As I sit at my desk and look at the images I shot while in Jamaica for three days of riding, I have to admit that I’m still processing, still trying to figure out exactly what I think, what I want to say. The experience was wonderful, bizarre, warm emotionally, hot meteorologically, challenging, inches from dangerous and something I’d repeat in half a heartbeat, but that doesn’t tell you much. Hell, the name of the tour—the Jamaica Reggae Ride—doesn’t give much away, either. I should mention I was there on assignment for Bike Hugger’s digital magazine. The offer rolled in as I was feeling down about form destroyed by a brigade of intestinal vermin that turned back the clock on my form, precluding me from participating—yet again—in the Belgian Waffle Ride, held by my friends at SPY Optic. Going to Jamaica was the perfect distraction and Bike Hugger is the only outlet I’ve ever written for that would allow me to write about anything that happened on the trip. Stay tuned for that.
And because wifi was as plentiful jerk chicken but as starved as a neglected goat, I was unable to post while gone except by phone to Facebook and Twitter. For that reason, I’m eager to give you something to digest.
This is Martin, one of our guides. All of our guides were racers, most were podium regulars in Jamaica in the masters ranks, though there were a few exceptions to that. More than just competent riders, they knew how to take care of less experienced cyclists, whether it was fixing a flat in a flash or wetting them down
While I’d read that we’d have a police escort, I didn’t really know what that meant. In my experience, it has always been briefer than I’d hoped, so I didn’t expect much. This may have been the biggest surprise of the entire trip. Above, Farrakhan touches up his motorcycle with black spray paint. They might not have had all the resources to keep their bikes in pristine condition, but at minimum, they were going to keep their rides shiny.
Fowly was the lead guide on the road. He’s a multiple national masters’ champion in Jamaica and had every road we traveled memorized. It was nothing for him to pull off the front, notice an empty bottle, drop back to the bus following us, get it filled up, run it back up to the rider, and then resume his position on point. I should mention that Fowly is a nickname, not his real name. The hardest and fastest the riding got would see me dropped and him looking relaxed, like he was waiting for the hammer to fall. It had, but he just couldn’t tell.
With the possible exception of some places I’ve seen in Africa, Jamaica is easily the poorest, most third-world place I’ve visited. Being destitute doesn’t hurt their attitude, though. Murals of all sorts were painted on many buildings and then they weren’t adorned with murals, they were often washed in bright tones you’d expect to find on bathings suits. No reason not to make your surroundings beautiful, right?
This is Breezeman, one of our guides; of course, it is pronounced Breezemon. He was a supremely relaxed guy who could pedal furiously if the situation called for it, but in his case, it rarely seemed to. With the few flashes of effort I saw from him I could tell that he’d have ridden away from me like he was behind the wheel of a Ferrari. It’s so rare in my experience that a strong guide doesn’t at some point make a flashy, explosive effort to demonstrate their might. It’s the cyclist’s equivalent of blowing up some atoll with an atomic bomb and this guy wouldn’t even admit he had his finger on the button. When not playing bikes he worked as a painter, doing building and house exteriors during the fall, working three or four months each year.
During our first day’s ride, from Negril to Montego Bay, we passed through the town of Lucea (pronounced like the name Lucy). Our tour organizer, who went by the monicker “Storm” had arranged a rest stop for us in the middle of town where we drank coconut water from coconuts and munched sugar cane. This local had already chopped nearly three dozen coconuts to near the point of opening and when we arrived he used his machete to chop a few last slices away to access the nectar within.
Not only is Fowly (at right) a complete hard man in the mold of a Dutch sprinter, his son, who goes by Chicken, isn’t bad either. Chicken, whose real name I never heard uttered during our trip, is the current Jamaican National Champion. The kid is in his mid-20s and has a sprint that reminds me of Mark Cavendish—low over the bar, fantastic leg speed, elbows out and rocking the bike.
In addition to being a crack mechanic, Martin (one of a handful of our guides who didn’t have a fancy nickname), was known for great leg massages. Sheila had done the Jamaica Reggae Ride last fall (it’s currently held twice a year) and had learned a thing or two about Martin’s talents. She’d picked up the nickname Pushcart in the previous edition because she had needed a fair amount of assistance to get over the hills, but returned to this year’s ride noticeably stronger. There was some murmuring that they might have to find her a new nickname. As it turned out, our moto drivers were ours for the entire trip. Storm had paid the police for the use of them for all three days and their presence was the trip’s secret sauce. But I’ll get to that.
This was Jamaica, and you could hardly go anywhere without seeing Bob Marley celebrated. To say he has been deified isn’t too strong; he’s a cultural institution, a touchpoint that all Jamaicans seem to claim as part of their birthright. His music was the soundtrack for the trip, and I do mean that literally. Easily 80 percent of the music I heard when in restaurants, bars, on the streets or in our bus was Marley. While I would have welcomed to hear something of the other reggae masters, I wasn’t about to complain any time one of his tracks began to infuse the air. And while I’ve listened to Bob Marley for years, the more I heard his music while there, the more Jamaica made sense.