Let me begin by me stating the obvious. Although we have a portal, Total Croatia Cycling, I am not a cyclist. The residents of Novi Marof in Varazdin County are probably still having nightmares at the sight of a fat Englishman making his way up a wooded hill with some professional local cyclists in red lycra, only the third time I had been on a bike in 20 years.
So when I received an invitation to cover the Bahrain Merida winter training camp on Hvar, I afforded myself a wry smile. Of course I would come and cover the event, which I could approach from various angles, but for a little more cycling professionalism, I also arranged for my cycling colleague Marko Rajkovic to join. And thus I felt a little less guilty when I was asked to choose which bike I would like to ride to the top of the island with a cycling world champion - this was something Marko could do for the team while I observed the impressive Merida logistics in action from the comfort of the passenger seat of one of the support vehicles.
Obligations in Zagreb prevented me from making the main press conference, and I arrived on the last ferry, where a waiting Merida team player was waiting to collect me and bring me to Hvar's bike hotel, Pharos bayhill hvar, where just one of the Merida buses was enough to show me that these guys were serious.
Two welcoming packages, one from Hvar, the other from Merida, awaited each journalist, and it was good to see some old friends, and new, in the Hvar collection. It looks like they will be taking next year's 150 anniversary very seriously. It should be quite a year for the Sunshine Island.
I have to confess that when I was invited to the opening of Hvar's first Millennial hotel last year, I was a little unsure. Apart from being a generation too old, I wasn't sure that this was what Hvar needed to move forward. But I thoroughly enjoyed the opening weekend last summer (which you can read about here) and I think it would be my hotel of choice in the town. The shower was certainly a little livelier than some hotels I have stayed in this year.
And so to try and blend in with the rest of the crew - I stood out like a sore thumb. Here are two of Merida's TEN mechanics, with a toolbox which puts my collection at home to shame. This operation was impressive indeed, as was the obvious camaraderie within the team. Some 75 persons in total, of whom 28 were cyclists, this was the only time in the year when everyone came together, so an important 10 days in the pre-season training. After Hvar, the team would disperse to races in Australia, Argentina, Spain and Dubai, with a gruelling 8-month season about to begin.
It was time for the cycle with the team from Bahrain Merida. As Marko had left his bike at home, I lent him mine - the sacrifices one is forced to make sometimes...
Some of the world's top cycling journalists had been invited to join the training camp (and yes, I exclude myself from that list), and in a very nice gesture, they were invited to cycle with the team, a ride which took in the old road from Hvar Town to Stari Grad.
With a mandatory photo stop at gorgeous Dubovica, just before the tunnel.
The descent to Stari Grad was fondly remembered by the excellent Slovenian PR lady for Bahrain Merida. Mateja had learned to swim at Hotel Arkada in Stari Grad over 30 years ago, and cycling down from the tunnel with Arkada in view brought back a flood of happy childhood memories. And happy was a very apt way to describe this training camp - it was a pleasure to be an outsider briefly on the inside.
Onwards and upwards, through the village of Vrbanj.
Before some canalside cycling into Little Venice itself and our destination - Vrboska.
A well-deserved coffee break at Dalmatino, where it was nice to be greeted by the owner, who welcomed me warmly, my regular tipple at the ready. It was good to be back.
Off into the gorgeous back streets of this delightful little Dalmatian treasure, where a traditional Hvar experience awaited.
Lunch at the Pinjata winery, complete with local wines and delicacies.
And time for a wander around Vrboska, with new concepts in island hopping cycling tourism explored...
A large figure throughout the training camp has been Hvar Town Mayor, Riki Novak, who told the New York Times last year that Hvar is genetically disposed to tourism and receiving guests. Coming from a strong tourism background, it is obvious that Mayor Novak is engaging heavily in Hvar's tourism future, much more than recent previous mayors, a good sign as Hvar prepares to celebrate 150 years of the oldest organised tourism in Europe next year.
He is not alone. The Vrboska coffee was also attended by Stari Grad Mayor Antonio Skarpa, and the two discussed Hvar cycling tourism possibilities with Vladimir Miholjevic, one of the driving forces of Croatian cycling promotion. Apart from being the Sports Director for Bahrain Merida, Vladimir is also one half of the outstanding Tour of Croatia, which is due to return once more in April to Croatia's roads, and which has done more to put cycling in Croatia on the world map than any other initiative.
Lunch over and cyclists and non-cyclists returned to Pharos, it as time for one to one interviews. As I didn't want to embarrass myself with my lack of expert knowledge, I sent Total Croatia Cycling's expert, Marko, into battle, while I settled for a friendly chat with Vladimir, who I first met speaking on the same panel in Novi Vinodolski a couple of years ago. He had plenty to say, but I will save that for another article.
There were plenty of serious cycling journalists to make up for my ignorance, however, and plenty of column inches and television minutes reporting on Hvar's illustrious visitors - here is South African General Manager, Brent Copeland, talking to Eurosport, above.
The feedback I had from everyone I spoke to, from the drivers and mechanics, to the riders and directors, was that the Hvar winter training camp had been an outstanding success, and the Bahrain Merida team departed in good heart, ready for the new season, and with every intention of returning. The December Hvar roads were ideal for their needs, as were the facilities at the Pharos cycling hotel. Special tribute should also be paid to these guys, above, Massimo and Riccardo from Hvar Life, who were the initial driving force to bring this whole event to be.
The arrival of Bahrain Merida sparked plenty of local interest and inspiration. And when it comes to mixing cycling and photography on Hvar, there is only one man you need - great shot, Andrej Birg!
The winter training was a teambuilding exercise, and there was perhaps no better way to bond than teams of two taking the challenge from Hvar's famous pjaca to the Spanish fortress.
Just a few steps, and a challenge which included the whole team, not just riders.
In order to even things out and not to penalise the less agile support crew, the teams of two were weighed, with time bonuses allocated according to weight.
Everyone was rewarded with spectacular views.
While the winner (or was it the loser?) given an extra benefit - a fully-clothed experience of the Adriatic. In a show of team spirit, a colleague was quickly on hand to help.
Hvar Town as a professional cycling training camp in December passed the test with flying colours. What was additionally impressive to me, having followed events in the town for a number of years, was how the main actors seem to be working in harmony for the greater good, in a way that has not happened in many years. This was very much a team effort from the town, the tourist board, Hvar Life and Suncani Hvar Hotels. Congratulations to all.