Think of riding destinations in Europe. What comes to mind? Well, let’s say there’s a definite hotspot in the Alps; the classics 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. But what about Croatia?

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, 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.

Take, for example, 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 the recent SloEnduro Series I began to be lured in with intrigue. As we rumbled down the narrow cobbled streets, through ancient archways and in-between the towering houses, barely a handlebar’s-width apart, it felt like I was in a game of Pac Man. Springing out of the village maze we arrive at a dusty snake of singletrack slithering off into the dense undergrowth. Time to get stuck in.

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!
Wheels were swiftly pointed uphill for another lap. There’s a reason an Enduro race was held here; a fairly swift and direct uphill was the source for a whole network 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 was the perfect ending to our first Croatian riding experience, it set a high standard for the days following.

From green to blue

The following morning we headed south to the island of Krk, a stone’s throw from neighbouring Lošinj which is set to welcome the DH World Cup in 2018. 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?

The treeline stops abruptly as we clamber over a wall and apparently onto the surface of the moon.

As we begin the ascent up an old Austro-Hungarian military road the uniform pine trees try their best to hide the carpet of rocks dancing in the dappled morning light. 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 waterfront, 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.

Demanding attention throughout, any lazy line choice would put you at risk of a pinch flat… Something I found out the hard way!

After fuelling the fire with a nip of caffeine we head out for an afternoon lap on the other side of the valley, hot on the trail of parts of the race course, although at a little more relaxed tempo. The rocks of this morning are 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.Branching off from the main trail onto the ‘DH’ option on a very homemade looking sign. Hooting and hollering down swooping berms and nicely shaped doubles we came across the young locals who’d been putting in the graft on the trail, testing out one of their new features. Through 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, 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.

If you have been inspired by this story we would highly recommend taking a guided tour package with H+I Adventures. For more information on their amazing trips to Croatia, you can check out their Coastal Mountain Bike Tour Croatia here.

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Words & Photos: Ross Bell