Words by Ádám Coates and Marcell Gangel, Photos by Tivadar Domaniczky (@tivadardomaniczky), Video by Bence Szabó.
As lovers of two wheels and outdoor adventures we wanted to share the beauty of what the rolling hills and charming mountain trails of Hungary have to offer. Thus, sometime in early 2018 we decided to create Bikepacking Hungary – a community for like-minded people and two wheel adventurers. After meeting a lot of wonderful people, and gathering some inspiration, we decided to organize the first ever Hungarian bikepacking challenge, the 5 Peaks 500. We were very excited during the months leading to the event in August of 2019, and we were blown away by the number of people who applied. It was awesome to see that people from all walks of life and from different corners of the world came to participate in the event and see the Hungarian mountains.
Our original aim was to stitch together all the trails we love to ride, and to provide the opportunity for a varied group of riders to get to know each other and share a story or two by the campfire at the end of each day. As soon as word got out about our plans, the Hungarian biking community stepped in to support our work and to help make our dreams a reality.
The final route covered 578 kilometers with 8,650 meters of elevation, starting from Margaret Island in Budapest and ending in Tokaj, a famous wine producing region in the eastern part of Hungary. We set up five checkpoints en route, each located on a mountain peak. The checkpoints were Nagy-Hideg mountain, Sasbérc lookout, Galyatető, Bánkút, and the Castle of Regéc. When selecting these check points, we were looking for places that could provide options to spend the night in a bed or a tent, and we also made sure that a good hearty Hungarian meal would await the riders at each of the checkpoints.
Tensions were high as the day of the start was approaching, but we were relieved somewhat when we met the participating riders for the first time during the pre-night party at Mesterbike Coffee Shop in Budapest. The riders were chatting and laughing while having a beer, and we knew we had something special. The next morning at around 5:40 AM, silhouettes of riders were rolling into Margaret Island to gather for the official start. The rising sun lit up the Buda Castle district in the background while street lamps turned off. It is a time of the day when only a few of the city’s 2-million inhabitants are up and around, but a group of dedicated riders were making the last preparations to tackle the challenges of the 5 Peaks 500. We made our announcements, wished everyone good luck, and at 6:00 AM riders rolled out into the awakening city. While packing up we heard a voice “Have I just missed it?.” We arranged all papers for the late rider and off he went to Tokaj too. Officially, 66 riders from 13 countries started the first ever Hungarian bikepacking challenge, the 5 Peaks 500.
As the riders left Budapest and started up the first ascent, the group got scattered and it was clear who was aiming to win the challenge and who came to enjoy the countryside. Good friends and volunteers helped us make sure that all participants received the same care regardless of pace.
The first checkpoint, the hut on top of the Nagy-Hideg mountain, marked the first 100 miles of the tour. Most of the riders stopped for about a half an hour to get refilled by a warm meal and to stretch their legs while enjoying the panorama. From the top of the mountain riders could appreciate the distance already ridden as the fume of the capital city was still visible on the horizon. “I have never met an Australian man before!” shouted the lady from the kitchen window with joy. She poured goulash into the man’s bowl and run out of the kitchen with some souvenirs. The man from down-under didn’t understand what she said to him, but a warm welcome is international. Refilled by the goulash and the welcoming atmosphere, Ben continued his journey with a big smile on his face.
About a dozen riders made it to the second checkpoint by the first night of the 5 Peaks 500. The Sasbérc lookout, a century-old stone structure, is located 180 km into the journey and stands in the middle of the forest. A perfect location for spending the night. We were preparing sashlik for the riders and put some beers on ice too to make their first night in the Hungarian country a bit more cozy. All who arrived clearly showed the signs of the 3500 meters of elevation that had been climbed, but some riders were determined to continue. “Headlamps are on. I’ll continue riding as long as I can tonight,” said Zsolt from Hungary. Those who spent the night at Sasbérc woke up to a windy and chilly morning. One of the early risers were Martina from the Czech Republic, who led the female riders. She was the last one to reach the checkpoint the night before and left at dawn following only a few hours of sleep.
A 15 kilometer-long climb led to the third checkpoint at Galyatető in the Mátra mountains. Galyatető sits at 964 meters above sea level and marked the highest point of our tour. 270 km into the journey, the climb leading to the checkpoint tested both body and mind. The trees and valleys of Matra were echoing “How bad do I want it?” The fastest riders arrived on the second morning while the majority of the group reached Galyatető on the third day. 60 who left Margaret Island passed the third checkpoint of 5 Peaks 500, but six riders already had to give up the challenge.
The villages on the road towards the fourth checkpoint, Bánkút in the Bükk National Park, provided plenty of options to refill water bottles. Riders grinding towards the 353 kilometer mark in scorching heat appreciated this uniquely Hungarian phenomena, the public drinking fountain. There is at least one in every village and taking water from these fountains is free of charge. Matej from Slovakia and Sam from Australia arrived together to the checkpoint late in the night around 11:00 PM. The checkpoint was officially closed by that time, but when the staff saw the two riders approaching, they put together some warm soup and a few ham-and-cheese sandwiches for the weary adventurers. It felt as if these two men had known each other for years, although they met only a few hours ago. One of the reasons we love bikepacking events is the friendships you can make with fellow riders. Once Matej and Sam finished their improvised late night dinner, they decided to keep their wheels rolling, and soon we saw their rear lamps disappearing into the dark woods of the Bükk mountains.
Rolling out of the Bükk National Park a long stretch of asphalt roads followed. The Castle of Regéc situated in the middle of the Zemplén mountains, was waiting for the riders at kilometer 510. The route planner indicated a somewhat mellower but longer etap leading to checkpoint five, but it soon turned out that it was an equal challenge to the previous stages. Even if the slopes were less intense, riding in 35 degrees Celsius for hours on the baking sun is a real test. “God, how I miss those mountains and shady trails,” shouted one of the riders pedalling towards the medieval fortress. The Castle of Regéc that served as the fifth checkpoint was built around the year 1300 and has seen many battles. Some of the riders could definitely feel the pain of the late besiegers. We can not tell you what the medieval warriors said after the climb, but the riders of the 5 Peaks 500 thought the view was absolutely worth it.
It was the morning of the third day when Almond Edgar Chrismorie punched his fist into the air ecstatically at the gates of Mayflower Camping in Tokaj. Almond was the first rider to cross the finish line following a 578 kilometer ride with 8,650 meters elevation gain. He finished with a time of 2 days, 4 hours, and 34 minutes (02:04:34). There was no special trophy or recognition for the “podium” finishers as every rider got the same reward, but the young Romanian was extremely proud and happy for his achievement. “I came to win,” he said, and got his well deserved beer and stew before crashing out in his room. Michal from the Czech Republic arrived second to the finish just 5 minutes after Almond. Zsolt from Hungary, who came as third, stood leaning on his bike for minutes at the finish before realizing what he just accomplished. By the time the sun set on the third day of the 5 Peaks 500, 10 riders reached the camping area. Good Tokaj wine, cold beer, and Hungarian stew prepared in a kettle fueled the conversations and laughter into the night. Riders shared their experiences and stories from the past few days before retiring to their rooms to catch up on sleep.
This went on for two more days. Some riders stayed just to congratulate those who arrived later. Getting to know this international, colorful bunch of adventurers was probably the best reward for us organizers. Although we did not ride it this time, we have been talking about the anecdotes of the 5 Peaks 500 ever since we returned home. One rider used an “analogue GPS” as he wrote down the route on paper to guide him. Another had been carrying an inflatable dinghy throughout the whole journey on his bike, just to chill on the river Bodrog at the camping once he arrived to the finish. The most senior rider of the challenge was tireless. The day after Rudi arrived to the finish, he hit the road again to cycle all the way to Vienna, Austria… that is another 500 kilometers, at least! We all hope to be such a young lad when we get to age 62!
Out of the 66 riders who left Margaret Island in Budapest on the 17th of August 2019, 55 reached the finish line of the inaugural Hungarian Bikepacking event in Tokaj. We owe huge thanks to everybody who helped us during the journey. We are extremely grateful to the riders, supporters, volunteers, and of course our sponsors. Without them this would have remained a dream. Thank you to Bikefun Hungary, Mesterbike, Ride’n’Supply, 575, and BlindChic.
Stay tuned for details on the 2020 5 Peaks 500 on the events calendar.
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