Ever since the 1990s, Croatian county tourist boards are becoming more aware of the fact that bicycle tourism has a huge potential which can bring extra income. But how to actually successfully tap into the full potential the bicycle offers to the tourist industry still remains somewhat of a mystery for most of them.
The systemic cause of this problem is that in most of Croatia cycling itself is considered a lesser valued activity, primarily a form of recreation. Learning how to ride a bike is an important rite of passage in the little Croats journey towards maturity, but not a respected activity once they’ve matured enough to master driving motor vehicles.
That is coupled with the traditionally arrogant attitude Croats have to the rule of law, daily reflected in the perilous reality of Croatian roads where it is customary to drive way over the speed limit, only to let go of the throttle at well-known speed traps. This is unfortunately also true of the way most Croatian cyclists ride, the law is there to be ignored.
Motor vehicles are not only status symbols but also the only state acknowledged mean of transportation which one can observe when transport authorities talk about strategies for both urban and rural roads. Even on the quiet rural roads of the Croatian cyclotourist pioneer, Istria, one is regularly faced with speeding oncoming vehicles. One can’t help feeling that as a road cyclist you’re not only vulnerable, but also unwanted, unwelcome.
Photo : Francis Tatem
Little do drivers know or care while passing the petrified cyclist at a hairs breadth that road cyclists are actually one of the biggest spenders in the tourist industry, very often successful affluent entrepreneurs riding a wheelset as valuable as their own car.
The honourable exception to this anti-road cycling atmosphere is Međimurje. This touristically underrated county is slowly becoming the road cycling destination of choice, not so much because of stunning roads, although the path by the river Mura and the winding gentle vineyard roads offer great vistas, but more for the road serenity and amenities that cyclists encounter in this area.
True, the tourist trails and driving etiquette in Međimurje still cannot quite compete with German bike autobahns, and the cycling infrastructure in Čakovec is inferior to the one found in North European cities where cars are being forced out of city centres by urban planners to achieve walkable and cyclable cities. But as far as good old car-centric Croatia goes Međimurje is where it’s at if you want to be accepted and respected as a cyclist.
Whereas in other parts of Croatia riding a bike for transportation is considered inferior to driving, in Međimurje it seems people actually realize that using a beciklin, that’s bicycle in prekmurski dialect, is a good way to get around. One only needs to glance at the bike trails in and around Čakovec to realize there is something velo friendly happening in this county.
In Međimurje children often take up cycling both as a sport and as a form of transportation at a very young age, and then also keep on cycling even after they come of age and enter the motorized world. A lot of people, even in smaller villages are involved in cycling; they participate in organized non-competitive bike rides and commute by bike.
Photo : Panamura Photo Team
For most of Croatia, as one can see clearly in the sad example of Zagreb where a large community of cyclists is faced with a chaotic bike life, bike paths and bike lanes are a myth. Advertised bike corridors are often traps to lure the unprepared cyclist into the path of a raging truck. Too often Croatian counties spend money on creating fictional bike trails, painting useless bike lanes that take precious space from overcrowded sidewalks or putting up bike signage on roads that lack any shoulder protection to the vulnerable cyclists. Instead of just using all those funds to reconstruct a piece of road the way they are now doing it all over Međimurje.
Creating protected bike lanes in both directions even on state highways and taking pride in using road materials that are less slippery – a fact that is much appreciated by cyclists.
The Croatian tourist industry on the one hand acknowledges that cyclotourists do exist but on the other hand often doesn’t have the slightest idea what cyclist needs are. -Isn’t the signage and mismatched bike rental fleet enough? We have a ton of gravel roads to offer to cyclists, so there we go, we are a cycling destination!
I’ve spoken to a number of tourist workers that actually honestly believe that their area is great for cycling, because, surprise, surprise, none of them are cyclists and are often completely ignorant of the huge difference between road cycling and mountain biking.
Let’s take Plitvice for an example, an area that repeatedly uses cycling to promote their destination and has put up signage and issued out cycling promo materials.My recent experience tells me they haven’t even told the Park service bus drivers to be careful when overtaking cyclists. Riding the stretch of road through the National Park I encountered seasoned globetrotting bike touring cyclists with terror in their eyes. And this happened on a stretch of road where dreaded trucks are forbidden. When one complains about this to local tourist workers they point towards gravel or pothole-ridden side roads, which are scenic enough, but completely inadequate for fancy road bike wheels.
Photo : Francis Tatem
Road cycling in Međimurje provides the road cyclist in Croatia a long needed respite from the hazards of vehicle dodging. One can instead focus on listening to the squeaky drivetrain and trepidations of one’s excited heart as you approach cardiac arrest on one of the gentle inclines around The Cycling Republic of Međimurje.
A place where the locals understand and love cycling, not only as means of recreation but also as an everyday mode of transportation that makes your life better, healthier, free of car infused road rage. Often I hear drivers from other parts of Croatia complain that the drivers in Međimurje are too slow, and that the low speed limits are actually occasionally enforced. And that, not the infrastructure, not the beautiful trails, or excellent bike-friendly hotels, makes Međimurje a great place to bike. And yes Međimurje is also a place where they now actually regularly make protected bike lanes when reconstructing old roads. Even the stretch of state highway that connects Čakovec and Varaždin was done that way; a testimony to how seriously cycling is taken as a viable mode of transportation.
Most Croatian counties still don’t realize how much they are missing out by providing next to no infrastructure to road cyclists and while the Croatian tourist industry has realized a while ago that cycling represents a possible source of income, it still fails to realize that until they work not only on the infrastructure but also on the general driving etiquette, Croatia won’t be a happy place for cyclotourism.
The biggest current cyclo issue that Croatian tourist boards have to tackle is to realize the untapped potential offered by road cycling and how different and wealthier these asphalt loving cyclists are compared to mountain bikers.
Photo : Francis Tatem
Whereas Croatia definitely offers great gravel roads and singletrack trails for the more adventurous off-road cyclists, the tourist industry needs to discover that they are missing out on the biggest spenders. Affluent road cyclist, bike touring aficionados and triathletes (that ride road bikes) are well off urban people often terrified of unpaved roads, intent on staying on familiar asphalt to avoid unnecessary risks from sliding out on loose gravel. These bike tourists, very often hailing from the USA or Britain two places with a major road cycling population, just want a nice 2-3 hour fair weather road ride followed by a great meal in a picturesque destination. Whereas mountain bikers are usually a more rugged bunch, light spenders, more into bikepacking, a form of travel that prefers camping and packing food to standard accommodation.
While in other parts of the country the issue is truly systemic and it is hard to see the day when an affluent community of natives of Dubrovnik or Split will proudly and safely ride their vintage Italian road bike on protected local bike paths anytime soon, in Međimurje the shift happened a while ago.
And therein lies the problem of developing road bicycle tourism in Croatia, and the strength of Međimurje as a destination. Infrastructure, but more so a cycling culture ingrained in the local population is what makes this region so appealing to cyclists. When a Međimurac driver sees a cyclist in the back of his mind he knows this might be his friend, relative, or partner, and will be happy to slow down and give right of way. As for the rest of Croatia, you are just a nuisance that in their opinion should stay off the road.
Photo : Francis Tatem
Međimurje also offers gentle, rolling roads, the beautiful trails that follow the Mura-Drava corridor and also belong to the Euro-Velo 13 bike corridor that can take you all the way to Austria and beyond. The roads are dotted with little blue signs for bike trails, the local restaurants and hotels welcome cyclists of all shapes and sizes.
And it comes as no surprise that in such a bike friendly place one finds plenty of cycling enthusiasts like Neno Ciglar founder of the MBK Mura cycling club that regularly organizes road brevets and as of late a mountain bike marathon, as well as cycling fanatics like Roberto Setnik, the only Croatian to have finished a 10 x Ironman, and owner of a vintage retro bike repair shop in Donji Hrašćan.
How seriously cycling is taken is obvious from the fact that almost every cycling activity in the area is supported by the Međimurje tourist board director, Rudi Grula, and the existence of a good cycling website the tourist board made with a great list of GPS routes for cyclists, a precious resource for all self-guided cyclists who like to explore on their own.
Photo : Bojan Markicevic Haron, Hrvatska Turisticka Zajednica
This welcoming on and off road cycling culture provides a great atmosphere to the cyclotourists so that their biggest fear usually is that, even having mastered the basics of Croatian, one might not understand a single word of the Prekmurski dialect, but then you smile, they smile, you share a drink and eat a prekmurska gibanica and off you buzz away on your faithful velocipede.
While most Croatia is far from realizing how cycling can positively impact society, build a healthier workforce because of the exercise, a cleaner society thanks to lowering CO2 emissions, and above all help people feel happier, as tons of studies comparing cycling commuters to motor vehicle commuters show, they have realized one thing.
One can make money off cyclists. But, in order to do so effectively they must follow the trail laid down by Međimurje County and realize the long-term solution is not only building a better infrastructure but also educating the general public on benefits that cycling offers to society in general and creating a cycling culture where the bicycle is a respected symbol of civilized society.
Photo : Francis Tatem