The Developing Croatian MTB Scene

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Heading to the Istrian coastline of Croatia our photographer Ross Bell discovers a pleasantly surprising local mountain bike scene beginning to blossom.

There’s more to Croatia’s riding than first meets the eye

Think of riding destinations in Europe. What comes to mind? Well, let’s say there’s a definite hotspot in the Alps; places like Morzine and Verbier. Then there’s the fashionable places such as Finale Ligure and Madeira that have shot to fame through racing and clever marketing.

If I asked you about the riding in Croatia, though, chances are you’d have few words to say. The majority of visitors are lured to Dubrovnik and the south, which is incredibly beautiful, but chasing imaginary dragons and bloodshed from the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series with thousands of others isn’t exactly my idea of fun.

Croatia is generally overlooked when it comes to riding. Often people have an image of it being too rocky and, sure, there are plenty of rocks (and other-worldly trails!) at the coast, but there’s far more to it than meets the eye.

Our destination was the Istrian coastline on the country’s northern tip, an area steeped in Roman, Venetian, and Austro-Hungarian history. I’ll admit to being a little reserved in judgement when we pulled up at the first riding spot of Grožnjan, but after spotting a few signs left over from a recent SloEnduro Series I began to be lured in with intrigue. It felt like I was in a game of Packman as we rumbled down the narrow cobbled streets, through ancient archways and in-between the towering houses, barely a handlebar’s-width apart. Eventually we spring out of the village maze and, after a few minutes’ pedalling on the open road, pull up at a dusty snake of singletrack slithering off into the dense undergrowth. Time to get stuck in.

Early morning in Rovinj, mountain bike tour Croatia
Overlooking the walls of Grožnjan, mountain bike tour Croatia
Mountain bikers in Hum, Croatian mtb scene
Mountain bikers near Grožnjan, Croatian mtb scene

Our guide Danijel leads the charge as he reveals through plumes of dust the undulating, high-speed rollercoaster of rises and turns which, by the time we were spat out at the bottom, didn’t satisfy my cravings as such, but just unleashed a whole new thirst!

The wheels were swiftly pointed uphill for another lap. Riders of all abilities will be left grinning from ear-to-ear here. Those less experienced can pick their way down and build up confidence, whilst the more seasoned rider can play or attack, changing the whole character of the trail. There’s a reason an Enduro race was held here; a fairly swift and direct uphill was the source for a whole delta of trails, which we savoured until the sinking sun called us back to our base for the night in the medieval hilltop village of Motovun. Better still, we had the trails to ourselves the whole day…

Feasting in the hotel courtyard on a whole host of local dishes was the perfect ending to our first Croatian riding experience, it set a high standard for the days following. 

Next on the hit list was to head south to the island of Krk, a stone’s throw from neighbouring Lošinj which is set to welcome the DH World Cup in the coming month. The fact that Croatia has managed to tempt the UCI to pastures new speaks volumes; with racers, media, and the world’s leading bike brands set to descend on the Croatian coast gives the region the potential to explode onto the scene. Although different islands, Krk and  Lošinj share a lot of similar traits.

Arriving in the dark to a place you’ve never visited before creates a lot of questions to be answered by a gaze out the window at first light, when I was happy to see some big looking hills thrusting out of the Adriatic. The green of the rolling Grožnjan countryside had been swapped for the blue of the coastline; two wildly different landscapes juxtaposing each other just a short drive apart. Would the riding offer the same contrast?

Mountain bikers on the beach, mountain bike tour Croatia
Bikers on the beach in Istria, mountain bike tour Croatia
Mountain bikers in the forest, Croatian mtb scene

Clawing at the pedals we begin the ascent up an old Austro-Hungarian military road which has stood the test of time, almost a better surface than some of the UK’s roads! The uniform pine trees try their best to hide the carpet of rocks dancing in the dappled morning light but we are already beginning to get a taste for the island’s trails. The tree line stops abruptly as we clamber over a wall and apparently onto the surface of the moon. We stare in bewilderment as our eyes adjust to the mesmerising textures and details, the millions of rocks scattering the hillside making for one trippy visual experience. On top of the plateau we do our best to avoid any encounters with UFOs or space creatures, and eventually the double track funnels into a singletrack where almost instantly the rocks disappear and the vegetation shoots up; travelling from the moon, we had landed in the south of Spain by the looks of it. Croatia was offering up a medley of varying trail personalities, not only short drives apart but mid-ride too. The gradient is pretty gradual giving us what feels like a lengthy descent into the lunch stop on the sea front town of Baška, refuelling on pizza and coffee with the turquoise waters rolling over the pebbles below us. There is a brief but consistent flash of XC bandits powering along the water front, it’s the week prior to the ‘4 Islands Race’ and some of the competitors are here already settling into the venue. It’s another sign of Croatia’s growing interest and attraction for biking, especially when you consider how the race year-on-year is expanding at a rate of knots, bringing hundreds of people to the area.

After fuelling the fire with a nip of caffeine we head out for an afternoon lap on the other side of the valley and hot on the trail of parts of the race course, although at a little more relaxed tempo.

Ancient bridge on the way to ride the Cicarija hills, Croatian mtb scene

The rocks of this morning were back with a vengeance keeping us on our toes as our wheels began to point towards the sea and setting sun, flanked by two mammoth walls of stone either side of the trail. Demanding attention throughout, any lazy line choice would put you at risk of a pinch flat… Something I found out the hard way! Luckily not before we’d branched off from the main trail and taken the right turn onto the ‘DH’ option on a very homemade looking sign. The track still retained the rockiness but added in another different flavour to our ride with some swooping berms and nicely shaped doubles. Towards the bottom we came across the young locals who’d been putting in the graft on the trail, testing out one of their new features. Through a little cracked English we chat briefly about the trail they’re digging, luckily Danijel was there to fill in the missing words but an impression was definitely made on us. It was pretty old-school, raw, and behind the curve of many places, but it was great to see a smile-filled group of local riders not only enjoying their trails, but also helping the growth of the sport in that area.

It was a nice sentiment to finish our trip on. The trail quality and massive diversity leaves little to be desired. Throw into that the scenery, culture, cuisine, and massively hospitable locals and you have a riding experience that’ll leave a lasting impression.

Croatia’s riding scene is youthful which isn’t a bad thing. The ingredients are there and it is emerging slowly for the moment, but with Lošinj set to enter the global stage next year with the World Cup it might just set the cat amongst the pigeons for European riding destinations.

Bikers on a hill Krk Island, Croatian mtb scene
Sunset riding on Krk Island, Croatian mtb scene

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