The Western Balkans exude a captivating beauty that merges rugged landscapes with cultural richness. Towering mountains, draped in lush greenery, command attention. The peaks, often shrouded in mist, evoke an ethereal aura. Rivers carve through valleys, reflecting the azure skies above, leading to ancient towns with cobblestone streets and terracotta-roofed houses.
Away from the mountains, along the Adriatic coast, pristine beaches of powdery sand meet the crystal-clear waters, inviting those who visit to relax on its shores. Sunsets paint the sky in hues of pink and gold, casting a spellbinding glow over the entire landscape. From country to country in the Western Balkans, made up of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia, the landscape constantly changes, inviting you to uncover each country's natural beauty and rich heritage.
Despite the ever-changing landscapes, all eight countries share a common thread of resilience, hospitality and a deep sense of identity shaped by their complex histories and stunning landscapes – an element Jan Klavora wanted to showcase when he came up with the idea of a cycle route which connected all eight unique countries. But from a monumental idea to bringing it to life, how does someone go about making a route of such enormity?
Inspired by the launch of the Via Dinarica, a 1,200km hiking trail that traverses the Dinaric Alps, spanning several counties, Klavora, the mastermind behind this grand venture, “immediately thought that it would be a great long-distance mountain biking route as well.”
That was in 2017. Fast forward seven years later, and the 3,364-kilometre-long route is almost ready to be unveiled after many painstaking hours crafting this immersive multi-stage journey through diverse landscapes, cultures and terrains.
“I am really excited to finally see people riding the route because it has been my idea for so long,” Jan remarked, reflecting on the arduous yet rewarding journey of bringing the Trans Dinarica to life. “We have over 4,000 people already on the list for the navigation pack, coming from the US, Germany, Australia, and the UK. Having a clear vision from the beginning has been important – constantly thinking about what we want it to look like at the end and how exactly everything should look. Thankfully, we have had plenty of experience from making other products that helped.”
The Good Trail is what Klavora is speaking about, a company he founded which creates adventure tourism routes for destinations around the world alongside a passionate group of experts, including travel journalist and consultant Alex Craver and cartographer Matic Klanjšček – both who have been a vital part of creating the Trans Dinarica route. Previous projects have included Trans Slovenia, Slovenia Green Pannonian Route, Kočevje circular cycling route, and Trans Croatia.
The Trans Dinarica, however, is the team's biggest project yet. After Klavora chatted with those who created the Via Dinarica, he started conversations with the many people who would be involved in the project, from various stakeholders and sponsors to local experts. “You have to find out if the idea in your head will actually work,” he said. Once agreed, virtually planning the route is the first step in seeing the idea come together.
“We find the best cyclists in the specific regions and also do workshops with different specialists to create the virtual route,” he added. These workshops with the local community are said to deepen the rider's relationship with the destination by providing authentic experiences – a key component to the creation of this cycle route. Once the route is virtually mapped out, the Good Trail team take to the trail themselves, taking a van, bikes, a photographer and a videographer to check every metre of the route. During this time on the trail, all the navigation details are recorded, such as surface types, technical difficulty, trail conditions, points of interest, rubbish points, accommodation, water stations and so on, that the team’s cartographer, Klanjšček will then input into the GPS map.
Back in the office, marketing and promotion of the route takes place, spearheaded by Craver as a travel journalist. On top of that, Klavora humbly stated that he does “everything and anything” to bring his vision to life. While the three men are the visionaries for the project, they also note all the other people involved over the years who have helped complete this extraordinary route across the Western Balkans, highlighting what a team effort it is to put something like this together.
It is clear that creating a route that traverses eight countries is no mean feat, but while it is a big challenge for the team working behind the scenes, they did not want the route to be only for those who do extreme cycle touring. Instead, the route is for cyclists of all abilities. Of course, some parts of the routes will be more challenging than others – there is no escaping the Western Balkan Mountains – but not every stage is as demanding. “We wanted to hit this kind of bullseye 50km a day,” Craver said. “We really wanted to make it accessible to anyone who wants to travel by bicycle, not just for those extreme riders.”
The 3,364km route consists of 80 stages, each with around 50km, and will be completed ideally on a gravel or mountain bike. The route starts in western Slovenia and crosses into Croatia before following a corridor of national parks as it continues south towards its final point near Lake Orchid – one of the oldest lakes in the world – on the Albania, North Macedonia border. Whether people want to ride the full 3,364km route in one go or explore each country one at a time, the route offers the perfect balance of challenging climbs, tranquil scenery, and culture. The scenery is one of the main reasons why cycling in this region is so magical, and spectacular scenery is in abundance throughout the entire route. Klanjšček highlighted this: "There is not a specific part of the route that I love, of course, there are stretches which are more beautiful than others in terms of the natural landscape, but it’s literally too diverse to pick.”
Craver echoed how beautiful the eight countries are, a part of the world he said is “overlooked”. He added: “We all know about the Balkans, it’s certainly not a complete secret, but people don’t often travel to the intimate areas of the Balkans where the remote communities are. Not in the same way people have explored these areas in France or Spain.”
Beyond the thrill of adventure lies a deeper purpose – building up local communities along the route. Crevar explained the transformative impact that Trans Dinarica aims to facilitate. “Cyclists are hungry and slow. We need food and safe places,” he said. “We’re not in a car, you cannot just continue going. So, at the end of each day, you will stay in the village where you’ve ended up, you know, you’re not disappearing. That is important for these villages because they are used to most folks just continuing through to the capital where there are many hotels and restaurants, but if you’re in a village, you’ve got to deal with what you have got.
“Then, over the next few years, decades, those villages will adjust and figure out ways to offer more. There might be a man who offers tours from the village, somebody who learns to repair bikes or offers more than just a cup of coffee – they will serve lunch or dinner, for example. The creation of that is by far the most important thing to me."
The Trans Dinarica is, therefore, not just about the destination – it's about the journey, the forging of connections with fellow travellers, experiencing the warmth of hospitality in remote villages, and discovering hidden gems off the beaten path. It is about embracing the spirit of exploration and embarking on an adventure like no other.
As the Good Trail team prepares to unveil its Trans Dinarica cycle route to the world, it stands as a testament to the power of collaboration, vision, and unwavering determination from Klavora, Craver and Klanjšček. Their planning of this route will not only see riders go on a physical journey but on a profound voyage of discovery and connection.