Mountain Bike Racing from the New World to the Old – A Trip to Croatia

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By Shannon Boffeli —

A few years ago, Jen and I took a break from mountain bike stage races, and vwent from what felt like a developing civilization in Cuba to racing in the earliest expanse of western civilization; I can’t imagine a greater contrast from out last stage race to the Mitas 4 Islands mountain bike stage race in Croatia. From racing in the untouched interior of Cuba we transitioned to racing on trailssbuiltsdsin the Roman era; the start of stage one traverses through castle ruins!! A castle built well before discovery of the Americas, when the earth was still thought to be flat. How’s that for a contrast?

Race Overview

Despite the differences in location there were several constants shared between this and other stage races we’ve done, the most important being incredible trail riding.

The 4 Islands organization know they have a special gem in their hands and they want to share it with all their mountain bike friends. From the opening climb through the castle Baska ruins on day one to the seaside trails and beach finish on the final day in Losinj, 4 Islands serves up an all-you-can-eat feast of dope singletrack, breathtaking views, rowdy descents, and steep steep steep climbing. This is an amazing race but you best be ready to throw down because 4 Islands will test you in everyway.

The 4 Islands stage race follows a course through historic Croatia hitting 4 of the over 1,000 islands in the Eastern European nation. Tucked just across the Adriatic sea from Italy, Croatia is a beautiful country with a rich mixture of old world charm, modern European comforts, and post-Soviet culture.

Each stage of 4 Islands begins on a new island starting with Krk then moving on to Rab, Cres, and finally Losinj. Participants have a choice of staying on a yacht, the race hotel package, or arranging their own lodging.

The race is a team event so each racer needs a teammate. Teammates have to stay within 2 minutes of each other throughout each stage. The race hosts roughly 300 teams during the 4-day race.

4 Islands is a UCI event so it’s guaranteed that some of Europe’s fastest riders will be in attendance. This year accomplished UCI riders like Fabian Geiger and Esther Suss were pushing the pace up front and although you won’t be starting with them, unless you have your UCI license, the men’s and women’s times will definitely be measured against these superstars.

There is no doubt 4 Islands will provide what you are looking for in a European adventure. Incredible scenery featuring everything from hidden inlets and secluded coves bathed in the pristine turquoise waters of the Adriatic, towering mountain scapes of jagged, jostled limestone, to medieval cobblestoned villages seeping with old world charm. 4 Islands will not disappoint.

And if challenging yourself on the bike is your goal well you’re in for a real treat with this race. Without a doubt Croatia offers up some of the very best riding I’ve seen in all of Europe. And I don’t mean groomed flow trails. I’m talking about narrow, rough, rowdy singletrack that never lets up from the start of stage one to the final beach on Losinj.

Unlike some other European stage races, 4 Islands is a real mountain biker's race and you won’t do well if you can’t ride your bike. Croatia’s unique geology leads to a land covered in babyhead, limestone rocks and when I say they are everywhere, they are literally everywhere. The porous limestone on the Croatian islands, called karst, allows water to seep through the rock rather than run off in streams and rivers. This slowly erodes and dissolves the top layer of sediment exposing an ocean of baby heads. Over centuries the Croatians have used these stones to build their paths, trails and endless stone walls that line everything, the only clear land visible is because some intrepid Croat cleaned away all the rubble using it to create an endless maze of rocky ramparts (thank you Les Brown, professor of geology and 4 Islands finisher.)

What I’m trying to say is riding in Croatia is a blast! The difficulty level of riding at 4 Islands was a real treat. Each day you are being challenged not just by distance, fatigue, and competitors but by the trail itself. Full suspension is a must and even a dropper post would be a welcomed addition for most riders who find themselves hurling their way down rock strewn descents with 5-foot stone walls on each side funneling the riders through 10 to 20 minute descents that feel like one never-ending rock garden.

Despite having 600 racers on course at the same time and an abundance of singletrack riding, the racers rarely encountered bottlenecks or slowing on course because of slow moving riders. The 4 Islands crew does an admirable job of dividing riders into 4 different starting waves and because racers start most days right from the ferry it means you often face a brutally steep climb right out of the gate that does a great job of stringing out the pack and allowing riders to attack the singletrack when they approach it. A real treat in any big stage race.

Outside of the racing activity the 4 Islands staff are nice as hell, as were all Croatians we encountered, they will bend over backwards to help you out even if what you actually need may get lost in translation a bit. The food provided on course and at the race hotels is fantastic and plentiful with a wide variety of meal options that made it easy even for a gluten-free and vegetarian racer to stay well fed throughout.

Our Experience

Mitas 4 Islands stage race is our fifth stage race competing as a mixed team, male and female partners. We arrived in the start village of Baska on the island of Krk two days before the race. Just enough time to get bikes built, pick up our registration, ride some of the opening stage, and take a quick tour of the Baska harbor.

One of the more exciting aspects of racing in an international event is having no idea who you will be facing out on the trail or how high up in the race you’ll be. It’s all a mystery until the start.

Jen Hanks leads the group across the Moonsurface on stage 1. Photo courtesy of 4 Islands MTB Stage Race                          

Day one began with a big climb of about 1,200’ right out of the gate. The pack spread out quickly and we found ourselves surrounded by about five other mixed teams heading up the long first climb that empties out onto a rubble-strewn mountain top called the “Moonsurface”. The riding gets tough here as you weave your way through fields of babyheads. Jen surged ahead through the rough riding and moved us into second place for a bit before settling back in to fourth.

We spent the rest of the day chasing a Belgian duo who would give up time on the techy parts but make up time on the roads using a cable that allowed the male rider to tow his partner in the open sections.

We crossed the finish pretty happily in fourth place not far behind the Belgians. We had spent about four hours weaving our way around Krk. All the talk at the finish line focused on the abundance of gnarly descending throughout the day as I think everyone was happily surprised by the quality of the trail riding.

Day Two

The morning immediately had a different feel. It was raining. An early transfer to the island of Rab offered no respite from the rain as it was coming down in sheets by the time the race started.

Croatian mud – Stage 2 was a nonstop rain from start to finish. Photo courtesy of 4 Islands MTB Stage Race                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

We were instantly drenched from a combination of the persistent rain and water pooling on the road and trails. Once again we opened up with steep climbs but the rain and cold deadened our legs a bit. Once again we were battling with the Belgian squad but without the tow cable this time. As it turns out, towing is illegal and they were given a 30-minute time penalty after stage 1. They seemed to have a bit more juice than us and, I’m going to presume, perhaps a bit more experience with cold and rainy conditions coming from Belgium.

Shannon and Jen deal with the wet conditions on day 2. Photo courtesy of 4 Islands MTB Stage Race                                    

About an hour in, the second place team (MT Zoom) were on the side of the trail with a mechanical and despite not feeling our best we were excited to be in third again.

Rab was one the most scenic days of riding in 4 Islands as the trail skirted along endless miles of shoreline within inches of the sea offering riders views of the incredible hidden coves and inlets around the island. Enjoying the scenery was tough as water, mud, and more water poured over us all day long. The stage finished with a massive descent into the resort town of Lopar which our drenched bodies were unable to enjoy; as the descending just made us colder.

Jen Hanks and Shannon Boffeli are too busy fighting off chills to enjoy the final descent on a wet stage 2. Photo courtesy of 4 Islands MTB Stage Race                                                                    

After crossing the line most riders quickly retreated back to the port where dry clothes were waiting. Recovery was critical on this stage.

We were excited to finish third again but lost over 18 minutes to the Belgians. Things could always be worse though as we later found out that Ant White from the MT Zoom team had broken a crank arm and, incredibly, rode over half of the race with one leg! Mountain bike stage racers are a tough bunch.

As difficult as the day was the aftermath was almost as bad. Cleaning bikes, cleaning bodies, cleaning clothes, getting warm, eating, cleaning bikes again, replacing brake pads and cables, drying shoes, and preparing for the next stage left very little time for recovery and rain was, again, in the forecast.

Day 3

Mercifully we woke to clear blue skies and much warmer temperatures the morning of stage 3. We prepared for another ferry transfer to Cres. The location of the day’s stage. As we boarded the ferry we were told the race mechanics had run out of brakepads overnight and anyone needing new pads would have to wait until we landed at the port to get them. The exhausted race mechanics had been working until 5 in the morning getting bikes ready for riders the next day but a shortage of brakepads meant either you would be going without or frantically work some of your own bike magic when we hit shore.

Luckily, I used the 2 pairs of pads we had with us on Jen’s bike the night before. That meant I only needed stoppers for my bike.

A sunny stage 3 brings out the smiles and good legs. Photo courtesy of 4 Islands MTB Stage Race

We hit the shore with about 50 minutes before the start. After navigating a long line of distressed racers I finally got my pads and had just enough time to change the front set of pads while we waited on the start line; only having front brakes is better than no brakes at all and there were plenty of people who would be going without.

We started off the ferry deck and immediately up a 1,200-foot leg-burner. After that we were dumped again into fabulous Croatian singletrack flowing through vineyards and fields of olive trees, lined with rock walls of course. The warm weather and sun helped to fuel us to a strong start sitting comfortably in third on the stage in front of the Belgians this time.

Midway through we hit a long stretch of two-track hugging the Cres coastline. A breathtaking track but wide and flat enough that it allowed our rivals to catch up just as we hit the base of the day’s steepest climb. About a mile long and well over a 20% grade for long sections the Belgians attacked early. We were able to close the gap back down and when it kicked up again we countered their attack and briefly got a gap of our own before they brought us back. They launched to final counter attack just as the climb crested and that was it. We were in damage control mode again.

We rode strong the rest of the day enjoying the dry trail, tacky dirt, and endless Croatian singletrack.

We finally finished the stage charging down a long section of cobblestoned streets and narrow passageways through the medieval town of Osor.

Despite losing more time to our rivals we really enjoyed the day and felt good about our performance on the 4 Island’s queen stage on Cres. Finishing in Osor was icing on the cake. Cobblestoned streets, canals, a rusty old drawbridge, all in the shadows of centuries old steeples and facades made an amazing stage that much more memorable. With big smiles, we boarded the bus for our final transfer to our finishing hotel on Losinj.

Last Day

Another warm day and no transfers made for a more relaxing feel to this final morning of 4 Islands. We were a bit nervous though wanting to hold onto our second place in the GC and knowing we only had just over 5 minutes to work with. With a shorter stage on tap it seemed possible especially if we could get off to a quick start like we had the previous day.

After a mile or two cruise to the day’s start venue in Mali Losinj we found ourselves right in the middle of a perfectly picturesque scene in the quaint port city. Imagine the most idyllic European seaside town square and that’s Mali Losinj. Cobblestone streets lined with cafes and coffeehouses, majestic sailboats resting in crystalline blue waters set the scene for the final day’s start.

The last stage was the shortest but featured two very steep climbs at the start and a long flat run into the finish line following the coastline.

The start was fast and our Belgian rivals managed to get in front of us as the climbing started. It was tough to enjoy another warm, clear day as we pushed hard to limit the time gap.

One big climb down, we reached the bottom of the final big ascent of the race. A beast of a mountain that starts hurting before you even start. It’s so steep you can see the final climb for a half kilometer before actually getting there. The climb itself is so steep they recently had to pour two parallel ribbons of concrete running from top to bottom to help the 4×4 trucks get up. Pick one ribbon at the bottom and stay on it if you hope to have any chance of riding your way to the top. You need every bit of your 50-tooth Eagle rear cassette to get up this thing.

As painful a climb as this was it lifted our spirits a bit as we could see the Belgian duo in front of us and they were off walking.

We crested the climb and attacked the usual mixture of rock-strewn singletrack, walled descents, and seaside walkways literally giving everything we had to get to the finish line.

We spent no time enjoying the incredibly scenic final kilometers, running just feet from the Adriatic, we were pushing with all we had for the finish line. When we finally crossed, it was a mixture of accomplishment and disappointment that waited for us as we were so happy to be on the podium but lost second place by just 21 seconds!

The disappointment quickly passed as we enjoyed another great post race meal and shared our stories with new friends we made throughout the week.

4 Islands is an incredible race. It gives riders everything they could possibly want from a multi-day stage race; unrivaled scenery, tough competition, challenging course design with loads and loads of singletrack, friendly staff, and excellent food and sleeping accommodations. My two tricks for making your 4 Islands experience the best would be: pay the extra coin to stay on the boats during the race and take advantage of the race mechanics to service your bike each night (your legs will thank you for the extra time to recover).

Shannon Boffeli is the managing editor for mtbracenews.com

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