Only after shuttling to a windy ridge in the heart of Jamaica’s rugged Blue Mountains does it truly sink in. Pinch me—have I just spent five days on this gorgeous Caribbean island and not squandered a moment in a hammock?
Sitting next to me in an ATV modified to carry mountain bikes is Vancouver’s Andreas Hestler, co-founder of the seven-day BC Bike Race, and a former international-calibre cross-country racer who rode for Canada when fat tires made their Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. Beaming widely, he surveys the plummeting matrix of single-track trails, spread out across the mountainside below us like a spider web.
“Yah, Mon! I think we’ve arrived. I feel like the whole week has been building up to this,” says the 42-year-old with a feverish grin. He’s like a teenager sidling up to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Hestler adjusts his red helmet and pokes fingers into cycling gloves. Fifteen hundred vertical metres below and 25 kilometres to the southwest, the office towers of Kingston appear like crude Lego structures glittering against the turquoise blue of the Caribbean. Above us, beyond a crest of blonde grass and pine trees, juts 2,256-metre-tall Blue Mountain Peak—one of the highest peaks in the Caribbean.
The past week has been a blur of biking and debauchery. I’ve been bouncing around the Jamaican countryside with a busload of fellow mountain biking fanatics from Britain, Germany, U.S. and Canada, among them Hestler and fellow BC Bike Race founder and organizer Dean Payne. A passion for biking brought us all to the 13th annual Jamaica Fat Tyre Festival, in this country more known for palm-fringed sand, Rastafarianism, world-class sprinters and reggae music.
In the unofficial annals of destination riding, you need a couple of ingredients to have a quality off-road riding scene. First up is topographical relief, a quality with which Jamaica, just a third the size of Vancouver Island, is blessed. Second up are people with energy, like our hosts, expats Jonathan Gosse and Andy Giles—white in skin colour, but Jamaican in soul and fun-loving spirit. Together, they form the core of the country’s small, but determined mountain biking culture.
Rewind five days, to the rambunctious festival opener at John Crow’s Tavern in Ocho Rios. The itinerary Gosse handed out over a cacophony of bar chatter was itemized as follows: Jamaica Bicycle Bash; Murphy O’Hamilton Gets Conscious; The John Crow Has Landed; Roots, Rocks, Reggae, Rum; and Red Light. It was an enticing list, indeed, but with very little to suggest we are on a bicycling adventure.
“The festival is our way of showing another side of Jamaica,” Gosse explains.
It also jibes well with his work as executive director of the Oracabessa Foundation, a community development non-profit that supports environmental stewardship and youth recreation, something that is on full display the following day at the annual Bicycle Bash.
We have pedalled for about an hour along the north coast highway from Ocho Rios to James Bond Beach when the annual Bicycle Bash begins—a grassroots two-wheeled fiesta, where locals and foreigners alike compete in wacky cycling events. Jamaicans are naturally gregarious and full of swagger. When they move, they seem to dance. They also love a good time and come to this bash from across the north coast on hybridized bikes, cobbled together from a hodgepodge of parts resulting in fantastic choppers with banana seats or outlandish high-rise rides reminiscent of an early 19th-century cycling era. As for events, perennial favourites are the Rambo Olympics, in which participants pedal around a track three times, collecting first a beer crate, then a propane tank and, finally, a weed-whacker. Then there’s the bunny hop, which has bikers competing for the highest hop—sort of like high jump meets BMX. In Jamaica, BMX rules—the bikes are relatively affordable and simple to maintain, which makes sense for a local populace who would find the cost of our mountain bikes unfathomable.
The day after the bash, we are joined by three-time Jamaican bunny-hopping champion Sanchez Hubbard, a cool young hipster from Ocho Rios who always wears a blue toque, in spite of the hot Caribbean sun. We swap stories from the crazy bicycle bash as our bus shuttles us along quiet rural roads to the tiny hamlet of Pimento Hill in Saint Mary Parish, overlooking the sweep of the north coast. We are tailed by a cargo truck sporting Jamaica’s version of a bike rack: old sleeping foamies repurposed to cushion our bikes, which are stacked like pizza boxes in the back of the vehicle.
Soon we are eyeing one of Giles’s secrets called Pressure Drop, a trail that plunges from cloud forests, down through small vegetable plots and mango groves to the rustling palms of Black Sand Beach. Before dropping in, we stop at the thatch-roofed home of Grant, a local who helps with trail work. His wife offers us a taste of the unappetizingly named “stinky toe” fruit that has a surprisingly pleasant truffle-like flavour. Katie Holden, a downhill racer from Santa Cruz, follows the pack when, suddenly, a Rastafarian with a tangle of waist-length dreads emerges from a trailside hut, bewildered by this woman ripping the trail like a sprinter in full flight.
“Coo deh! You are a skillful lady. You fly in da air,” he says in that naturally poetic Jamaican patois, through a smile of mostly missing teeth.
In minutes, we emerge from a thicket of tight trees onto a breezy ridge, the air pungent with overripe mango. From there, the trail winds steeply down toward the sparkling Caribbean through fields of carrot and potato and, 30 minutes after leaving Pimento Hill, our dusty peloton rolls into Black Sand Beach. Wood smoke floats on the briny scent of the sea. Grant is there with his crew, barbecuing lobster and fish over open flames and chilling Red Stripe beers in an ice-filled cooler. The sounds of old-school reggae—Marley, Tosh, Toots and others—fill the air. Vendors selling turtles and snakes carved from coconuts have materialized from the forest, reminding me how enterprising people are able to seize an opportunity for commerce, even in a location as remote as Black Sand Beach. I buy a turtle for my daughter, then Hestler and I pop the caps on some Red Stripes, flop on the beach and dip our feet into the Caribbean.
Through his promotional work for Rocky Mountain Bicycles, and as a coach, Hestler gets around the globe on his bike. In the past few years, he’s had his passport stamped in Chile, France, Japan, Mexico and a half dozen more countries.
“I don’t travel just to ride my bike; it’s to explore other cultures and lands and see what else other biking communities are doing,” Hestler says, explaining why the Jamaica Fat Tyre Festival has been on his radar for the past three or four years. “After we put on the BC Bike Race every year, we go back to what we love doing—just getting out exploring—and pumping new trail.”
Night arrives abruptly in the tropics. Just as quickly as this party erupted, Grant and his homies pack up the coolers, stereo and empties before loading three mules for the return trip to their mountain homes in Pimento Hill. We set off for the half-hour seaside ride to the River Lodge—a stone fortress festooned in spider webs. In another life, more than two centuries ago, this was a Spanish fort, but today it’s a bizarre hotel that only the more adventurous travellers would ever find.
That’s how the week progresses; an exhausting daily ritual of time in the bike saddle followed by feasts of spicy chicken, curried lobster and other Jamaican specialties, the occasional Red Stripe or rum cocktail and a party. And now that we have arrived at a clandestine locale in the heart of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, all of us Fat Tyre Festival initiates have been sworn to secrecy not to reveal it (you’ll have to sign up to find out). That’s when Hestler adjusts his sunglasses as we prepare for a 1,000-m leg burner down handcrafted singletrack trails with names like Everything Gone Irie, Sunburn and More Tuff. Around each corner there is a new vista, a new adventure, a new thrill. Who would have thought it, in this land of reggae music and lazy seaside days?
“This is why I love to travel with my bike,” Hestler says, as he charges down a chicane of tight corners, spindrifts of dust billowing up from his tires, the lush green of Blue Mountain above, and the sparkling emerald of the Caribbean far below.
This year’s annual Jamaica Fat Tyre Festival runs Feb. 17-23.
If a week in the saddle is too much, join Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours for a spin through the Blue Mountain coffee plantations.
Join a guided bike tour of historic Braco Estate and Stables, a former sugar plantation turned pimento oil producer.
The Best Places in Canada to See the Northern Lights
Canada is a prime destination for northern lights viewing, best experienced between October and March. Watch them dance in the night sky above Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, in Whitehorse, on Prince Edward Island, in Yellowknife or near Edmonton.
An Insider’s Guide to Vancouver Island
If you could shape a piece of clay into your ideal destination, it might look a lot like Vancouver Island: sandy beaches that feel subtropical; valleys where flowers bloom and spring seems eternal; widely acclaimed artists, musicians and festivals that could fill weeks with mind-expanding experiences; and farm-fresh produce, artisan cheeses, local wines and handcrafted spirits in overwhelming abundance.