get around more than one big, potentially day ruining, mud pit. And there sure were some shockers out there!
Keeping a good frame of mind is so important for me when I’m racing. I can have all the skills in the world, but the moment that negativity and self-doubt starts to creep in, I’m useless. And it was a bit of a tough start to the day, so several times I’d hear people panicking about timing out, or not finishing, and I just reminded myself to keep riding the track in front of me and not think about the finish at all. I’m proud of myself for doing a good job of that, because Romaniacs is the perfect combination of difficult and intimidating! I know that the last three years of racing has taught me a lot on keeping a healthy mindset, especially with some of the bigger races like Finke and the A4DE.
It wasn’t long before I got to a rock section with seemingly no way around, and a lot of bikes getting stuck. For good reason- it was pretty slimy, and a lot of people were getting help to get up. I know I went faster back down it backwards than I did going up, so it certainly wasn’t that easy. I spent about 10 minutes helping to try and clear a line, and for the first time a lot of people just rode off without helping me back which usually didn’t happen in the race. Then just as I got the line clear, other bikes started turning up ready to jump on it.
I’ll tell you the story as I heard it back later. “Apparently some chick was screaming at riders, totally going off at everyone at the bottom of a rock climb in the morning today…”
Of course, it’s always great to hear these stories back after they have been told a few times. If you’re a guy and another guy says oy buddy, that’s my line, I’ve just spent 10 minutes clearing it, wait your turn. No one thinks anything of it, but if you’re a chick, all of a sudden you’re discounted as a screaming, emotional wreck.
Luckily, there was a Beta rider who worked with me to get both bikes up the rocks, and we ended up riding together until near the finish which made the day more fun and kept both of our paces up, and the line selection around bog holes in order!
When I got to the finish, I finally worked out why on TV or youtube, when you’re watching the final hill, bikes are getting thrown down the hill at the left side! As you work your way through the finish, before and after the hill, there are a series of drop offs and climbs which are near vertical, with very little room at the bottom for a run off.
They were super fun, but as I had not kicked my brand new bike off any drop offs so far, I wasn’t going to start on the last day. So on, I carefully lowered the bike by the back wheel down. At one stage, I came across an absolutely exhausted rider blocking one of the uphills, so I pulled his bike off the track and kept on going. I really wish I could have stopped and helped more people- it’s not actually in my nature to be competitive, but unfortunately this was a race, and I have learned being the ‘nicest girl you’ve ever met’ isn’t always something I can afford to be when I intend on finishing a difficult race.
I got to the final hill, decided to have two goes at it for fun, then remembered I was still being timed so took one of the chicken lines, and got to the finishing ‘rail cart throw you into a bog hole’ contraption.
I had a quick 10 second piece of advice from one of the guys who’d just done it. I climbed up the log stairs, as the cart came up to the platform, I jumped on, and as I was going down I was trying to figure out why the guy had said to jump off before it hit the end. I’m thinking, “this platform is pretty muddy, traction is going to be a problem, I’m quite close to the edge anyway, there’s a lot of mud down there, it’s quite far down to jump…oh my goodness I know why he said jump before the end! It’s going to hit the end and throw me off! “ So I did my best wheelie / jump and was pretty happy not to end up in my head in the mud!
I rode on through the famous Red Bull arches having gained nearly 100 places from the start day, and the funny thing was, after 500+ ks of extreme Enduro, I was so happy to finish, I just wanted to go riding again! Which is great, because I’m going to need all the enthusiasm I can muster to keep on training and working hard for the next eight weeks before I head back overseas, this time to Turkey, to see how high I can climb my Husqvarna TE 300 up Mount Olympos in the Red Bull Sea to Sky…
Keep up to date with Melissa's progress on her Facebook page here.