4Islands: The Contenders

Having joined the Epic Series in 2021, the 2022 edition of 4Islands MTB Croatia is the first edition as a, Epic Series race. As such it has attracted the most competitive field yet to the islands of the Adriatic, including the Absa Cape Epic’s runners up.

Less than a month on from the 2022 Absa Cape Epic the Epic Series racing reignites once more, this time in Europe. The prestige that Epic Series has added to the five-day race, which island hops from Krk to Rab and on to Cres and Lošinj, has ensured that some of the world’s best mountain bikers will line up in Baška on the 19th of April.

Featuring a Prologue and four marathon stages the 4Islands Croatia takes in 5 890-metres of climbing in just 272-kilometres. The riding, on ancient footpaths carved by goat herds and their shepherds as well as purpose-built mountain bike singletracks, demands absolute focus and rewards the most technically proficient riders. Among the elite of the elite, where bike handling skills are seldom a differentiating factor, the punchy climbs are likely to determine the victors. In 2021 for example, only 25 seconds separated the winners Jaroslav Kulhavý and Matous Ulman, of Ceska sporitelna, from the team in second; BUFF SCOTT’s Hans Becking and Jose Dias.

In 2022 Becking returns, though he and new partner Peter Pruus will be racing in the colours of BUFF MEGAMO alongside Enrique Morcillo Vergara and Huge Drechou, “We are looking forward to 4Islands Croatia,” their team manager Pau Zamora enthused. “Ideally, we’d like to repeat or improve on last year’s result, because we have two teams capable of contesting for podium places this year. With the race becoming part of the Epic Series, we expect it to be more competitive; with some of the best teams from the marathon circuit taking part. Achieving a good result at 4Islands Croatia will therefore carry more value and prestige.”

Having placed third in 2021 the Canyon Northwave MTB team are also returning to the Adriatic. Martin Stošek and his World Marathon Champion partner, Andreas Seewald, are in search of redemption after a disappointing end to the Absa Cape Epic. Seewald bruised his ribs in a crash on Stage 1, but as is typical of rib injuries they only started to affect his performance a few days later. This left him in great pain and struggling to breath deeply on Stages 6 and 7. “I’m still recovering from my crash at the Absa Cape Epic,” he confessed. “But think my body will be solid again, before 4Islands starts on the 19th of April.”

“I have taken part twice before,” Stošek noted. “The most attractive part of the race, from my point of view, is the landscape. To race so close to the sea and to be surrounded by nature is very special. I’m also looking forward to travelling from island to island by the ferry. It’s a very special attribute of the event, which is completely unique in mountain biking. I’m really looking forward to see the changes the Epic Series will implement in the event too. I know that all the Epic Series races are on the top level of organsation, so I’m more excited than ever to race 4Islands.”

Canyon Northwave and BUFF-MEGAMO will have to contest with Team BULLS as well as the newly formed Singer Racing Team too. Martin Frey and Simon Stiebjahn, erstwhile of Team BULLS themselves, formed a privateer team for 2022 and will be keen to get one over on their former teammates, Alban Lakata and Simon Schneller.

While recent Absa Cape Epic stage winners, Fabian Rabensteiner and Wout Alleman will also be in attendance. In Croatia Rabensteiner will partner Daniel Geismayr for Wilier Pirelli 1, with Alleman teaming up with 2019 Italian Cross-Country Champion Gioele de Cosmo. The Italian teams are sure to be in the shake-up for the overall honours.

Furter down the favourites list Pure HUMANPWR KTM 1 and 2, KTM Alchemist powered Brenta brakes, FRA – BEL URBAN TRI SPORTS, STOP&GO Marderabwehr MTB, SCOTT – Bernina Sport, and KMC are all in contention for top five places if their races plans are executed to perfection. The most exciting of these teams is the experienced combination of Manuel Pliem and Frans Claes. The Austrian and former Belgian Marathon Champion are among the most seasoned campaigners on the marathon circuit and in Epic Series competitions. As such they are the most likely candidates for a top finish among the second-tier favourites.

In the women’s race, the eight-team line-up should be highly competitive. Defending champion Ariane Lüthi starts alongside Faranak Partoazar for the first time. The Pump for Peace – Velosolutions Racing team was formed to promote cycling in regions, like Partoazar’s native Iran, where it is not a traditional sport. “I will not be at my 100% best just quite yet, as my major goal for the season is in summer,” the multiple Iranian Champion confessed. “But I have to be in a good shape to be able to keep the pace with my pro teamie Ariane! My ambition for the 4Islands Croatia is simple, but not so easy to achieve. My goal is to race with a smile and give my best, to learn from the experience of competing alongside Ariane and it’ll be interesting to see where that approach leads us. They say fun is fast and we’d love to obtain the best result after five days of racing.”

The Allebike Canyon Northwave team, of Lejla Tanovic and Stefanie Dohrn, start the race as the favourites for the women’s competition however. Tanovic hails from neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Dohrn she has one of the most experienced Epic Series campaigners, and one who stands to become an Epic Legend upon finishing the 4Islands Croatia. “We are looking to have a good race and nice time while racing,” Tanovic smiled. “Both Stefanie and I are in great shape right now. We are targeting a podium finish at the very least.”

Along with the Pump for Peace – Velosolutions team; Tanovic and Dohrn’s major rivals are likely to be the MTB Pro Merchandising Racing and Olympia – RDR Italia outfits. Janina Wüst is looking forward to racing alongside Greete Steinburg again, having teamed up together earlier in 2022. “It will be my first time in Croatia; I’m really curious as to the riding, racing and what to expect,” Wüst said. “People have told me about the beautiful nature and the technical but great trails. I’m looking forward to exploring the different islands too. Coming from land-locked Switzerland, I live a life without a sea. So, I’m excited to race for five days alongside the ocean.”

The novelty of racing next to the sea will be less for Costanza Fasolis and Claudia Peretti, of Olympia – RDR Italia, but the uniqueness of 4Islandsis captivating nonetheless. They, along with the Edelsten – La Musette, VeloFlütsch, MTBcamps and Raid Evolenard/Global cycles teams will have to keep their eyes on the trails, rather than the azure waters sparkling nearby however. There will be ample time to focus on the scenery after each stage.

Mountain biking fans can live vicariously through the elite riders and amateur competitors in the event thanks to the Epic Series increasing the race’s media coverage. Tune in from 19 to 23 April on www.4islandsmtb.com to follow the action. Video and photo highlights can be found on Facebook.