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Wed Jul 06 2016: The Transalpina Highway

We're stranded near the top of the Transfăgărășan and my front brake seems to be seized.

What are our options? Tow the bike? We're pretty far from any town or city and the cost of a tow would be much more expensive than just replacing pads + rotor - if I decide to ride all the way down. What if I disconnect the front brake and only use the rear? Yeah.... we're at the summit of the Carpathian Mountains, making our way down. Probably not a good idea... Just how badly seized is it? There doesn't seem to be any drag at all in the front. I decide to do an experiment.

We ride on for a couple of kms with my brake light burning bright behind me, and then I pull over, using only the rear brake and downshifting to a stop.

I get off and feel the front rotor. Not even warm. Could it be just a switch at the lever tripping the light then? It was getting late in the day and I don't want to spend the time to diagnose it. Especially up here with the sun in a bit of hurry to duck in behind those mountain peaks. So we make a decision. We're going to ride down the mountain to the nearest town, find a place to stay and then look at it in the morning.

The ride down the other side of the Transfăgărășan gave us more twisty roads to negotiate and the sunset was promising to be quite spectacular. But we couldn't really appreciate either the roads or the scenery, I was worried about my front brake the entire time.

At the bottom of the Transfăgărășan, we pull into the first town we see, Victoria

Neda finds a grocery store and goes shopping for our dinner while I stay with the bikes outside. A group of young boys were hanging outside the store. I could sense their curiousity, so I smiled and nodded at them. That was their cue to rush over to me and pepper me with questions, "Where are you from?", "Where are you going?", "How fast does your bike go?" The typical questions we get from everyone. :)

I'm quite a big hit here in Victoria, Romania!

The guy to the right of me, Horaţiu, spoke really good English. We talked for quite a while outside the store before Neda came out to join us. Really friendly bunch of guys! We said our goodbyes as the light was getting scarce and we still had to find a place to sleep.

Neda found us a little lodge on the map, but it was several kms down a gravel road... and after a while the road didn't really look like it was going anywhere. As if I wasn't already a bit worried... In the dim light of the late evening, it was hard to see anything in front of me, the thick forest already blocking what little sunlight there was glowing from out behind the mountains. Well at least *I* couldn't see anything. Since I was leading, my bright brake light was illuminating the entire way for Neda behind me...

Finally a clearing! And a very decent-looking place. There were a bunch of people having a barbecue and we were invited to join, but we had already bought our groceries for dinner. We met a few people staying at the lodge that evening. I would have liked to have been more social, but my mind was pre-occupied with trying to fix my bike. I excused myself from the party and spent time on the Internet trying to diagnose the problem.

In the bright light of the next morning, I haul my bike out into the middle of the backyard and proceed to dig into the front brake lever.

There's something about a guy working on a motorcycle or car that makes him a magnet for all the other men within eyeshot. Within a few minutes of tinkering, there were a couple of other guys standing around me, offering advice and giving me a helping hand. For women, going to the washroom is a communal event. For guys, breaking out the tools is our clarion call...

So my research on the Internet pointed to a switch at the brake lever. There's a piston that pushes that switch which activates the brake light. It also activates the servo motors that BMW uses for the brakes on this model of my bike. It makes a horrible whining noise and the guys around me ask, "Is that normal?" Yes. It's like when people gather around a Ducati and point out the rattling noise coming out of the dry clutch, "I think your bike is broken..."

A small allen key can be used to adjust the point when the brake light switch gets activated. However, I just can't seem to get it right. I turn it all the way out and then all the way back in but the light is either always on, or always off. So I disassemble the whole lever to see if I can re-seat the switch. No joy. The two other guys take their turn but we all have no luck fixing my bike. We all come to the consensus that the switch is broken.

At least I know now that it's just the switch and not the brakes. I adjust the front brake switch so that the light is always off. I'll just make sure to use my rear brake to trip the brake light when stopping or slowing. I always use both brakes anyway, so it shouldn't be a big deal.

One of the guys helping me out, Dan and his wife Cristina

We spend the rest of the morning talking to Dan and Cristina. They're a great couple from Bucharest. Like most city people, they head up here into the Carpathian mountains for weekend trips to hike and bike out in nature's playgarden. He showed me his green KTM bicycle! Cool!

Before they left to hit the hiking trails for the day, Dan gave me his contact information should we decide to turn backwards to Bucharest to get my brake light switch fixed. I thanked him, but I think we're going to keep forging ahead towards Croatia. We have a date on the calendar to make.

We've burnt pretty much the whole morning and afternoon hanging out at the lodge, so we ride into Sebeș, about 90 minutes away

We're also feeling a bit fatigued from all the constant travel and now all the troubleshooting as well. We're going to take a rest day here. Neda found a really nice apartment (again hitting our target of €20/night).

Neda's favorite part, it has a kitchen! Nice to have something warm and homecooked

Another reason we are staying in. Rain is in the forecast for the day.

Okay, time to play in the mountains again! We hop back on the bikes after our short break. I take the lead because I've disabled my front brake light switch and if I forget to tap the rear brake, at least Neda will know not to run into the back of me.

I hope...

The Transalpina Highway runs parallel to the Transfăgărășan, exactly 100 kms to the west. It's the Transfăgărășan's younger sister, not as popular with the moto-journalists and TV programs, but not without her own charms. If you're in the area to ride the Transfăgărășan, there's absolutely no reason to skip the Transalpina.

Stopping at one of Transalpina's switchback corners for a peek at the road below

Fluffy clouds remain high above us, a remnant from yesterday's rains as we ride up to the summit of the Parâng mountain range. The scenery is like a toned down version of the Făgărăș mountains, not as dramatic, more rolling hills than daunting peaks. Way less traffic as well, which we like.

So... I thought I always use both brakes when stopping or slowing down. Well, now that I'm consciously keeping track of which brake I'm using when riding, I notice that I tend to use the front brake only a lot! I never realized this until I see Neda's bike getting larger and larger in my rear view mirror at every corner of the Transalpina... Ooops, front brake only, no brake light... Sorry, Neda....

Contemplation-time amongst the mountains of the Southern Carpathians: "I wish he'd use his rear brake more..."

Bikes love being up here. So do we!

The further we get up to the peaks, the foggier it gets, as we ride into the clouds that envelop the summit of the mountaintops. The temperature steadily drops and when we reach the top, we have to don some extra layers to get some heat back into our bones. We also take the opportunity to walk around.

Parking near the summit


Sheep crawl all over the fields up here, grazing to their heart's content. We have to dodge the poop all over the ground!

The shepherd sits closeby, his sheepdogs rest with him. Through the cloud cover, the Transalpina lurks in the background

The sheepdogs don't get to rest very long. Not with Neda around... Thankfully Neda's tankbag is full of rocks from Santorini...

My bike, pretending to be a sheepdog. With a broken front paw... :(

We can't really see much up here with all the clouds and fog obscuring the landscape below. So we continue back on the Transalpina

The traffic is sparse enough that I let Neda go ahead of me. That way she doesn't have to worry about running into the back of my bike and I can take some riding pictures! This turned out to be a good idea, because the southern section of the Transalpina is where all the fun is at. See the map above for a closeup of the road-reverie!

Whohooo! Enjoying the twists and turns!

Can't see. Better slow down.

Some small towns in the background on the Transalpina Highway

That was a great ride! Here's a short video of both the Transfăgărășan and the Transalpina, with a litle bit of mechanical troubleshooting in the beginning:

Riding the Transfăgărășan and Transalpina Highway in Romania

With the Carpathian Mountains done, we stop at Târgu Jiu, the city at the base of the Transalpina highway, for lunch.

Târgu Jiu

Târgu Jiu Prefecture (Administrative Palace) on the left

After lunch, we hit some local traffic

We need to be in Pula in a few days. Rather than take the shortest route to Croatia, we make a little detour up to Hungary and then back down into Croatia to bypass Serbia. That way we don't have to pay for a 14-day vehicle insurance slip when we're just passing through. We definitely want to visit Serbia, but it'll have to wait for another day, when we can properly do it justice instead of just rushing through it.

It's all highway from Hungary to Croatia. So no pictures, except for roadside stops for food, gas and pee breaks

At one of the gas stations, we run into Orhan & Dilya from Turkey

They're on a motorcycle trip on their brand new R1200GS, all the way up to the Nordkapp! We spent quite a while at the gas station exchanging stories. This is their honeymoon vacation! We've met a few folks from Turkey so far on this trip and they've all been such genuine and friendly people. Orhan and Dilya gave us their address in Alanya and told us that we could stay with them if we come to visit Turkey. So generous! I don't know where Alanya is, but I have a feeling that we're going to be seeing it sometime in the future!

Our trip continues. A sleepover stay in Budapest and then back on the road

I love the highway system in Europe. You can cover so much ground in very little time. We are closing in on the Hungary/Croatia border and we stop for another gas/food break. When we climb back on the motorcycles after lunch for the final push to the border, Neda's bike fails to start.

Uh oh.

She pushes the ignition button. All we hear is click-click-click. This is a very familiar sound to us... The dreaded flat battery has struck yet again on this trip (admittedly, most of the time because of our own neglect). I think back to when we first bought this battery in Zagreb a couple of years ago. They only had one Yuasa (BMW OEM battery) in stock, so I put that one in my bike. We bought Neda a cheaper Italian battery, and the store that sold it to us warned us that it was not as good as the Yuasa...

Edit: So I took a look back at the blog entry from when we first bought Neda's battery:

But the place only had one Yuasa left, the kind the factory installs on the bike. They also carried a cheaper Italian brand that was compatible, but we heard that those don't last very long. So we bought one anyway and put it in Neda's bike. This should make an interesting future blog entry.

So this is that future blog entry... I hate it when I can predict the future.

We spent several minutes trying to bumpstart Neda's bike. We have to take off all the luggage because it's too heavy for me to push around the parking lot. No use, the bike is just not catching. So we have to resort to drastic measures:

Jump-start cables between the bikes like an electrical transfusion


We have ignition! It's a healthy start, which means that it's definitely just a dead battery. I told Neda to keep it running for a while to give the stator some time to charge the battery up a bit before we head out. But before I could finish my sentence the bike dies again.


Another jumpstart, then cables disconnected. This time I leave the throttle half-cocked for a minute or two to try to get some higher voltage flowing into the battery. Keeping the revs up, I tell Neda to jump on and do some laps in the parking lot just to keep the bike running above idle. We need to make sure her bike won't die on the highway.

I watch her do a couple of circles around the lot and then the bike cuts out. The battery is just not holding a charge.

Crap! This is our second bike breakdown in less than four days. At least we're not at the top of a mountain range in the middle of nowhere. We need to be in Pula soon. So what are our options right now...?

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