The Mitas 4 Islands MTB Race has been quick to find fans around the world. And what’s not to like? The 4-day mountain bike stage race explores trails on four islands in Croatia, with the racers transported by boats. It’s a pairs race that is early in the season – offering great trails, good racing and an excellent climate. We reached out to the organisers, and spoke to Tomislav Zobec, the founder of the race.
So Tomislav you are the founder of 4 Islands. What else?
TZ: I am also a father of two, a husband, a colleague and a manager. A mountain biker. An outdoor lover. A leader. This implies that I run a business, organise, hold meetings and trail builder. I rush to pick up children at the kindergarten or school and everything in between.
How did the idea of cycling and the idea of 4 Islands occur to you?
TZ: When I was younger I was into white-water kayaking. However, because of family and business obligations, that sport was not a possibility anymore and I still wanted to do sports along with having a job. After years spent working in a corporation I actually wanted to do a job that is linked to outdoors in order to convey my passion for it. Bike somehow came naturally. I relatively quickly caught up with the sport, found mates with whom I started doing everything and I really began to ride.
First there were local trails and my team and later I started going on a vacation abroad and taking my bike with me. What may be the most important factor is the fact that I went to ride on the islands countless times during my short trips. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes with my team. Sometimes with my family. This is where my love of the islands and mountain biking was born. I took a lot of people for a ride who are also fans of sports and outdoors, and I spent a lot of time riding around Croatia. It seemed to me that after those rides everybody had a big smile on their face. I personally felt my best while on the islands, rocks, with the combination of the sea and cycling and escaping from the city. I soon realised that riding on an island has some weird chemistry and that I am very happy to return there. I also realised that riding on islands really does have that special something.
How was the first 4 Islands race organised?
TZ: After a few years of organising MTB races I gathered a team in order to realise a new demanding project – the 4 Islands bike race that had been on my mind for a long time.
While riding I imagined what it would look like, I “only” had to find partners, sponsors, hoteliers, production and contact the local tourist board. This required a lot of effort and time. But finally the dream came true in 2015: our first 4 Islands race.
From todays’ perspective, I do not know how we even pulled it off.
With the experience in production of races we had then, we thought that we have carefully planned everything but when the event was over we realised that we were using up 120% of our strength throughout four days.
Everybody did their best. Today we talk about the first edition of 4 Islands race with a smile on our face. The team that made it had some chemistry and this was felt by competitors so they praised the race a lot in all printed media, web sites and portals. I don’t know if I had ever had a more intense four days. I think I only ate four times in that period. To be honest, I lost 6 to 7 kilos and there wasn’t a moment when I was hungry, thirsty or tired!
Why was the 4 Islands race set across four islands, and not just one?
TZ: Yes, it would really be easier and ultimately more profitable to make a race on a single island. But a stage race is a big challenge for our competitors. The fact that you get to know four islands from a mountain biker’s perspective is extremely important for tourist promotion and a curiosity of the race. It is a new level for our competitors. This is what makes us unique.
Do you have any interesting stories from the race?
TZ: 4 Islands has countless stories and that might be the glue that connects the organisation and people. Today we retell these events that we now find funny. But then the perspective was a lot different.
To be clear, without the people behind all this the project would not have been achievable. The idea is mine, but effort, energy and love come from every individual who is behind the race and we are talking about 100-120 people.
One year we didn’t go to Rab because of the bora (strong wind) so during the night a new track was made so that we could do Krk again but also have a new track. We pulled an all nighter so that competitors would still get a new track. It was set at 6 AM and the start was at 9 AM. The competitors thought they would ride the same course – and then they saw a new path. They were thrilled and the cancellation of the Rab stage was not as important.
One year, a day before the race a concreting process started in one part of the island of Cres, just before the finish line. There was practically no “exit” from the road. The team worked at night to make an additional 2 km track through the woods and shrubbery and allow the race to continue unobstructed.
I will not even mention standard problems with closed gates, chains of chainsaw which break when you need them the most, as well as car failures at the most inopportune moments. At least three cars breakdown in the forest or on the road per race!
What challenges await 4 Islands?
TZ: Personally I think that keeping the project interesting in business terms as well as keeping it interesting for local tourist boards. Why local tourist boards? For islands it is an ideal promotion of outdoor sports, as well as a possibility of extending the season, and we as a company engaged in the organisation of 4 Islands race should come to the stage where the race is converted into a sustainable business and where we grow as well as the race.
Do you have any role models?
TZ: Yes, truly and definitely there are role models that we look up to, even though we want to remain original.
When it comes to role models we can definitely mention races that are best known in the world such as the Absa Cape Epic. It is by far the biggest show in the industry and we can learn a lot from such event.
What are you striving for and how do you see your competitors?
TZ: Competition in the world of stage racing including marathons in the world of cycling is extremely high, and what pushes us the most is raising the bar of the production. We strive to maintain the quality of the project every year but also to introduce new options. Combining finance and news is the most difficult. Each year we continue to invest in the production and novelties.
What about mountain biking in Croatia?
TZ: MTB in Croatia is definitely growing. In the last 10 years progress is evident above all among amateurs. There is indeed a visible increase in the number of people who ride a bicycle and generally take up outdoor sports.
There is a lot of room for improvement in competitive cycling – clubs, schools, associations that should create more “competitive” cyclists, who will later be the ones to participate in races, stage races and so on.
What is really good are the possibilities and terrain that Croatia as a small country provides. In a two to three hour drive you can choose between conquering the Alps and riding on islands and coastal areas. According to the information provided to us by local tourist boards, this is visible in the large increase in various cycling package tours and the number of cycle tourists.
What about the cooperation with Mitas?
TZ: The cooperation with Mitas occurred “by accident” in the third edition of 4 Islands race thanks to friends from the Czech Republic (Tomaš Pribyl) who brought us together with Mitas. We are extremely grateful to Tomaš as well as Mitas which proved to be an excellent partner. We are truly delighted to have them with us. A foreign sponsor, who has that kind of prestige in the field, gives a race importance and
How has the group of racers who take part in the race changed since the first year in terms of number, nationalities, age groups, gender? What do you think attracts such a broad group of riders?
TZ: We grew very rapidly year after year. We started with about 150 to 180 participants and the number more or less doubled two years in a row. We stopped at the number of 550 to 600 participants, which is also an optimum and a limit bearing in mind logistics, accommodation capacity and of course trails.
Countries with the largest number of competitors are different every year and each year we have one or two surprises. Definitely Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the Czech Republic, followed by Austria and Germany show the highest interest. I believe that the concept of the race is the key to its attraction and that it is one of the reasons why we have competitors from some 30 countries around the world on the entry list.
Croatia is known as a holiday destination by the sea- but what type of trails can mountain bikers expect?
TZ: The slogan of the race is “conquer the rocks” so in line with that competitors can expect plenty of rocky, hard and loose terrain. But they will truly experience a great diversity of terrain and views at the race – I believe that this is one of the strongest assets of the race.
What three things should a rider coming to Croatia remember to bring?
TZ: I take my bike more or less everywhere with me and would definitely recommend discovering Croatia by bike to others as well. Also take good sports wear for days when you do not want to ride a bike, which can also take you to beautiful places and swimming trunks for everything in
Do you ride often yourself?
TZ: I train quite often, but that’s training. Unfortunately my job does not allow me to often ride exactly what I want and where I want. That is why exploring to find new courses and singletrack is a more interesting and more appealing part of the job.
What does a perfect day on the bike look like for you?
TZ: Well, there are several types, but definitely it is a mountain bike ride, alone or with two to three friends who are somewhere close to me in terms of speed both uphill and downhill. Maybe it sounds pathetic but definitely a ride on an island is my favourite for leisure.