I was recently invited to take part in the Enduro Perun mountain bike festival in Croatia. “Perun” is the name of the top god in Slavic mythology who wielded power from the country’s rocky mountaintops. The two-day event took place in the small seaside town of Omiš (pronounced O-meesh), with a full day of shuttle runs on Saturday and a three-stage enduro kicking off early Sunday morning.
Flying into the Split airport at night conjured an eerie image of the land below. Rows of bright magenta lights dot the ridges along the Adriatic coast, with little other light across the landscape. Coming from Italy, where heavy light pollution illuminates the mountainous topography quite precisely, the view from above Split appeared open and ominous.
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After touchdown, I caught a ride with local racer, Lovel Matijas, to a dinner in the hills where I would also collect the bike that I would ride for the next three days. Dinner and drinks were thoughtfully curated by a local trail builder named Krešimir Vukovic, who would later go on to win the master’s category in the enduro we were all preparing to race. A few of the dinner guests were visiting from the capital city of Zagreb, though most of the crew was made up of locals from Omiš and Split. We scarfed a hearty meal and stole away to our hotels before anyone broke out the provincial spirits. With endless shuttles rolling the following day, mostly-sober was a preferable way to sleep.
My warmly glowing view from the hotel terrace the following morning was a pleasant surprise. The magenta dots I had seen from the plane marked the tops of windmills that line the mountains along the Dalmatian coast. Wind has a dependable presence in Croatia, and they make good use of it. The sun rose over the Balkan peninsula to illuminate a coastline bolstered by towering stone mountains, and the massive island of Brac in the distance made the Adriatic Sea look like a long salty lake.
The first day of the event gave everyone a chance to check out the trails, map out fast lines, and to ride tracks that would not be included in the race. Enduro Perun promoters, Miro Dojkic and Bruna Brakus, classified the event as a “for fun” race, which can have different meanings depending on the terrain and intended audience. For this race, “for fun,” meant that the amount of climbing and transition times, coupled with trail difficulty, would be manageable for nearly anyone who wanted to join in.
At full tilt, the trails were plenty tricky for the top riders, with traction characteristics that even the locals deemed “anti-grip.” Several Croatian riders mentioned that “Croatia is a giant bike park, but most of the trails are not really designed for mountain biking.”
Pieces of the race tracks had been reshaped for speed and hang time, but overall I would agree with that statement, based on what I rode. I prefer to ride natural singletrack that has not been reshaped into something that’s easier to ride at speed, and I enjoyed every last meter of the janky tracks around Omiš. Croatian trail crews recognize that some riders would prefer more purpose-built tracks, and they are working hard to accommodate everyone’s interests as they build trails and reopen old foot paths.
Between the bottomless shuttle laps and race day, ample shenanigans ensued. There was a steady flow of three different ales from the local fermenter, a launch ramp, and a bunny hop competition that kicked off just as the sun sank into the sea. The bunny hop field was impressively large until the stick reached roughly a half-meter from the ground. Numbers quickly dwindle with every added centimeter thereafter.
Race day warmed up in a typical fashion, with everyone milling about and nervously awaiting their call-up to start the day’s first ascent. Festival attendance included over 100 riders, and 74 of us decided to enter the race on Sunday. The mountains behind Omiš pitch steeper as they climb from the sea, with stone walls leaving the top third impassable. Given this natural barrier, the transitions and stages were reasonably short, with 20-40 minutes up and 3-5 minutes back down.
The first stage departed from a gravel fire road and quickly folded into loose switchbacks and some faster pedally bits below. With more than an hour between stage starts, there was no rush to return to the top. We all took our sweet time, stopped for water and shade, and arrived at the head of stage two with plenty of time to stretch and chat some more.
Stages two and three joined forces to share the same trail for the second half of their length, and the top haves of either trail shared a lot of similarities. They were dusty, fast, natural, and pedally. Keeping with the fun and manageable theme of the event, the tracks were never steep and there were B-lines around the only two drops on course. For folks who prefer to coast, the clear challenge came in the form of long hard pedal sections where heart rates were pinned. For those of us who are accustomed to pedaling as much as we coast, the challenge was finding grip, and the locals had a clear advantage here.
The final half-kilometer of stages two and three was my personal favorite piece of trail in the race. The track dipped into a stand of pine trees, and there were loads of roots and rocks that your tires could grab onto and pump off. Several sections of the trail had tennis-ball size rocks that rolled against one another as your tires hit them, forcing folks to ride loose and stay off the brakes.
The race ended with an easy spin along the sea, back to the main paddock where everyone swapped beers and stories while we waited for the podium ceremonies. With a few broken components, including at least one snapped carbon rim, 64 of the original 74 riders finished the race. Given the amount of tire-ripping rock in the trails, an 86.5% completion rate seems fairly solid.
Before flying home the following day, Lovel and some other local riders wanted to show me a nice, long alpine descent on the other side of the hills. We piled in a van and rolled up the windy Cetina River canyon toward Imber trail. From the drop point, the four of us continued to hike toward the mountain saddle above for roughly forty minutes. We missed a turn at some point, and ended up climbing a sweet trail that we all agreed would be a blast to ride down. To make up for our strayed path we had to waddle over a boulder field on the top of the ridge for another 20 minutes, which was spiced up a bit by the fact that I needed to get to the airport as soon as we finished the descent.
We eventually made our way to the proper top of Imber, and quickly turned our bikes downslope so I wouldn’t miss my flight. The trail was looser, steeper, far longer, and overall even more fun than those we had sampled the day prior. It’s a proper natural track, with boulders and trees in all of the wrong places, making it a perfect match for folks who enjoy technical riding. When I make it back to Croatia, this might be the first trail I climb toward.
With a sea to trail proximity similar to Finale Ligure, Omiš and other towns along the Dalmatian coast are magnets for mountain bike tourism. The weather is warm enough to catch a tan in the wintertime or to wash off in the sea after a long day of riding. Don’t forget to imbibe a little rakija before and after supper. It’s delicious!