It’s not often swim, bike and run makes football play second fiddle, but there are more spectators here for the inaugural Dubrovnik Triathlon than attended the Croatia v England international – 400 miles north along the Adriatic coast in Rijeka – the previous evening. And given this is a football-obsessed nation whose national team reached the World Cup final, it’s a victory to be celebrated for multisport. (We can gloss over both who they beat in the semi-final and that this recent encounter was played behind closed doors.)
Triathlon is a new sport in a city famed for its Old Town. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, its siege by Serbian and Montenegrin soldiers became a focal point during the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early nineties, but having taken a pre-race trip inside the medieval bulwarks, I can report it’s now deluged by up to 10,000 tourists a day, disembarking cruise ships to roam its ramparts.
Part of the attraction is the baroque, renaissance and gothic architecture, but it’s also the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones, the fantasy television drama that was filmed here. Given I’ve never watched a second of the show, my pop culture references end here, but at least it’ll save you from laboured puns being crowbarred into the race report, such as Game of Triathlons (attempt a faux European accent and switch ‘ons’ for ‘owns’).
On to a less hectic affair than the Old Town – the race – and a sprint or standard distance option, starting from Gruz Harbour, with a transition zone neatly slotted between moored luxury yachts. It’s a 2pm start and the untriathlonly time is virtue of the organisers being given a one-hour window between the aforementioned hulking cruise liners docking and setting sail. After that strict deadline the port is back open for business, so there’s significant motivation to make the swim cut-off.
The area is trying to carve its own niche in activity breaks. There’s a half-marathon here in April that finishes on the Stradun – Dubrovnik’s most famous limestone-paved street in the Old Town – and 60 miles away in Kotor, Montenegro, the Ocean Lava middle distance race takes place in May. It’s not a tricky place to get to and here we’ve 15 different nationalities, many from former Yugoslav republics, plus a scattering of Brits.
For a first-time event, it almost feels scripted. The weather is blissfully mid-20s, and the harbour water 21 degrees, making it just cool enough for novices (or those hellbent on winning) to wear a wetsuit. The bike course follows the coast to the small village of Komolac, and is both the prettiest dragstrip imaginable and seemingly the only flat stretch of road in the region. The run is out and back along the harbour edge where the most taxing element is keeping count of your laps.
As I’m about to plop in for the deep-water start, I try to recall the last time I undertook a standard-distance triathlon. My fumbling excuse is that my time has been better served agonising over topics for my 220 Triathlon column, although that’s probably best left for others to judge. Conclusion: “It’s been a while – and it’ll take a while.” And so it plays out.
The two-lap anticlockwise swim is rather too pleasant – not a jellyfish in sight (take note as an alternative race option for next year, Daniela Ryf). About 60 people have signed up for the standard distance, a similar number for the sprint, plus a handful of relay teams, and both the water and opposition are calmness personified. My only gripe is with the toddlers’ swim caps provided, as the silicon dome pings from my bonce about midway through the first lap, striking another blow to marine welfare.
Out on to the road bike (I’ve borrowed from the organisers) in 39mins (including T1, I’m sure it was long), I spend the majority of the four laps daydreaming at the scenery, reading the derrieres of tri-suits and wondering how they’re pronounced (my straw poll of waiters confirms the Croatian language is brutish to grasp), and hoping I’ll overtake someone who isn’t on a mountain bike. The tranquillity is occasionally broken when some lunatic on a TT bike and deep-dished wheels comes whooping past (my one piece of serious advice would be to pack a TT bike if you want to compete), but they pretty sharply bugger off into the distance anyway.
Returning 1:24hr later, I head out for a fairly uneventful run, where the sun beats down and I have to pass the finish gantry 11 times (yes, I just worked it out), before I can actually jog under the arch in 45mins for a less-than-competitive 2:49:32 and just sneak into the top 30.
CRUISES, COFFEE AND CRAP CANNONS
My race aside, the Dubrovnik Triathlon has a lot going for it. No matter how many risk assessments are undertaken, first-time events are fraught with the potential for unforeseen hiccups. It’s compounded when a venue is not au fait with triathlon, and judging by the motorists in the town, it will be a while before a cycling culture takes off.
Yet enthusiasm – and Dubrovnik has a two-year-old 20-strong tri club getting behind it – can go a long way. It also helps when you bring in John Lunt and Co, the team behind the successful Brighton and Hove Tri, with Lunt formerly triathlon course manager for the London 2012 Olympics. So, while I’m sure there are a few teething issues, they’re well-hidden and certainly no disasters.
It isn’t just the finishing chute where the red (ok, blue) carpet has been rolled out either. There’s a familiarisation swim at Banje Beach the morning before the race - the reward being free coffee and doughnuts bigger than lifebuoys - and a triathletes’ reception in Sponza Palace in the Old Town in the evening where a welcoming British consul informs us it’s British week in Dubrovnik, although the Beatles tribute act crooning in the main square in front of a London bus was already a slight giveaway.
Post-race there’s an awards party offering a bellyful of pasta and apple strudel, a few tunes and a live stream of the Ironman World Championship, jellyfish and all, on the big screen. Then it’s all aboard for a cruise around the bay at 9am the following morning in a replica 16th-century Karaka, which, for all intents and purposes is a pirate ship with crap cannons, air-conditioning and cappuccinos.
TICKS THE 2019 BOXES
Given there are so many options on the racing calendar, does Dubrovnik deserve its place on your itinerary next year? There are races that offer a calm wetsuit-optional sea swim, there are others that provide closed bike courses that are flat and safe for novices, and still more that provide a scenic backdrop.
You can also find affordable races (£65/£50 for the standard/sprint distance) within a two-hour EasyJet flight of the UK, where you have a choice of accommodation from luxury hotels to affordable AirBnBs, and some also offer plenty of cultural options when you strip off the Lycra. But a destination that ticks all those boxes is a challenge, and that’s where the Dubrovnik Triathlon wins out.
The late Lord Bryon called the city the Pearl of the Adriatic. It’s less known that he’s also credited for starting the modern age of open-water swimming in 1810. I’ve a feeling that if he were still alive today, the legendary poet would be first in the queue to slip on his race belt… because this is one event you Don Juan a miss.
You can fly to Dubrovnik with Easy Jet