September 10th. We had just wrapped up the film showing of ‘North Coast’, the film from our previous trip around Scotland which was plagued by last minute planning, horrific weather and relentless punchy climbs. We finished off the film showing by putting a question to the audience:
“Where should we go next?”
One person gingerly raised their hand amongst the crowd - “Go to Croatia! It’s bloody lovely!”. We had decided we would meet up on 18th September to hammer down a plan on where we would go. Well… this was before Nathan got excited and started looking at flights. We all got the message on the group chat the night before: “Guys, I found £8 flights to Croatia, so I’ve just booked them”. And that was that. Within one week, we would be flying to Croatia and we had to get a route together fast.
Gideon, a close friend of ours, was tasked as routemaster. Gideon’s route took us north along the coast from Zadar, up towards the Bay of Rijeka and then island-hopped us back to Zadar. We would make detours inland to climb mountains and explore the interior areas of the country. We had even planned to make a short trip into Slovenia, covid restrictions allowing.
A week later we boxed up our bikes and made our way to the airport. We were headed for Zadar. On an airplane of all things.
Our flight landed at 11pm local time, so we could not see Croatia when we flew in. Personally, I love this. Arriving somewhere at night is exciting, and the feeling of waking up and seeing where you are in morning light is an absolute joy.
We built up our bikes at the airport, rode the 2 miles to our ‘Apartmani’ in the small village of Zemunik Donji. In all the excitement I don’t think we got much sleep that night.
Our first day had promised to be a nice amuse bouche for the rest of the trip. Arguably one of the flattest days, we would make our way from Zemunik Donji and make a b-line for the coast, following the coastal road northwards and the weather was set to be stunning.
After stocking up on some strange pastries and light bites from the local shop, we got on the bikes and began the trip. Almost immediately we saw the huge mountains in the distance and we knew this was exactly what we had hoped for. Before we knew it, the flat smooth roads pitched downwards towards the coast and we were greeted by the crystal blue seas that we had heard so much about.
We made our way northwards on the coastal road, gradually rolling up and down along the cliffside, where the road ducked and weaved through small bays, inlets and fishing villages. With rocky cliffs to the right and pristine calm seas to the left, we proceeded in the baking hot sun and made our way towards Karlobag, our first stop on the tour. This was the point where the big climbs started, so we figured it best to save it for the second day.
After leaving the apartment and stocking up on more snacks, we immediately made our way skywards. The climb is known as Baske Ostarije, climbing 3,150ft above sea level over 13 miles.
The road took us up the rocky cliffside, snaking its way upwards at a gentle gradient the whole time. We were greeted by view after view of the coast, all four of us feeling content that after all the lock down dreaming that we were finally climbing a mountain on a bike tour. It was a great feeling.
Two steady hours later we were at the top, and made our way down the windy descent into the Velebit National Park. From the coast, you might assume Croatia is a rocky and arid place, but once you cross over that initial wall, the interior is surprisingly lush and green. We made our way through the town of Gospić, before turning northwest to head back to the coast.
We had found an incredibly well placed little pub just before the last climb of the day, which would be the big one. After a couple of pints we filled up water bottles and made our way into the forest. What followed was a long climb that was lined by trees the entire way up. This proved a little taxing towards the top, but after almost three hours of repeating backgrounds akin to a Scooby Doo cartoon, a lack of a real dinner and a chase by stray dogs, we started to break free of the forest and the views opened up again.
What came next, words and photos will simply do no justice. After a big day’s climbing we arrived to the summit and crested the cliff face to the probably best view we all had ever seen. The sun was setting over the hazy islands in the distance, bathing everything in a pink/orange glow. We all did our absolute best to capture it on our puny phone cameras, but to no avail. Some things just need to be kept in the memory banks instead, so we all took a moment to do exactly that.
Shortly after, we hurtled down one of the best roads we had ever ridden, right back down to sea level. The descent was blessed with a buttery smooth surface, hairpins and flowing corners and because it was late in the evening, absolutely no cars. We bombed our way down to Jablanca and arrived in unanimous agreement - the last hour and a half were all up there with our favourite moments on a bike. It really was that bloody good.
Our stay at Jablanca was a cosy one. We had shacked up in a hotel the night before and we got up early. Nathan and Alex were both starving from ordering the complete wrong meal the night before. It turns out ordering 1kg of scampi between two people doesn’t have the desired effect when it’s the same meal where you learn what scampi actually are. Unsurprisingly, 200 grams worth of edible scampi and 800 grams worth of inedible shells and claws doesn’t make great recovery food.
After the big cols the day before, Day 3 would be a quick recovery ride. A short 25 mile hop would take us north along the coast to Senj. Because that’s far too easy, Gideon and Nathan decided to opt for an unrideable gravel track out of Jablanca. This would cause Alex to topple over and cut his leg, and me to throw a couple of micro tantrums at the hot and sweaty hike-a-bike.
Nevertheless, we arrived in Senj at lunchtime after some flat coastal miles, very similar to day 1. We had now clocked that the Croatian coastline isn’t prime wild camping territory and the hotels are unbelievably cheap (only a couple of quid more than the very few campsites), so we booked ourselves into our third hotel after a hearty meal in the town centre.
Not too dissimilar to our trip out of Karlobag, our ride out of Senj headed inland and back into the mountains. This climb was a different experience again - a gradual alpine style ascent with wide roads and twisting bends. Before long we had summited this climb, briefly dipped back down and made our way northwards along the ridgeline.
We rode north along the ridgeline for a few miles, weaving on empty roads through wind farms along the mountain tops. We hadn’t experienced much in the way of wind yet, so we figured maybe it was a sign this area is usually quite breezy (foreshadowing alert). After a couple of small stops in pubs and cafes, we tanked our way downhill back to the coast, where we’d found a campsite in Selce, another beautiful seaside town. We figured after hotelling it every day so far, we should justify carrying our tents and bikepacking kit by actually camping. The wind was calm, and not being able to peg our tents to the ground wasn’t an issue - we pinned them down with a few rocks instead and settled in for the night.
At 1am we all had a rude awakening. Our tents shook violently, and we quickly realised that each of us were key structural elements. Ground anchors, that is.
As far as learning experiences go, I would rate a poor night's sleep desperately holding a flappy unpinned tent onto the ground during 40mph gusts quite low. While hanging on for dear life, Gideon, a keen weather boffin, found out that this was a phenomenon unique to Croatia called the Bora wind, caused by cooling sea air being pulled over the mountains out the sea. The gusty conditions continued until about 3 or 4am, where we managed to catch a few winks before waking up at 7 to pack our tents up before they ended up blown into the adriatic with us inside them.
We knew that today’s route would take in a narrow cliffside road, but knew it could potentially be unsafe. We made the decision to press on inland, to escape the gusts and see what happens. It did seem to ease off, and while we were stood at the foot of the day’s big climb, we decided as a group to crack on. I had my reservations at first, but followed on.
This climb consisted of narrow roads that twisted along the cliffside winding up towards Vidikovac Pridva, or The Eyes of Vinodol near the peak of Mali Tić. In Croatia they certainly know how to appreciate a good view - the single-lane roads and sheer drops remain largely unguarded. The climb, while somewhat terrifying for someone that doesn’t have a head for heights, was simply unreal. We pushed our way to the top, where amazingly, our plan had worked. The winds were much lower at summit than the valley bottom. We looked over another amazing view (with wobbly legs from vertigo on my part), had a bite to eat and carried on inland.
What proceeded was yet more relentless climbing as we slogged our way towards Slovenia. With a lot of climbing already in the legs and nowhere to stop for a good meal, the pace started to slow. We decided that Slovenia would likely pose more problems than it was worth, so we stopped short and shacked up in Delnice for the night, had some incredible food and rested our tired legs. We had done 5,700ft in 35 miles, and we were spent.
In the hotel the previous night, we had been flicking through Croatian TV and found that by complete chance, the Tour of Croatia (known as Cro-Race) was currently on, and that the race was going to go from Zadar to Crikvenica. Hang on a second - weren’t we in Crikvenica yesterday? ‘We should go back to watch it’, mouthed Nath.
After yesterday’s climbing, we had seen that the trip from Delnice back to the coast was going to be the opposite of the previous day’s climbing. What took us 6 hours yesterday took us under two hours. We had enough time to hang out at a large castle with a couple of beers, before heading down to Crikvenica to watch the pros roll in and get ourselves on TV. After another helping of pizza, pasta, mixed grill and seafood (seemingly the only food served in Croatia), we got our heads down in another hotel, ready to rest our legs ahead of the big climb we had planned tomorrow.
On the seventh day, Croatia gave us a mountain. And the mountain was big. We looped round the edge of the Bay of Rijeka, in constant sight of Mount Vojak (which was easy to spot, with it’s TV mast and observation post plonked on the summit) which we would be climbing later in the day. The pros on Cro-Race would happen to be doing the same, so we made it our mission to see the race again on the slopes of the 4500ft mountain.
A few miles of rolling roads took us to Rijeka, which was a bustling city compared to where we had been riding for the past week. A quick supply stop at a bakery filled our musette bags with pizza and pastries and we were on our way. The lower slopes of the climb to Vojak consisted of fairly busy roads, which linked the Istrian peninsula to Rijeka and the rest of Croatia. After 6 miles of this, we stumbled upon a crowd gathered to watch Cro-Race roll through.
After the race, we continued on up the mountain. The climb from Veprinac, where we saw the race, took on quieter roads towards the summit with pitches of 12-15% throughout. Not ideal for tired legs. We slogged onwards and after some self-persuasion, took the 5 mile dead-end road to the summit.
The view at the top of Mount Vojak was simply incredible. We could see all the way out to where we had stayed the night before, and even as far as Selce, where we were 3 days prior. We began to pick out where we’d be going next. We took a moment to take our usual ‘tired face’ portraits, and made our way downhill.
A steep hairpin-filled descent followed, with the kind of corners that dreams are made of. 3 hours of climbing were undone within 40 minutes, as we dropped back down to sea level in what felt like the blink of an eye. 10 miles of very scenic Italian-feeling roads took us in to the village of Vozilići, where we would spend the night, ahead of the island-hopping leg back to Zadar. And just like that, the mountains were done.
DAYS 8 - 10
The island hopping leg of the tour was a simple affair compared to the previous week’s riding. The next few days almost blurred together, with distinct points in between. We had known the islands didn’t have the mountainous terrain we had now become accustomed to, so we were expecting to cover ground with ease.
First up was Cres. Like most of the islands in this part of Croatia, Cres is long and narrow and the road criss-crosses from the east to west, over a central ridgeline that runs along the spine of the island. Amazingly the island is so narrow, you can easily see both coastlines from this point, as the road crests the middle. We watched griffon vultures circle and swoop along the cliffside and dropped down to the next ferry port.
From Cres, we hopped over to Krk, then took another ferry to Rab. Rab was the flattest island yet - and we rested in the town of Rab for the evening. Before we knew it, we had only 70 miles of riding left to get back to Zadar.
From Rab, we then took the ferry over to Jablanca, where we stayed on the second night. We then took the coastal road southwards and took the final ferry from Prizna to the island of Pag, where we would head to Novalja for a rest day.
As a festival town in the off-season, Novalja was practically deserted. We spent the day wandering around the empty beaches, skimming stones and then later played a game of poker back at our (half built) apartment using Italian playing cards with 8s,9s and 10s missing, and biscuits as poker chips.
After a very restful rest day, our last day was a flat, speedy 50 miles from Novalja to Zadar. We knew rain was coming in for 1pm, so we made haste to beat the weather. In the last 10 miles it finally caught up with us. We had ridden the entire trip so far without so much as a drop of rain but it all came down in the last sprint into Zadar. But that’s okay. After last year’s trip around Scotland, we’ll take it.
We arrived in Zadar soaked through, but with a deep satisfaction that we had conquered the varied landscape that Croatia had thrown at us. From rocky cliff-edge climbs to long flowing alpine descents, lumpy gravel roads and everything in between, we had found ourselves overwhelmed by the scenery and riding.
On the surface Croatia looks like it could be harsh and unforgiving to ride through. It simply couldn’t be further from the truth. We had come away from a bike tour with what felt like no adversity whatsoever. The roads were smooth, the weather was perfect, the climbs were steady and the views were spectacular. Croatia is the perfect place to ride a bike, and you owe it to yourself to visit. As that one person in the audience said: It’s bloody lovely. Just be prepared to eat a lot of pizza and/or seafood...
- Jon Hicken
Check out our Bike Check of all the kit we took with us here: