Exclusive: Riding the Rhythms of Jamaica’s High Country
Part 2: Two Wheels, One Love
by Don Stefanovich
Sanchez Hubbard, A 22-year-old artist, lives and works with constant pain in his wrists and shoulders from slamming down some of Jamaica’s finest burl on his only mountain bike: an archaic hardtail with a low seat, leaking short-travel fork, cracked plastic pedals, no rear brake and a front V-brake that works sometimes—when the oil from the fork burns off the rim. He had thus become the master of the high-speed-over-the-bars dismount, a stunt we would witness several times.
I met Sanchez nearly a week ago during the Jamaica Bicycle Bash, another labor of love for Jon, this one an offshoot of his full-time role as Executive Director of the Oracabessa Foundation—a community development agency with an eye on health, environment, education, employment and youth engagement.
Jon—with a buzz cut, meticulously trimmed goatee, wire-rimmed glasses and nary a shirt untucked—looks at times more like a drill sergeant, his appearance belied only by his frequent laughter and animated gesticulations. Jon first came to Jamaica from Wisconsin as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995. When his two years of service were up, he received his plane ticket home, but cashed it in and started a youth basketball league. He received citizenship in 2001, the same year he started working for the organization.
The bash is also tied to Jon and Andy’s loosely run Saint Mary’s Off-Road Bicycle Association. SMORBA’s biggest claim to fame is the Fat Tyre Festival, the event that attracted us, the foreigners—two-wheeled tourists, as much as we’d like to fancy ourselves otherwise.
Geared toward the locals, the Bicycle Bash—dubbed ‘A Celebration of Jamaican Bicycling Culture’—kick-started our weeklong adventure and really was just what the name implied. Hundreds of Jamaicans crowded James Bond Beach in Oracabessa with their bikes for a series of competitions, races and games with Jon as emcee and judge. The bikes were a hodge-podge collection of two-wheeled Frankensteins, festooned with rainbows of spray paint, stickers and rust. Tendrils of bare-wire ran batteries of lights likely to turn an air-traffic controller epileptic. Dancehall spilled out of speaker boxes wedged into front triangles. Some bikes were pedaled from as far as 30 miles away with bare feet or flip-flops.
Looking around at the Frankenbikes, I hesitated when first asked for my own by CJ, a grinning boy barely as tall as my saddle when it was dropped. I wasn’t sure he could even reach the pedals, then he wheelied away from me. Even though mountain biking—at least on actual trails—hasn’t really taken hold with most Jamaicans, soon nearly all our multi-thousand-dollar rigs were being manualed and bunny-hopped across the field by locals. Someone rolled by on Connor’s bike, sitting backward on the bars, back-pedaling blindly.
Then there was Sanchez.
We pedaled away from Rooms hotel and out of Ocho Rios earlier that day for a warm-up ride along the coast to the bash. At some point, a tall, wiry kid in a beanie, skinny jeans, fingerless gloves and faded, blue Nikes left a group huddled in front of a roadside shop to join us. Flashing a smile, he stood and sprinted on a white, nameless BMX frame with a slammed seat and hot-pink bars to keep up. While we spun along, already sweating in the tropical sun, he effortlessly boosted off any roadside obstacle he could find, or sometimes nothing at all. Later, Jon would announce, “…an official height of 15 feet!” when Sanchez took top honors in the bunny-hop competition. He cleared the bar at 44 inches, and barely nicked it at 46, but it looked damn close to the ‘official’ height.
Sanchez personifies the passion Jamaicans have toward their bikes—something that struck me that day in contrast to the way two wheels are perceived in other developing countries, where they are often ridden only out of necessity, sometimes shamefully. There are some parts of the world where people absolutely cannot grasp that someone who can afford not to would still ride a bike for fun. Jamaica isn’t one of them.
“Jamaicans are passionate about everything,” Jon told me. “Some would say overly so…at the expense of rationality.”
Sanchez still rides trails despite the pain, usually with his buddy Rudy—never without earphones and Wayfarers—in tow. “Eeh tinks eeh going to be a rapstar,” Sanchez would later quip on the bus, as we watched Rudy sway in the open back of the box truck carrying our bikes in front of us, highlighted by dappled rays of sun sifting through the canopy, visible in the clouds of dust and exhaust.
Not long ago, they never even entertained the idea of trail riding. They rode BMX bikes, throwing tricks off stairs, cars or anything else they could find, but Sanchez was intrigued the day he saw Andy ride by in a helmet on a big, squishy bike. “Ay, mon! Errr do you ride?”
“Follow me,” Andy replied. “I’ll show you.”
An optometrist and avid windsurfer, Andy moved to Jamaica when an opportunity in his field presented itself. Having met during Jon’s time with the Peace Corps and discovering a mutual passion for mountain biking, Andy and Jon rode together during the original incarnation of the festival when it was held in Negril during the late ‘90s and run by Rusty Jones, an expatriate originally from Cleveland. When Rusty got tired, Jon and Andy made a rum-clad pact to carry the torch. The re-envisioned Fat Tyre Festival rode in and around Saint Mary Parish in 2007. SMORBA was born.
With blue eyes dancing behind a round, smiling face, T-shirts bearing bike logos and baggy shorts, Andy appears the antithesis to Jon. He spends more time in the saddle, functioning as a guide throughout the week, while Jon handles admin and logistics. Andy spends much of his free time scouting trails. Once, Andy got lost while riding recon with no lights, and ended up spending the night in the bush. That trail, Carlton Pass, is now one of the festival’s highlights.
“Oh, this is nothing,” Andy told me as I stared wide-eyed out the window of the Toyota Coaster bus as it grunted and bounced up the winding road toward Murphy Hill en route to our first real day of riding. The cracked concrete, strip malls and street ‘salesmen’ of the tourist port of Ocho Rios now far below us, colorful huts appeared tucked among massive flora that looked nothing short of prehistoric. Barefoot women and children smiled and waved from dirt paths and weathered stoops. Cows grazed on open hillsides.
I’ll admit it: The minute that sweet, tropical smell invaded my nostrils and the warm, moist air enveloped me as I stepped off the plane, I was the most uninitiated of tourists. I giggled like a schoolboy when I heard my first ‘real’ Jamaican accent: an airline employee on her cell phone. I felt all ‘islandy’ when the band in the arrivals area—clad in straw hats and Hawaiian shirts emblazoned with the word Jamaica—started strumming and thumping a happy tune. I melted when I first stepped foot on the thin strip of manicured sand that separated our hotel from the cool blue of the Caribbean.
But now, as we climbed through rural villages, and people eyed us with curiosity rather than intent, I was finally starting to feel that I was outside the bubble.
Then a safari-truck painted with zebra stripes and replete with pale people rolled past.