While others were having champagne (a trip to Sagan country)

I was often told about the legendary Sitno climb in Slovakia, which far surpasses anything we have nearer home, and brings the strongest to tears. So finally a trip got organised, and to make it a bit more of a challenge (why did we need more of a challenge?), two of us decided to go all the way from Budapest. Two others, more sensibly, cut 100 km off the trip by driving the first bit.

This is what I knew in advance:


i.e that it would be 300 km, 3000m elevation, and a very pointy peak in the middle - Sitno.

I set off at 4.30 am, starting, in style, with a climb.


The sun rising around five am.

Soon we were busy climbing in our local playground, the Pilis hills, up to this col at a scary 570m.


and dooooown the other side.


Reaching Esztergom by the Danube, with its massive basilica on a hilltop.


And a bridge to Slovakia. This bridge, like all others, was blown up by the retreating Germans in WW2, and it took until 2001 to rebuild.


The Basilica once more. While it is a very significant building, seat of the archbishop of Hungary and such, plus it is enormous, I am not a full fan of it. As a somewhat damaged medieval cathedral was pulled down to make space for it, and it also squashes the castle next to in into insignificance.


After only 40 km, entering Slovakia. The sun's out.


A group of four now.


This was meant to be a 50 km flat section, but upon closer inspection it turned out like this:


...lumpy. Going up one hump, while taking photos of each other:


...aaand down. Slovakian roads are generally very nice and smooth!


Hommage a TdF:


Breaking the long ride, a Sunday morning combine harvester meetup??


Trying to look mean and nasty, but the banana diminishes the effect.


Aah. No comment needed on this one.


Dudes are all laughing at me - I nearly rode into the ditch while trying to taking the photo backwards. We also tried to emulate various pros as per that video, with Froome and Tommy V also nearly ditch-bound.


Finally we entered a hilly area. Great forests, quiet road, all fantastic. I was promised a first beer stop by a lake. Here is a lake. And they just rode on!


A bit more climbing, and then another lake. The beer stop! But no, we got here so fast (covering 140 km by 9.30 am) that it was not open yet. Distraught again.


On the other side of the lake though, a lovely place serving breakfast to some folks. In we went, and asked for beer! Voila.


Relaxing in team colours.


These two dudes have just been to the Maratona. I love these jerseys, they are crazy.


Some way through the first beer, discussing the meaning of life (in fact, the benefits of getting married, primarily that there is someone who can pick you up by car if you break down...)


Got going again. A long, screaming downhill, and then through a pretty Slovakian village complete with baroque church.


The moment of truth: we left the main road to start the Sitno climb. Which greeted us with a 16% initial section.


Got through the first steep bit, and we could finally see where we were heading. Up there.


No more photos on the way up. I was busy enough trying to avoid the body bag that Drew so kindly started arranging for me. The whole climb is 6.9 km at 8.5%, but that includes some downhill too... The last 2 km are 12% average, and the finish must be near 20%. On the evening before setting off, I did replace my cassette to give me 39/28 as the lowest gear. It also gave me funny sounds in certain gears, as the fine gear changes in the living room were not quite replicated on the road. Plus the others kept taking the piss because I put the QR back on the wrong side!!! So much for late night component changes before mega-rides.

Nearing the top, on the steepest bit, breathing my last breath, I encountered a crowd all across the road, with pitch-forks. Pitch-forks! And rakes. I tried to shout something at them, or maybe I just exhaled so loudly, that eventually they noticed me, and cleared a bit of road shouting Pozor! As I battled through them, they started shouting Sagan!, which somehow felt better than Pozor, but I could not respond with a no-hands wheelie.

The Dolomites team nearing the finish:


And across the finish line pothole!


Finally our strongman, rueing his gear selection (he did come with 39/25). Cheered by the pitchforked crowd of the Slovak corner.


The top was all laughter and merriment, complete with hikers, space rocket launcher(?) and religious ceremony.


Plus a mountain hut serving... you guessed it.


Our steeds needed a rest too.


Views to the South. We are at 1000m, and there is nothing this high for the next 500 km at least. Naked man is clearly interested in a different view.


A vintage fire engine at this slightly surreal place, but how on earth did it get up there?


The road up to Sitno is rubbish. This became more apparent on the way down. Sharp stones all over. All of a sudden a massive BANG came from the rear wheel of the man in front of me, all wildlife took cover, his tube and tyre came off the rim, and in the 10m it took him to stop, the stones pretty much ruined his rim. Getting off the bikes, another of us noticed that he had a flat, though less dramatic!


A lengthy repair break ensued. We patched the bigger holes on the tyre with gel wrappers, and put it all together. Blew out during inflating. There were sharp burrs along the rim, so I tried to file them off with a stone. A trusted technology, perfect for Fulcrum racing 1 wheels. I think I did a good job, but in the meantime we found another 5 holes on the tyre (all made by the stones while it was rolling flat), so the futility of the exercise was becoming obvious. And we did not have a spare tyre, of course.

What now? Well, we left the man to the Slovakian wolves and set off. To his luck, he is married, or at least he still was yesterday...

An easy ride for the next 50 km, gently downhill in a river valley, with pastures.


And back in Hungary, the last refreshment stop at 225 km. The scale of the ordeal is beginning to show: we were forced to supplement the beer with some coke, ugh.


The route plan included one more 'mountain pass', in the Börzsöny range. This is a very pretty, wild, forested group of hills, which is not great for road cycling as there are no roads in it. Great for narrow gauge train enthusiasts though. The one road across the area has possibly the gentlest climb in the world: 15 km at a steady 2%, following a stream. All in the forest, really nice and relaxing.


Down the other side, with the shadows lengthening.


The lead rider, rather futilely, pointing out potholes. He should rather be pointing out road, there is less of that.


Cool ruins of a castle. Hungary has lots of ruined castles. This is not just poor maintenance. The many little castles were supposed to guard against the Turks, but they did a better job at pillaging the neighbourhood when the wages and provisions did not arrive. Finally the Austrians, with international help, kicked out the Turks and forgot to go home. For good measure, they also blew up all the castles, lest they cause more trouble.


A bit of good road reserved for us near the end.


And only 50 km to go!


Final tally:

Distance: 308 km. My longest ever, and I am happy if it stays like that.

Elevation: 3180 m. The most climbing I have done, but happy to do more.

Time: 14.5 h, of which 11 spent riding, 2.5 drinking, 1 h repairs (or lack of).

Food: two bananas, three muesli bars, two chocolate wafers, a pack of salty sticks.

Drink: four beers and a coke, water.

Damage: not a lot in my case. A sore bottom, mainly. Back on the bike today.


And I got home in time for the festivities on the Champs Elysées.

Two of the participants swore never again, the one with the wrong gearing and the one with the breakdown. But a day later, they all want to go back. One to finish the job, the other just because it is fun, the third because his GPS got bored while we were drinking and stopped, missing out only the steep bit. So we'll be back!

Pictures: taken by us on an iPhone, trying very hard not to drop it.

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