An extensive guide to the lore of cycling in Croatia
1. Pretty Pretty Good?
Well, it sure is pretty, after all, you are turning the pedals to Cycle in Croatia, and if you just hopped off your plane to indulge in a guided cycling tour of the country, chances are, you will be treated to a stunning holiday, pampered by your guides and protected by the support van. All you have to beware of is steep hills and gourmet pit stops weighing you down. Or just ask your tour operator for an e-bike.
2. Pretty Pretty Lousy?
Well, yes, there are certain wheelsucking phenomena in the cycledom of Croatia. Notably, roads are home to a dangerous creature. The Common Croatian Driver. This aggressive tin-human symbiont is extremely territorial and treats cyclists as gnat-like nuisances. Sometimes you just feel they are out to get you. When this happens on the road next to those hard to pronounce pretty lakes, Plea-twee-tze, the UNESCO thing everyone told you to visit, you wonder; is this a cyclo-tourist country? Perhaps not?
3. Truffle hunt on wheels
Or maybe it is. Istria has gotten used to lazy pelotons of cyclists shepherded around by mushrooming cyclotourist agencies. Although take note, even in this oasis cycling infrastructure is lacking for a serene self-guided bicycle vacation and cycling culture among the Istrians is nowhere to be found. But as the locals are beginning to realize that cyclists are good spenders armed with mighty credit cards, they are making efforts at being friendlier to the Velominati. And if you are OK with venturing off road, Parenzana, an abandoned railroad turned into a mixed use hiking-cycling trail in the middle of black truffle country is a great way to find your way to the next mistletoe brandy bar.
You are a cyclist and actually moving to Croatia. You plan on commuting by bike no matter what?
Well it depends on your vantage point. Moving from Denmark you will just be amazed at how horrid it is. Next to no commuting infrastructure, cycling culture rock bottom, fellow cyclists act like complete a-holes just like car drivers, and a police force that seems to not care much about your existence except on certain days when they embark on a quest to punish all cyclists. Then again if you just moved from Lagos or Ciudad de Mexico you will find the traffic sparse, the drivers timid and the country a quaint little cycling place.
5. Bike Hotel
Hotels and tourist workers in Croatia have caught air of the fact that cyclists belong to a peculiar tribe loaded with wads of cash; hence should be given the choice to share their holiday intimately with their bipedal partners. Plenty of hotels are pouncing on the niche market and will happily cater to globetrotting velomaniacs and refrain from frowning at the sight of muddy, sweaty, grinning bipedals swinging through their front door. Some hotels in Istria as well as the Adria bike hotel group offer various à le vélo suites for cyclists. The level of service provided ranges from just being friendly, providing a bike pump and storage, to the full luxury vélo-suite, including a glorious bike-lounge complete with a mechanic to apply lubricant and grease of choice to satisfy the hungry drivetrain of your better half and a private hotel coach for you, the human chaperone.
6. Bike Touring/Camping
Touring cyclists, both road and mountain will notice a curious absentee from Croatian cyclotourist brochures, bike camping. But fret not; there is a large number of campsites around the country one will find plenty of options. As for free camping; asking politely for permission to put up camp on someone’s property often results in a great story. It’s as if no one understands cyclists actually love to travel by bike. Touring the country on a bike is considered so subversive that one can actually cause completely bewildered locals to feed one and offer to drive you the rest of the way. The pity they feel for you as they see you ride off is sometimes disconcerting.
With beach real estate becoming ever scarcer thanks to tourism becoming the only Croatian “industry” it is sometimes impossible to find a spot in the open to peacefully share a tent with your trusty velocipede so it is best to take a side road and avoid the crowded beaches ( anyways wild camping is illegal ) in search of free campsites.
Somewhat misleadingly Croatia takes pride hosting four, EuroVelo, bike touring routes, one of them a potential stunner that takes cyclists down the Adriatic coast. Yes, we have these European Cycle network routes in the works, but not a single one is yet in shape to get the EuroVélo certified seal of approval and the one that has the biggest tourist appeal, the Adriatic one, is still a work of science fiction. The routes that follow the banks of major rivers northern Croatia rivers, however are not bad at all, the mosquito friendly one by the bird watchers favourite, Kopački Rit nature Park, the closest to offering all the amenities needed for Euro-Velo certification.
7. Ferdinand Budicki
Croatians having been touring the world by bike since the days of bike-dinosaurs. Mass cycling developed in Croatia very quickly after the advent of the safety bicycle in Europe and our hero Ferdinand was a bicycle pioneer famous for his cycling exploits. Back in 1897, before selling his soul to the engine ( soon became famous as an automobile and motorbike pioneer), “Ferdo”, a locksmith from Zagreb toured Europe and North Africa logging 17000 km on his bicycle before coming home. This adventure, long even by today’s standards landed him an invitation to the World Fair in Chicago. In 1898 he opened the doors of Zagreb’s first automobile repair shop where he also fixed bikes and gave free bike maintenance classes. Zagreb’s automotive museum that bears his name is in financial trouble so maybe it’s time to give him a bicycle museum?
8. Too cool for school
Bicycles have never quite made it onto the “what’s cool in Croatia” list. Owning a bicycle is not something Croatian kids dream about. No, they fantasize about brand new, powerful, fancy, cars. Just like the ones their parents lust for. Even cycling geeks will know more about Top Gear than GCN. Say what?
Although occasionally mayors of northern cities like Zagreb, Koprivnica and Čakovec like to parade on their bikes, and feign interest in putting more bicycles on the road, the reality is most Croatians still see the bicycle as a toy or fair weather exercise tool.
9. Mountain bikes vs. road bikes
It still fails most Croats that mountain bikes were made, well, for mountains. The paradox of cycling in Croatia is that almost everybody owns a mountain bike although most people don’t need one because they only frequent paved roads. And the paradox goes on. Although there’s all these mountain bikes, made for trails, there are very few real MTB trail parks.
Cities are full of silly knobby tires and while city bike sales have slowly been rising it is still fairly common for Croats to think that the heavy boingy-boingy suspension is the way to go even in flat towns like Varaždin and Koprivnica. Just like most SUV’s never get a taste of dirt they were made for, most mountain bikes are purchased for their supposed ruggedness only to be left to an eternal sleep in the garage, cause all that ruggedness makes them so hard to ride on the road.
Mud thirsty cyclists can find plenty of stokeworthy mixed use trails; hiking trails where one needs to be considerate with hikers and wary of quads, gravel roads to put that wide rubber to good use. As aforementioned, if you are used to actual commercial mountain bike parks of the type found in the Alps, Britain & the USA you shall be very disappointed.
Some local enduro and DH enthusiasts maintain trails around the country but not a single one is groomed or spectacular enough to warrant a mountain bike pilgrimage. And if you hail from the erosion conscious USA you might be confused by the fact there is no such thing as trail closures for preventing the destruction of trails on bad weather days. The mud is all yours. And the trails are still just fine. Go figure.
As for road cycling, the Di2 movement has recently gained somewhat on popularity in northern Croatia, the trend of picking up road cycling heralded by well-off entrepreneurs that like to fall asleep watching the Tour De France and leaf through magazines on how to prolong their date of expiration. Henceforth they take to running and cycling as aging antidotes of sorts. Grand Fondos and recreational road rides are popping up all over the place and there is a surge of lycra-clad dudes obsessing about tire pressure and buying expensive wheels they don’t need.
10. Tour of Croatia
Croatia has its “Grand Tour” contender, a professional peloton extravaganza showcasing the picturesque sights the country has on offer to the world cycling audience. The event is driven by the panache of Vladimir Miholjević. “Miha”, the first Croat to have finished the coveted Tour de France. 2018 sees the race progress to 2. HC status, a code name for being one step short of the pinnacle of professional cycling. Sadly, since cycling as a sport barely manages to find any spotlight in the football-crazed country; the few people that know of this world-class event refer to it as the day traffic is disrupted in their area cause of some cyclists.
Rocks, dirt, and sea. Croatia also has its mountain biking extravaganza. 4 Islands is an insular-bound multi-stage mountain bike race that will get your rocks off. Bring along your rock-garden riding skills, tubeless tires or the love for rock hiking in your bike shoe stilettos as this is what’s in store for you as you rip the trails of four quaint Adriatic Islands in early April. Notably, just like the grandad of multi-stage mountain biking, the Trans-Alp, 4 Islands is very much a commercial venture that cashes on the lust for travel of suspension lovers. It is also a great way for grizzly mountain bikers to start off their Croatia vacation. The bulk of the participants are made up of foreign customers that keep coming back in ever-larger numbers proving that the promoters, a couple of young enthusiasts that dreamt big, are killing it.
12. Bike shops
Snotty grumpy bike mechanics and condescending salespeople backed by money-thirsty owners that berate your opinion are still a common occurrence. The test ride culture of customer-friendly bike shops found in the Wild West is still something you can find on offer in only a few select shops across the country. And while you can still find some truly interesting and enthusiastic velo freaks, it’s a small market and as a result, everything is overpriced, shops have very limited inventory and most serious cyclists use the internet to get their valuables from German webshops.
13. Fancy fancy fancy
As with buying anything else Croats like prestige being a consumerist bunch that buys too much bike for themselves not wanting to be seen riding some no name clunker. It is not uncommon to see a dude who has never tasted a trail in his life riding a 2000 € mountain bike around the city. Everyone raves about fancy racing groupsets but very few people understand that the Ultegra groupset on the bike they ride to the coffee shop and around the local park is silly and wasteful unless they are planning on storming the pro peloton in search of glory. Croatians are slaves to status symbols and some end up with Di2 for bragging rights while incurring so much debt that they can’t even settle the power bills for their castle, thus having to charge the damn bike at the café.
14. Road safety?
Although road surface quality in Croatia isn’t all that bad, Croatian bike paths and bike lanes are mostly useless, road laws are not bike-friendly, therefore everyday cycling remains a dicey activity. Most bike trails are designed by urban and tourist policymakers clueless about the realities and needs of bike commuters and touring cyclists. Advertised bike corridors on county roads are often traps to lure you unprepared into the path of a 10 ton truck from that jovial Morrisey tune.
Sure, counties spend money on creating fictional routes that they advertise as bike trails, but this usually entails paying someone an obscene amount of money to put up some useless signage, printing maps obsolete for the smartphone-garmin generation while failing to make any changes to existing, bike unfriendly infrastructure.
Thus it is safer to travel in pelotons to gain in visibility, as is abandoning main roads for hillier but quieter side roads. If you are at ease off-road and equipped with some quality puncture-resistant rubber you can also take advantage of a plethora of beautiful, traffic-free drivetrain grinding gravel roads that are a joy to ride on.
Sharrows (markings denoting mixed-use roads for motorists and cyclists) have been painted on a few Zagreb 30 km/h zones but no visible attempt to educate drivers or cyclist has really been made. The local authorities, forced by EU standards to implement this novelty, seem to have been left scratching their head as to how this weird thing actually works, and therefore left out an integral part of the sharrow system, bike boxes to give cyclist safe turning turf.
15. Stealing me gently
There is plenty of bike theft but curiously enough it is fairly easy to prevent as thieves generally lack the expertise to break through more than the flimsiest of cable locks. Thick cable locks that would be considered theft bait in bike thieving capitals like London & NYC are considered tough. Wheels are also seldom stolen and people feel comfortable leaving panniers with groceries on their bikes. Yet, when it comes to theft from buildings there is plenty, but again we are mostly talking about busting through cheap cable locks.
The biggest problem is the lack of quality bike parking, both public and in residential buildings. Impractical low standing single wheel securing spirals are still most the most common bike parking options in cities, even in front of bike shops. It’s still an exception rather than the rule for local governments to invest in functional U-racks. So just get a U-Lock, perhaps a set of wheel locking skewers and if the only thing around is a spiral, just take a look around, find a street sign of some sort and go for a pint.
16. The cycling oasis of Međimurje
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I pedalled down the one less travelled by and ended up in Međimurje
Bob Frost obviously cycled through Croatia. Međimurje, for Croatian standards a prosperous region in Northern Croatia, historically notorious for their peculiar melancholic folk music and being the leader in suicide stats is now slowly becoming a favourite road cycling destination. This is thanks to no stunning roads, although the path by the river Mura and the winding gentle vineyard roads offer great vistas, but more for the serenity, bike and driving culture and amenities that cyclists encounter on the low traffic roads in this area. The pancake-flat Mura-Drava trails that follow the rivers upstream connect all the way through Slovenia and into Austria and offer a great place to chill out and ponder about the meaning of bicycles.
17. Croatian Cyclists
Finally, a friend, another cyclist! But what is this creature doing? The leg-driven monster is staring right at you, heading down the wrong side of the road, your side of the road. You want to avoid a collision? Choose from the following options; a) Dodge the cyclist and hit the headphoned pedestrian next to you b) Hit the car conveniently parked in the bike lane c) Hit the brakes and rely on the colleague doing the same.
You may go by the “when in Rome be like the Romans”, but if you value your life resist the temptation to follow these Croatian velo-kamikaze. Confusingly there are also some timid cyclists (often ladies) that act like pedestrians and get off their bike at pedestrian crossing only to end up on the receiving end of a charging cyclist weaving at full speed through pedestrian hell.
In some places like Zagreb, cyclists actually swarm the city if the weather conditions are right. But they cycle just like Croatians live, if you can break the law, not get caught, you are clever and resourceful. If the cops stop them at night for running a red light, with no illumination, they curse their bad luck, the bloody unfair cops, and later contest the charges in the ever inefficient Croatian court.
Cycling culture is still in the weaning phase. Bike advocacy is run only by a few NGOs, like the very active Sindikat Biciklista in Zagreb, but they've so far been unable to make a significant impact on bike life. This owes a lot to the fact that most of the significant local and county funds destined for making cycling better end up in the hands of either non-cyclist or incompetent and even corrupt experts in local governments.
Meanwhile, cyclists never fail to comment on how motorists are vile deathmongers but assume the same pattern of behaviour when riding their bikes in traffic and on crowded sidewalks. As a consequence a “Petrified Grandmas against the Bicycle” society has come up with a plan to secretly destroy “The two-wheeled Monsters”.
18. Cycling in Croatia and women
Ladies make up a large percentage of the commuter cycling population. Often riding because the macho husband has priority access to using the family car or simply because they never got a driving licence. But the Croatian cycle ladies haven’t yet organized themselves in any serious capacity. Enthusiast like the members of the wonderful Zagreb bike co-op Biciklpopravljaona have noticed a need for a women’s cycling group to help women eager to get rid of condescending male mechanics patronizing them. And while Biciklpopravljaona’s classes will empower them by learning basic mechanic skills, female mechanics, a sign of real emancipation and now common in most US bike shops are still nowhere to be seen.
What also pokes one in the eye is how disproportionate the number of female cyclists is when compared to the number of women involved in recreational cycling. The entrant lists of women taking part in local races, both road and mountain is a sign that bicycle girl power has still a long way to go in this neck of the woods.
19. Bike Share in December? Urban cycling strategies?
Bike share being unavailable in winter is a good sign of the state of vélo affairs in Croatia. Instead of being a yearlong operation offering cycling a serious alternative to public and automotive transport, Next Bike, currently the bike share monopolist in Croatia is telling folks that cycling is a fair-weather affair. Dockless bike share is still not heard of and the concept of including e-bikes in bike share to encourage older and less sporty people to take up cycling is an idea that even the bike advocates aren’t vocal about. For who on earth would have to bike year-round in Croatia where urban cycling in most cities is a farce.
Haven't you heard of those Croatian winter mixed-use bike lanes? On snow days they become snow dumping lanes. Although Zagreb’s delusional mayor will boast Zagreb is home to the largest number of bike lane miles in Europe, the sad reality is none of them are maintained or properly designed. They are not good for biking by any trail building standards, lanes often disappearing in the middle of nowhere leaving you the option of either levitating or fighting the law. Coastal cities like Rijeka or Split seem to be even less keen on bike lanes. Multi modal, bike on bus/train transportation is also still a novelty practiced by a select few and though some public busses are now being equipped with front bike racks it’s next to impossible to get your bike on a regular commuter train.
20. Velodrome Zagreb
All you track cyclists intent on beating the Wiggo’s hour record need not worry. There is a venue for you in Croatia. The gloomy velodrome track surrounding the Kranjčevićeva stadium in Zagreb was built back in 1921 when people would still watch cycling races in stadiums. Nowadays the stadium in dire need of a facelift hosts only occasional training races, weather permitting. There is but a few participants that race on track bikes which one sees ridden in Croatia only by the few followers of US hipster lore.
21. Vélo cash - EU Funds
Cycling is very good policy point to ensure you get access to copious EU funds supporting this wonderful eco-friendly sustainable activity. All of a sudden almost every county in Croatia has found a lust for cycling. Only they haven’t. Really. Instead of investing the funds they are tapping into to work on creating cycling infrastructure, separated bike lanes, bike share, promoting driving/cycling culture advocacy and developing traffic strategies, they make obsolete printed maps and put up signage on roads where cycling is a nightmare. It’s as if no one told them modern cyclo- tourists mostly rely on Garmins and Smartphones and the thing they really need to do to make the country a better destination for cyclists other than cyclist friendly infrastructure is to create a better road traffic culture, among motorists and cyclist alike.
22. Island hopping
The glorious Adriatic islands, surely the best Croatia has to offer to the world. And yes the roads are narrow and overcrowded during peak season days and island-hopping can be a hassle of dealing with costly and bike unfriendly passenger ferries. But if one just uses larger car ferries and set out on your bike adventure avoiding the July-September peak season period you can experience a dazzling trip.
Just look at the average for Hvar in December.
The weather on the islands is ideal for yearlong cycling so no wonder Bahrain Merida chose the island of Hvar for their winter training camp. Out of season prices are agreeable, the traffic light. But beware, while it may be hard to find any inhabitants on certain islands during the winter, and when encountered as pedestrians they tend to move very sloth-like, hibernating on the hard-earned tourist cash, if found in a vehicle they transform themselves into loosely guided missiles that consider it their right to cut that corner at full throttle on your side of the road.
23. These laws weren’t made for biking
Bells are mandatory, as well as lights, front and rear, and as of recently in addition to lighting reflective clothing is mandated not only at night but also during daytime in gloomy winter. The reality though is you will almost never be punished for breaking the law unless you end up in an accident.
The chaos in implementing cycling laws can be witnessed in every urban area and the fact that the law still mandates riding as close as possible to the right edge of the road. This often means cyclist are faced with hitting branches and slippery, bike unfriendly, recessed, pothole surrounded grate manhole covers and drains that will send you flying over the handlebars. Or you risk getting hit by an unfriendly driver when breaking the law riding in the safe, middle portion of the road. Therefore most cyclists in urban areas just choose to fight with pedestrians for sidewalk real estate.
Brain buckets, also known as helmets are not mandatory in Croatia if you've survived your 16th birthday celebration. Also, they make you uncool. The last time I chatted to a bike activist I got pounced on for wearing a helmet. I was giving cycling a bad rep for being dangerous, you know.
24. Cener - a local Zagreb race
Chances are if you are a road cyclist stuck in the capital you will be wondering where to go when in need of road bike therapy. If bikeless you can try and rent a bike and ride off to the mountain Sljeme to meet the local road cycling scene at the start of Cener. This relaxed event has three seasonal competition cycles; spring/summer/autumn. And if you just flew into Zagreb with your bike to start your personal Tour of Croatia the ride to Sljeme is a good place tune your pedal strokes to the hilly rythm of Croatia.
25. E-Bikes/Cargo bikes?
E bikes have well and truly reached Croatia and are slowly becoming a regular sight on both roads and pavements adding another component to the already chaotic cycling reality. There is no one enforcing the pedal assist / EU 25 km/h limit so some fast moving throttle powered e-bikes are joining the ranks of scooters that are liberally creating havoc on mixed use bike lanes and bike paths. Cargo bikes are almost nowhere to be seen, used almost exclusively for promotional purposes by companies and NGO’s, and kid hauling is still mostly performed by way of cumbersome bicycle mounted baby seats.
Three less-known not to miss rides in VéloCroatia
1. Una spring ride - road bike
Chances are you will want to see the UNESCO branded, tourist overridden Plitvice national park. Biking on the main D1 road through the park is nerve wrecking but just take a left turn down the road after Korenica towards Donji Lapac and do the loop that will bring you back to D1 near the hamlet of Otric. Whether you access this road from the north or the south it will bring a long needed respite from the hazards of vehicle dodging. One can instead focus on listening to the squeaky drivetrain and weak heart as you approach cardiac arrest on one of the gentle 18% inclines that take you to the highlight of this route, the recently built short hiking trail to the source of the river Una.
When one mentions the river Una in Croatia people tend to think of Bosnia, rafting, and devouring chevapchichi, but the transparent spring is hidden in Zadar county near the picturesque hamlet of Doljani. There is a 20 kuna entrance fee at the trailhead, where you can also lock or hide your bike but the place is usually abandoned by humans and cashiers alike. The spring is also the only habitat in Croatia still home to otters, and if you hate the summer heat just chill out with the otter family; the water is never warmer than 8°C.
2. Velebit - mountain bike/touring bike
The Velebit mountain range, a barren rocky wilderness that towers over the central coastal region is explorable by bike traversing a maze of gravel roads. Start by the northern entance to the nature park in Krasno and head towards Baške Oštarije. There is a number of mountain shelters and mountain huts along the route. Take good note of their locations because they might be vital for survival when your water bottles dry out in this water-thirsty area. Little scenic detours like the ride to Alan mountain hut, or hiking to the rock peak Kiza from Ravni Dabrovi, are well worth for the stunning views and viper spottings. You don’t like snakes? C’mon!
3. Sv Jure climb - road bike
The switchback climb to the Biokovo is the closest Croatia has to Tour de France’s legendary Mont Ventoux climb. The best way to start this climb is to sip an early morning coffee in Makarska and leave town before the traffic picks up. As you leave the main road the route soon reaches a barren landscape with spectacular views of the Adriatic and occasional mind blowing windgusts. The 27 km climb with gradients of up to 10% takes you from 0 to 1762 metres, a great route for Strava enthusiasts to gather data about their climbing prowess. And once you’ve reached the highest patch of Croatian asphalt it’s time to descend and follow up with a splash on one of the local beaches to cool you down.