Exploring Croatia in search of a new long-distance mountain biking trail
Words by James McKnight — Photos by Andy Lloyd
An entire summer had passed since photographer Andy Lloyd and I finished a weeklong grapple with an arduous off-road route through Slovenia.
That trip, in which we followed the Trans Slovenia mountain bike trail, had been an eye-opener. We had spent seven days toiling away at its 400+ kilometres, grunting across plains, through valleys and up hills in the pursuit of the next great singletrack descent, the fruit of our labour. None of our group on that ride was accustomed to long distances, but we wished to discover the pleasure of point-to-point riding and ended up enjoying even the toughest days in the saddle.
Now, nearly six months later, we were pretty much back where we had left off, just south of our Slovenian finishing point in a small village near Opatija, Croatia. Would there be any lingering fitness left from the intense week of pedalling we’d endured in early May?
The next seven days would tell, as we were about to take on the second stage of the proposed Trans Dinarica, a long-distance trail under construction by Slovenian guide Jan Klavora and a team of associates and helpers along its route. The Trans Dinarica will eventually cross through more than eight countries and territories, linking existing trails and connections into one long mostly off-road ride as it follows the Dinaric Alps range south from Slovenia to Albania.
This time we were invited along on one of the final scouting missions to connect Croatia’s best tracks and trails into what would become a week-long tour, the Trans Croatia section of the full Trans Dinarica. French pro racer Morgane Charre, Andy and I would be tagging along with Jan’s crew of Trans Dinaric staff: Croatian guide Bojan Šenkinc, cartographers Matic Klanjšček and Daša Kotnik, journalist and guide Matej Hartman and Jan himself. Local Bojan would prove to be the source of all information, whether it be a history lesson at any given moment or a stone-by-stone description of every trail in Croatia. The rest of the crew were all from Slovenia but had been on multiple missions to scout for the best route through the country and therefore also knew the terrain well.
What the team also knew was just how gruelling the seven days ahead of us were likely to be. While a version of the ride already existed as ‘Trans Croatia’, our mission would be to uncover new trails and dirt roads so that this version could link seamlessly into the full Trans Dinarica route, becoming its second stage after Slovenia and before Bosnia. There would be many kilometres covered in the pursuit of mapping out the very best options.
Day one’s ride somewhat set the tone: we met with Bojan in a local hangout bar where villagers were huddled around a fire roasting chestnuts, discussed our ride over a coffee and at 8am began to pedal upwards. Heavy clouds hung oppressively overhead as we crawled up 20 kilometres of steep gravel roads, going from early to late autumn as we gained altitude, the ground becoming thick with brightly coloured leaves. Around two hours of pedalling later, having skirted around the mountains that border Slovenia to the north, we met with winter as the snow began to fall. This was not quite the sun-blessed picture we had imagined before the trip, but adventure is by definition unexpected and this was already turning into a proper outing.
From a vantage point at 1200m altitude we were gifted a roving keyhole view down to the coastline below and then across the brooding Adriatic Sea, our gaze following this small window through the clouds that enveloped us. This was Europe from a new perspective, a different corner of the continent that I had never before explored. Island after island appeared through our lens as it scoured south, a hint at what was to come in the following days. Then, as fast as the shutting aperture of a camera and with a howling swirl, the gap closed and the acute pain in our fingers became apparent.
This was a bitterly cold day, but any personal suffering vanished at the sight of an elderly couple arranging firewood and tending to a few animals outside their windowless house – a puff of smoke from a shanty chimney the only sign of relative homeliness. Here, just a few turns of the cranks from Italy and Slovenia, traditional ways of life endure. Again, Europe as I hadn’t before seen, and the point of taking on a project like the Trans Dinarica, which we will be exploring over the coming years as the trail project progresses through the Balkans.
A numb-handed ride down through great rocks and tight turns led into a balcony trail that clung to a steep slope as it raced through jungle-like foliage of the Učka Nature Park. Short hard bursts of pedalling were necessary to maintain flow along this wave of dips and crests, but every sprint was welcome as it warmed the core a little. The temperature also rose as we began to rapidly drop in altitude, and before we knew it we had burst from the forest into the outside world, a sudden encounter with civilisation after an hour or so of descending. We dropped steeply down streets and took in one last section of trail that cut through a gorge by way of a series of near-impossible switchbacks.
The shoreline at Mošćenička Draga, the ride’s end, was our first of many meetings with the Adriatic’s waters. Here the sea chopped and churned ominously, such unrest rare in this sheltered bay and a sure sign of high winds across the country. The gale caused road, bridge and boat closures, forcing rejigged plans and lengthening the drive south to find accommodation. Our day’s end was late and its night brief – at 5am the following morning we were already back on the road to the next start line. Plenty of dozy hours in a vehicle later and we’d learned the basics of Croatian lingo – bok (hello), molim (please) and hvala (thank you) – as well as finding out about the remnants of war that still plague the country, including thoughtlessly placed minefields that persist in the mainland mountains. This was still a shocking reminder of the recent struggles in this part of the continent and their maliciously lingering effects.
By 7.30am we were aboard the first of many ferries, Matej having dropped us at the port of Zadar early and gone ahead to our end-point somewhere south. We crossed a stretch of turbulent water to the island of Ugljan and a short time later were back in the saddle, pedalling away from the small harbour at Preko to a high point above the town. From here we could look back over the bright sea, the sun by now heaving itself above the horizon and casting its golden light across our scene. A fun run down through bristly vegetation threw a few surprise jumps and shaped turns, quite in disrepair but still rideable and an entertaining start to the long days of leg pain ahead. We skirted around the island’s perimeter, crystal-clear waves lapping at the trail, pines dappling the sun’s rays and howling wind making the otherwise delightful experience a whole lot colder than it perhaps should have been.
It didn’t take long to get into a pleasant rhythm, with pedals turning endlessly, water and food going into the burner consistently and smiles donned permanently. What better way to switch off from the boring necessities of life than an island-hopping journey through some of Europe’s finest landscapes? We became immersed in Croatia’s details, constant movement enlivening the passing scenery into a cinematic showing of the country’s every story.
Hopping from one rocky Mediterranean platform to the next, we put our heads down and moved across the second island of this day to Pašman via a small bridge, 40ish kilometres of gravel road grinding later arriving at our end point at Tkon, from where we boated it back to the mainland, our weary bodies slumped in a sunny spot thankfully shielded from our invisible arch enemy, the wind. This was the easiest day of the week.
The next few days were spent exploring the islands of Vis and Hvar, the former quite unpopulated at this time of year and the latter a little livelier around its namesake town. We rummaged around in the dense and sometimes non-obliging scrublands for three days – one on the former, two on the latter – taking ferries back and forth between the islands and the town of Split on the mainland.
We discovered gems of trails that dissected the countryside, cutting through abandoned villages and working olive groves and vineyards, all drenched in endless sunshine and now thankfully devoid of the northerly Bora winds that had followed our first days. With shorter daylight hours than our Slovenian tour earlier in the year, we were forced to make few stops – no hour-long coffees and four-hour lunches this time. Trails and connections and habitations flew by in a blur of effort, the feeling of hard labour surprisingly rewarding. Nonetheless, on many occasions I stared longingly at a tiny bar wishing I was lazily soaking up the sun’s increasingly warm rays and stringing out a cuppa as long as humanly possible. There was little time for tourism on this working trip.
On Hvar, one memorable descent sliced across a near-vertical slope that fell directly into the sea below. This thousand-year-old track wound its way along and down the cliffs by way of endless rockiness, perilous hairpins and tricky technicalities. It was the sort of trail you’d never get the chance to ride anywhere but a parched Mediterranean island, its edges bordered by sharply textured boulders affected by millennia in the oven and its surface conspicuously devoid of anything resembling dirt. Here there were only marbles and grit under tyre.
All this effort wasn’t for nothing. As we scuttled around the islands the team was professionally mapping each trail and the route to get to it, noting landmarks, difficulties and outstanding descents to add to their library of possible routes through Croatia. By the week’s end they would have an extra 500km logged and ready to be compared with other segments recorded on previous scouting trips.
It was good to be a fly on the wall to this process, an eye opener to just why the Trans Slovenia leg had been such a smooth journey – weeks, months and years of painstaking work had gone into its mapping. It also made me appreciate just how much effort Jan’s team is putting into the 5,000km+ Trans Dinarica. I have a strong feeling it will be worth the toils – a journey like this is not only for entertainment, it also opens eyes to history and cultures, provides valuable and far-reaching lessons.
Travelling from Hvar back to Split once again, we guzzled every liquid and foodstuff the ferry could provide in its two-hour crossing – by this point in the trip, already hundreds of kilometres under our belts, no foodstuff was great enough to satisfy our desperately yearning appetites. Then, leaving the van and bikes at the port, we spent a short hour scurrying around Split’s old town, a beguiling spaghetti-jumble of narrow passageways leading to myriad bars, shops and homes. We stuffed our faces once more.
Several hours later we were back on one of the more than 1,000 islands in the archipelago, Brač. A crossing from the north-facing port of Supetar directly through the island’s hinterland delivered us to a south facing point in the town of Bol, a well-known holiday destination. For good reason: sitting securely at the foot of the islands’ highest peak, sheltered from the worst Bora winds and bathed in glorious rays, the pretty old harbour looks out across a calm bay towards Hvar, its locals and tourists spending long mornings gazing over postcard scenes of rhythmically bobbing fishing boats.
But not us. We had a mammoth ride planned – our sixth day would start by climbing harshly from sea level to a plain at around 700 metres. My notes from the trip detail this simply as ‘disgusting’. Large chunks of gravel and a sharp gradient made the going as tough as it could be, leaden legs non-compliant in this act of grievous bodily harm. It’s impossible to say whether the climb might have been a breeze in other circumstances, but after a week of 50-90km rides with thousands of vertical metres daily, we were well and truly spent. All except Matej, a veritable source of energy and optimism, who was up and down the climb several times, encouraging the rest of the group and spreading his infectious smile among us. Anyway, at the end of the day, however dismal life seemed on this hill one glance over the shimmering Adriatic was enough to stoke our ambitions. Pedals were forced through revolutions and the show went on slowly but surely.
A tough day took its toll, with the final sting coming from a raging gale across the plateau near the ride’s end; any hint of warmth now removed from the equation. We slogged through forests and plodded up more brutal climbs, barely the energy to notice the truly fantastic place we were travelling through. Finally, just as daylight began to wane, we popped out at the highest point in the Adriatic, the summit of Vidova Gora at 778 metres.
At the dramatic mountaintop – more a place where land abruptly drops away than a peak – we were once again offered a window for reflection as we peered over the sea, its countless islands and endless potential for two-wheeled journeying, before plunging into the very best trail of the whole trip, a long, fast, flowing and technically testing singletrack back to Bol. This was such a memorable trail that we chose to repeat it on a relaxed final ride the following day, a perfect end to a tough but rewarding week on the pedals.
Our week travelling through Croatia was a fragmented version of what will be an unbroken series of linked trails when the route is finalised. Indeed, since our ride the Trans Dinarica team have been back for another scouting mission.
Riders embarking on the Croatian leg of the long-distance trail can now expect a solo or vehicle-assisted journey through the mainland and islands, taking in a selection of the country’s very best trails, plenty of long days in the saddle and as many or few sun-blessed coffee stops as they wish.
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