We hurtle towards the airport the day after the final stage of Croatia 4 Islands, we leave with many stories, lots of memories, and a love of this beautiful country. The amazing pictures from previous editions attract new participants to this race each year. Those images show a different landscape to any other race I’ve experienced, this coastal terrain is jagged, rough, bike beating, but perfect for amazing mountain bike trails - it’s a beautiful place for a bike race!
The logistics of the event are pretty mindboggling with 5 stages taking place over 4 different Adriatic islands! We flew into Zagreb airport from London Heathrow, we were then picked up by the race organiser and transported to the hotel in Baska. You have 3 options during the race. First option, stay in the race hotels and take the race organised ferry transfers. Second option, stay in the boat accommodation where you'll sleep, eat and travel between islands. Third option, bring a supporter, hire a van and make your own way between the islands.
There are advantages of each logistical option, the hotel option we choose meant big comfy beds and a large food buffet at breakfast and dinner but meant some early starts and packing up most mornings to move hotels. Staying on the boats meant you kept the same bed for the week, each stage started from the ferry port so you were already at the start line each morning meaning more sleep, and with this package the event crew take care of your bike to make sure it’s ready for each stage.
The art of pairs racing is a tricky matter, one I've perfected on just a few occasions over 10s of stage races. There are many factors that can affect your partnerships success, my race partner dropping out 2 weeks before the first stage wasn't the ideal start. We went from podium contenders to possibly not racing. Luckily my buddy Graham Jones from the Fruit 4 London team stepped up at short notice, the adventure was back on.
The opening prologue was a 13km sprint along the coast of Baska. A tricky start over the pebbled beach was pretty comical, we pre rode earlier in the morning and knew that if you rode off the racing line the bike just came to a halt and it was impossible to run. This happened to me in the race, Graham turned around to see me flailing around in this deep pile of stones. Eventually off the beach we raced onto the technical clifftop singletrack climb where one mistake would see an early swim in the ocean below. After turning inland we were then treated to an enjoyable flowing descent before tackling the second climb. Some quicker trails saw participants fly through the second half of the stage. A short downhill tarmac section was the final push before reaching the hotel finishing line. The prologue was the perfect introduction to this Croatian adventure.
Stage 1 started on a 12km long singletrack climb which took participants high up on the Island of Krk and into first super rocky section of the race, this was just the start of many kilometres of fantastic but rocky trails that lay ahead. Those on full suspension bikes smiles, those on a hardtail would be challenged. My new Simplon Cirex with 120mm travel was the perfect machine for these trails picking up speed rock after rock, I grinned my way through the stage.
Stage 2 was an epic day starting with a bus journey, a beautiful ferry ride to the Island of Rab, a search for a Sram AXS battery 15 minutes before the start and then an amazing stage finishing on the longest sand beach in Croatia. Collecting the bikes from the depot my teammate’s new electrical gears were completely flat, no buzz buzz buzz. A few swear words muttered... Ok, bags are at the hotel in a huge container truck, we are at the ferry terminal at least 5 minutes ride away, this isn’t going to happen in 15 minutes. Sprint to hotel. 10 minutes to go we're in the truck searching through hundreds of bags for Graham's tiny hand luggage which has a spare battery. Somehow, out of pure luck, we find the bag pretty quickly, battery changed, sprint back to the start with 5 minutes spare, adrenalin overload! Thankfully we were still in the race to enjoy the 60km of amazing trails, astonishing views and finish line on Paradise beach.
Stage 3 on the Island of Cres started again from the ferry with an immediate 90 degree right turn onto a steep tarmac climb. Carnage was inevitable and sure enough Graham was soon off his bike and running after a first corner bump. It had rained overnight, the first climb eventually changed from tarmac to slippery rocks. Maybe 10 kilometres into the stay we reached a muddy clay which halted the bikes in seconds, wheels wouldn’t turn, bike weight doubled or tripled. After clearing the mud we were back up to speed. Passing through the sheep farming areas we visited some pretty isolated unspoilt areas you can imagine no tourist usually visiting, we were a long way from the coastal towns. This demanding stage with 1650 metres of climbing was the big challenge but so so rewarding for participants.
The final stage might have used the best race track I've ever ridden! Day 5 cemented every participants love of this race! A short sprint through the seaside town of Mali Losinj took us to the ribbon of trails which would weave the way for the rest of this 40km stage. The corridor of trails were only broken for the 2 big climbs of the day, the second from Balvanida was a steep punishing assault with narrow car tyre width concrete strips for you to ride up, concentration and controlled power was needed to reach the summit without toppling into the rocks either side of the trail. Reaching the beautiful finish line at the end of this unique race would be a huge achievement for participants but a sad moment too because it would be a year before we could enjoy more of these amazing trails!
At the front of the race Team Mitas of Filip Adel and Jan Skarnitzl took 2 stage wins on route to overall victory but it wasn’t an easy ride with strong competition and a puncture in the early kilometres of the final stage which left them chasing. In the end the winning margin was just a minute over Vitalo Future Cycling’s Kristian Hynek and Martin Stosek, in third was Team Texpa Simplon’s Marc Stutzmann and Michael Stuenzi. In the elite ladies the Focus Rapiro Racing KMC Fruit To Go team of Cemile Trommer but in a dominant performance winning all 5 days! In second plan was Wilier Force Germany’s Rebecca Robisch and Annette Griner, in third was Kona LTD team’s Laura Turpijn and Kristien Achten. For me after the late race partner change I felt no pressure to search for a race result, it was great to experience this fantastic race without the normal stress, to be able to take in the scenery, enjoy a feed zone or 2 and have a great time riding my bike. Graham did a great job and rode strongly enough for us to secure some UCI points, a bonus from an already amazing week.
The epic finishers party (stage 5?) which lasted until at least 3 or 4am was a chance to have a drink with newly made friends, laugh about stories from the race and start making plans for next year’s 4 Islands MTB. This race is a logistical masterpiece, it’s absolutely astonishing how they can transport a thousand people across 4 Croatian islands without a single delay or problem. 5 days of amazing mountain bike trails left everyone wanting more, sign up quick for 2020 because this is a magical adventure you can’t miss.