My great friend and fellow cycling fanatic, Stephen Murphy, recently returned from a family holiday in Croatia and managed, against all the odds, to squeeze in some cycling around Split. Not one to let an opportunity to go to waste I asked him to write about his experience of cycling in this stunning part of the world…
I embarked on a family holiday in Croatia to Split, Dubrovnik and a day trip to Hvar with my wife, 11-month-old son and the in-laws. The scenery was beautiful, the food and drink delicious, the local people were lovely and I was spending time with my wonderful family - what more could you want? Well cycling obviously!
Reading cycling magazines, blogs such as VeloCroatia, and hearing first-hand about David's runs and cycles in Croatia had only fuelled my desire to cycle abroad.
With the idea of transporting a bike and all the paraphernalia that comes with travelling with an 11-month-old alongside a less than amused wife, it quickly became clear travelling with a helmet, cleats, pedals and finding a bike to hire would be infinitely easier. Want to hire a mountain bike in Croatia? No problem. Want a decent road bike? Good luck. Dubrovnik had a few choices for road bike hire however given the inflated tourist nature of Dubrovnik a decent bike proved to be prohibitively expensive, at around £50 per day. It was a lovely carbon bike with Ultegra groupset, but still, too costly.
Split had zero options for road bike hire according to Google, which left me with one option; turn up in Split with my gear and knock bike shops doors and ask if they had a bike I could hire.
Arriving at the Split's port on our first morning I ignored the sights (and my family) and instead tracked down a road bike. The first bike shop I found was closed and looked like it had never traded while the second was a rather sorry looking, with bikes outside with chains drier than my throat having walked across Split in the midday heat. The third shop, thankfully, looked and smelt like a bike shop - and it even had road bikes.
Chatting with the affable guys running the shop it quickly became clear they did not hire bikes. Thankfully, they recognised my plight and in exchange for the promise of fist a full of beer money I had organised a bike for the following day to tackle Split's hills. The initial legwork was done and it was time for a beer and a phenomenal ice cream from Luka Ice Cream & Cakes (Ul. Petra Svačića 2, 21000, Split, Croatia).
I returned bright and early the following morning with my gear in tow to pick up an aluminium 2019 Fuji Roubaix 1.3 with rim brakes and a 105 groupset. Happy with the bike – and having spent a small fortune to replace the pump and bike tools confiscated stupidly packed in my hand luggage at the airport on my way out – I headed back out on the road back to Stobreč, where we were staying.
I call this photo "The Bike and the Romantic Couple"
My starting location of Stobreč was a classic, slightly sleepy, seaside town with the bars and restaurants serving cold beer and wine and simple but tasty Croatian fare. There were also few – if any – British tourists, other than ourselves. Stobreč is approximately 10km from the tourist hotspot of Split, with good bus links and plenty of taxis all at a fair price.
I had planned a couple of routes from Stobreč, all of them started by heading for the village of Žrnovniac before cycling to the 6142 Perunova ul and turning left over the bridge onto Put Sveti Jure, where the climbing begins to Gorjne Sitno.
The climb ascends part of the Mount Mosor mountain range on the Adriatic coast belonging to Dinaric Alps, stretching from the pass of Klis on the outskirts of Split in the northwest to the Cetina River in the southeast. The pass of Kilis is famous for the medieval Kilis Fortress and is well worth a visit if you have a couple of hours free.
The Category 2 climb from Žrnovniac to Gorjne Sitno is 9.96km long with an average gradient of 5% and tops out at 588m. It has a less than auspicious start, climbing in between two mountains with little to please the eye in the arid September landscape.
The scenery may be unstimulating in the first few kilometres, however the gradients ahead paired with an average afternoon temperature of 28 degrees made for very pleasant riding. Cycling in Croatia and away from the cold and dreary Scottish weather warms the soul and provides a different sense of gratification; with every meter gained it felt like I was climbing nearer to cycling Gods traversing the famous passes of the Alps and Dolomites, sharing in their pain and glory.
The first 3km feel almost straight as it clings to the mountain side, only as you pass 200m and approach Donje Sitno does the road deviate around acute corners. The gradient will keep you engaged, fluctuating between 3% and 13%, thankfully permeated with short shallow gradients.
After 215m gained and 4km into the ride I had been a bit eager with the bidons. Donje Sitno is the first and last place to stop for water before you reach the top of the climb at Gorjne Sitno. Stopping at a tiny convenience store I attempted to buy a few bottles of water, this proved to be more difficult than expected. The friendliness and generosity of the Croatians I met was personified in the owner of this shop as she wouldn't initially allow me to buy water but instead, with a friendly smile, directed me to a tap at the back of the building to refill my bidon. In a bid to support the small business I continued to offer a handful of Kuna in exchange for some bottles, which she eventually accepted.
Leaving Donje Sitno the road begins to pique your interest as it starts to wind up the mountainside with four hairpins bends breaking the rhythm I had been bobbing to in an effort to overcome the gradients. At 6km (370m ascended) the road turns back on itself as it transitions across the valley from Perun Oak Forest Hill nearest to the coast to the mountain roads of Veliki Kabal or the 'Great Kabal', which tops out at 1,339m for hikers. The road now allows you to look beyond the valley as it rises above Perun Oak Forest Hill and down to the coast to Split.
Who doesn't love a hairpin?
At 8km the road opens up as you pass Sveti Luka evanđelist (St Luka’s Church) providing a further glimpse down the valley. At St Luke’s there’s a view point and Biciklističko odmorište (bicycle rest point) with a viewing tower, a bike park and maintenance station with track pump, definitely not what you would expect to find half way up a mountain.
The hairpins and looking back down the valley to Donje Sitno from 400m
St. Luke the Evangelist - Sveti Luka evanđelist
From St Luka's Church the road flattens out slightly for half a kilometre as you start to pass pleasant holiday homes and villas as you near Gorjne Sitno, before the gradient abruptly rises on the approach to the penultimate hairpin at 9km and continues to the top. The final hairpin comes at 9.5km and an appealing pub is situated on the corner where one can opt for a small refreshment before the descent – if that floats your boat. Speaking of which, turning left from the hairpin as it opens out to a T-junction and following the road to top of the climb I passed a boat; 550m above sea level is definitely a safe place to keep it.
Beautiful spot for a quick recuperation
The final 100m is on a dirt road and it comes to an abrupt stop as the road turns to a path more suited to mountain bikes or walkers. The view from the top is well worth the extra calories, with vistas to Spilt's old town and the Park Šuma Marjan (Marjan Forest Park) while the coast panorama is magnificent and gives you a sense of the size of Split not experienced on the ground.
A view worth sweating for back down to Split
The road back to Stobreč was surprising. It was a descent most of the way back with the exception of one small but lovely climb; it was truly beautiful. From Gorjne Sitno I descended to near Sveti Luka evanđelist (St Luka’s Church), turning just before it onto the 6163. Riding over the lip of one valley into the next valley was a highly unexpected transition. The environment changed dramatically from arid hillside to a green garden of grape vines and orchards which rolled pleasantly on for the next 8km until the road reached a hairpin on the 6142.
Turning left on the hairpin towards Gata allows you to head round the back of Veliki Kabal or head inland. Turning right takes you back down the coast towards Split or south to Omis.
Taking the right fork takes you on a short climb of 9% back out the valley which opens the view of the valley out in front of you, revealing beautiful mountains.
Beautiful. The view is not bad either.
As you approach the top of the climb, the road swings right revealing stunning views down to the coast and out to the island of Brač. The view stopped me in my tracks, literally U-turning to pause and take it in. The turquoise water set amongst the green hills and the blue of the sky was majestic.
From this beautiful panorama the descent continued back to Stobreč for 15km, cutting through the hills between the coast and Veliki Kabal, an easy ride turning the pedals over into a slight headwind that had no doubt assisted me on my climb.
At my finish in Stobreč, was the gratifying post-ride meal; the second-best part of any ride, a lovely tuna steak, salad and chips, washed down with a cold beer. Well, not quite ‘washed down’ as most of the beer disappeared to replenish lost fluids and sugars as soon as it touched down on the table.
The ride was a pleasure, hard work on the ascent of course but the combination of quiet roads, great road surfaces with barely a rough patch, stunning scenery, a great route and beautiful weather made it a delight from start to finish.
Split is an ideal destination for a family holiday as well as a great location for a dedicated cyclist or someone like me, simply looking for a few hours to spin out the legs and take in some hills and beautiful scenery. The almost endless of list of cultural sights and the fantastic restaurants and bars of Split will keep you entertained, however if you hanker to explore the region further by bike the roads surrounding Split offer the prospect of numerous fantastic rides. Heading north or south along the coast or diverting inland to the sun-drenched and well-maintained roads promise hours of pleasure.
The smile of someone not cycling in a Scottish headwind