This is the top bike climb in Bulgaria and a top 10 world bike climb.
The Rila Mountain Range, located in southwestern Bulgaria, is the highest mountain range in the Balkans. More than a third of the mountain is maintained by Rila National Park, while the rest is part of the Rila Monastery Nature Park. The area is famous for the Rila Monastery, founded in the 10th century by Saint John of Rila. More information on the area can be found here.
Contributed by James Coveney:
My name is James and I am from Australia. My riding is done mostly around Gippsland in Victoria, Australia with rolling hills on sealed roads with a little bit of gravel here and there. In October 2018 I was fortunate enough to have a work trip to Bulgaria and I took my bike along to do the climb from Pastra to Kalin Dam in the Rila mountains.
Kalin Reservoir -- top of climb.
I completed the ride mid October, the timing was dictated by my work trip. It was lucky for me that it had been warm weather in the lead up, so that there was no snow on the upper parts of the climb. In general, it is recommended that this climb be done before the end of September because of the snow.
Adventurer James Coveney, from Australia.
In October the Autumn leaves had started to fall which made for picturesque scenery, but in sections the leaves were thick on the road, making it hard to get traction with the rear wheel.
Fall colors during October (though it’s beautiful, we still recommend riding this earlier in the year).
Choice of Bike and Gearing:
My climb was done on a road bike (2008 Scott Addict R2) with 25mm tyres. I had a 34t chainring and a 32t on the back. I found this gearing suitable.
Although this climb may be done on a road bike, a CX bike or a hardtail mountain bike would be a more appropriate choice, due to the extremely rough surface.
Rough and uneven road surface.
The road is old concrete which is crumbling in most parts. In places new concrete has been poured, cars and cattle have gone through the concrete before it had set, leaving permanent wheel tracks and hoof marks which can be quite deep.
Tough going on road bike.
On the way down I took it very easy due to the surface, but even so the abuse caused visible damage to the seatstay of my carbon frame which will require repair before it fails. My bike was not suitable for this road.
Access to the Road:
I had no trouble with access to the road, although the sign at the bottom says private road.
Roadway marked as private (in two languages no less!)
There is a gatehouse halfway up where there with two dogs and a gatekeeper. The dogs certainly made a lot of noise to announce my arrival. The gatekeeper came out, smiled and waved at me. He also gave me a friendly wave when I was on my way down.
James had better luck than Brad here.
It is my understanding that they try to limit the car and truck traffic up the road to limit the damage to the road. Bikes don't cause them issue.
Availability of Provisions:
There was water available about halfway up and again at the top. Other than that there are no provisions available throughout the climb.
Traffic and Cattle on the Road:
There were three or four cars I passed on the road. Although the road is narrow, it was fine as everyone was going slowly. I also passed about 10 head of cattle on the road, they didn't give me any problems, though the bull had rather larger and intimidating horns!
The climb is hard, steep and the surface is challenging. The changing scenery as you go up is beautiful, the Rila mountains are stunning. It was a rewarding experience that I'd highly recommend if you end up in this part of the world and you enjoy a healthy dose of suffering on a bike.
Thanks much James! Your experience gives us more confidence when Brad did the climb back in July, 2018. Which resulted in this warning to visitors to this climb page:
Caveat -- Private Road and we were very lucky to make it to the top.
From Brad’s 2018 European Cycling Tour - Rila:
Today’s climb: Rila in Bulgaria! A lot was unknown going into the climb about road quality and the true summit ... so it was an experience to say the least.
Cracked, uneven road surface.
Just after riding past the ‘private’ sign, an old man locked my path with his hands. He banged his cane into the ground and started yelling in a different language. He was really old though… and I was on a bike… and I’d come a very long ways to get to this climb... so... I gave him an “I’m sorry” smile and rode past him. Catch me if you can old man!! I did feel a little bad about that, and I also felt even more excited to ride on the road now that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be on it.
A few minutes after dodging the old man, I heard a car coming up the road. Immediately, I thought the old man was coming for vengeance. And rightly so, I’ll add. I wasn’t going down that easily though! So I jumped off the road and hid in the bushes, hoping he wouldn’t see me. The car passed, but it was not the old man. Better safe than sorry; wouldn’t be as fun to tell a story about getting beat by an old man with a cane in Bulgaria.
I was feeling good having dashed the old man and the car. The road was rough and getting worse, but I was nearly halfway there.
Then I rounded the corner and saw this kiosk.
Seconds after I took this photo a man came out from the kiosk yelling at me with his hands in the air. He got right up in my face and was saying something to the effect of, “what the hell are you doing up here, I hate you, I am going to kill you by slowly ripping off your ears, then you’ll be my supper.” Ya, that sounds right... I’m pretty sure it was something like that.
Anyway, he did calm down a bit after he saw that I was very confused. At first I truly didn’t understand why he was yelling at me. I had forgotten about the private road sign. He kept drawing a big circle with his hand and saying a word in some language I don’t understand. At this point I remembered the sign but decided to play dumb. We went back and forth, playing an angry game of charades, until he got frustrated and walked away towards a few roads workers. He ignored me for a minute so I walked over towards him again to plead some more. I mean really, what did I have to lose? I figured I’d seen the worst of his wrath. He had no gun and, it seemed, no real authority. So worst case scenario, I figured, was that I got turned around. So I pleaded so more.
Then one of the road workers said, “Spanish?”
“Yes! Well, sort of...I got a B last semester, so…”
He started rifling off a bunch of Spanish, basically saying the road is private, and he is very sorry but I must turn around.
He kept saying, “Es impossible, Es impossible. Lo siento.”
I was getting a little angry.
“Come on, you can’t turn me back now. I’m in Bulgaria! I have come here for this!”
So I pleaded some more, albeit in my broken Spanish. But I think I got the point across.
I said, “Viajo a Bolivia, es posible allí, ¡y en Chile, Colombia, Canadá, Francia, Ucrania es posible! ¡en Bulgaria es posible! Solo necesito que me dejes pasar. Por favor, señor. es realmente importante.”
“No, sorrrrry. No possible,” he said.
So then I sat there, because I was annoyed. And really didn’t want to turn around.
They ignored at first, BUT THEN, out of nowhere the angry guard who had come out of the kiosk looked over at me. And he didn’t look angry anymore!!!! AND THEN HE WAVED ME THROUGH!!!!!
I was truly ecstatic, and very pleased with myself, to be honest...
RILA, I’m comin’ for ya!
The ecstasy I felt though, was short lived.
About five minutes after passing the kiosk, I saw a guy up ahead staring straight at me. He looked like a wizard, a protector of the mountain, complete with a wooden staff taller than him.
When I got close two big dogs the size and shape of wolves circled me and started barking. He was talking to them in another language, seemingly trying to convince them not to attack. After they calmed down he gestured that I need to turn around. “Private private private. I am national forest sollllddieerrr.”
Really? Not again...
The wizard was quite unreasonable. He seemed impossible to convince and his expression never changed. “No, turn back,” he put his hand on me and started to push me around to face down the mountain.
No way! I pulled a Hail Mary. What did I have to lose?
I frantically acted out how important this was to me. I come from California, FOR THIS. It is realllly important. Please sir. Do you want money? Anything? I’m not taking no for an answer. Sorry.
He looked at me, put up each of his fingers slowly and methodically, counting to four, then motioning them back.
1, 2, 3, 4… not sure what you mean.
I nodded my head though, obeying the wizard mountain protector and he waved me through. His dogs barked and growled as I rode away, but he kept coercing them not to attack me.
Wow, how many more times am I going to get this lucky?
Rila, you dirty girl! I’m really coming for you now!!!
The final miles of the paved road to the first dam were fairly uneven, thankfully. The views were really spectacular and I felt really, really happy I had made it up that far.
The road to the summit turns to gravel for the last mile or so. Nearly there! Nothing can stop me now!
Summit!! Hell ya!! The views are really amazing. And the rocks are just begging you to crawl out to the edge. How could I refuse?
Another protector of the mountain. He circled me and marked his territory, but didn’t attack.
Maybe he heard about my encounter with the dog on the Montenegro border.
The ride down is very treacherous. The steep grades and uneven road forced me to stop many times to let my rotors cool down, and for my hands to gain braking strength again.
Rila was not done with me yet though. I saw a pack of...sheep? Umm llama things? I don’t know, but I stopped to take a picture, as ya do. As soon as I unclipped though, the wizards WOLFS (dogs) leaped out of the midst of the llama things and charged toward me. Seriously those things are trained to kill (I think). They were really scary. Thankfully on 15% grade it does not take long to reach 35 miles an hour and I was able to outrun them. Just barely. Woah. Time to get out of here.
Passing through this abandoned town on the way down I saw the old man again. I did feel sort of bad. I gave him my best ‘sorry’ face and he gave me a half smile back.
So, riders of Rila, beware. I’ll still say it is definitely worth doing though.
Steepest kilometer starts at km 8.2 (19.1%)
Strava Member input:
Kalin Rusev: “Up to the top is hard concrete flooring. It also climbs with a hard fork and road wheels. In the last 3km there are 2-3 broken sections that can be carefully mined and with a roadway.”
Plamen Iliev just left this comment on Morning Ride:
“You can do on a road bike. Very end is a bit of a dirt road and loose rocks for few hundred metres.”
Zdravo: “The road is not paved to the end. IIRC it is to the elevation of about 2330m (where the lake is). I was on a hybrid bike and continued on for a bit, but it was actually easier to ride on the grass beside the road at the end. Would need a proper mountain bike for the last 2km (and to continue beyond the segment). Also note, that the "paved" road to the lake is VERY bad in some places and pushes the limits of calling it paved! Can probably be done on a robust road bike (if experienced, have low gears, ...), but expect a very slow descent ;) I would suggest a hybrid or a mountain bike for this part as well.”
Vencislav Strahilov: “best with mountain bike, tilt and displacement is great, success.”
Цветан Иванов: “Rila - Kalin is for mountain bike, because the flooring is concrete (uneven).”