by Don Stefanovich
I stood on the helipad straddling my bike. Lush, green spines stretched below me like emerald fingers grasping at the distant valley floor. Beyond several overlapping, mist-wrapped ridges the Caribbean stretched into azure infinity. “This is unreal,” said cinematographer Connor MacLeod. It was about as articulate a statement as any of us could manage in that moment. Beneath us, the giant slate-grey square stamped into the mountainside was marked in large, white letters: “PRIVATE.”
The landing zone, or LZ, was the second during our ascent of an exclusive world-class, purpose-built bike park containing over 30 miles of trails in Jamaica’s Blue Mountain range—which thanks to signing a non-disclosure agreement, I’m permitted to refer to only as “The Compound.” The operators have no need for publicity. It’s not a commercial property, it’s not open to the public and you can’t buy your way in.
We are here as part of the Jamaica Fat Tyre Festival, best summed up as a week of riding, reggae and rum. Its organizers, Jonathan Gosse and Andy Giles, like to keep things simple. They cap the riders at 20 and despite many requests, operate only once annually. One gets the impression that this is a labor of love for them. Our being welcome on these top-notch, top-secret trails—along with many other finer points of the week—is thanks to the respect and friendships they’ve cultivated on the island.
This year’s group is a collection of industry types and pro riders, including Katie Holden, Rowan Sorrell, Dean Payne, Andreas Hestler and the B.C. Bike Race crew, a few festival veterans, tourists from various corners of North America and across the pond, and a handful of journos and photogs. The week nearly over, we find ourselves exhausted and elated, making our way up the mountainside like a line of ants on autopilot. The sheer scale of The Compound and its operations stands in stark contrast to the relaxed island culture we have encountered so far, but it is one hell of a finale.
“Welcome…to Jurassic Bike Park,” I thought as the gates swung open upon our arrival. On a terrace behind a sprawling, mural-covered building, silver four-wheel-drive, quad-cab Volkswagen Amaroks complete with roll cages and safari lights are lined up in front of a yellow and grey, 15-passenger, long-nose Agusta helicopter. A custom bike rack hangs on the chopper. On the next level down, a line of enormous shipping containers house bikes, parts, tools and gear. Polaris RZR buggies rigged with bike racks awaited us. After a brief introduction, and admonition as to the danger of the trails and our remote location, a few of us scrambled into the RZRs. Others piled bikes and bodies into quad-cab Ford Rangers. The rest of us into what was, for lack of a better description, a dump truck—which, after riding in, I’m fairly certain was a hardtail.
We were shuttled as far as the impossibly steep dirt road allowed. Several switchbacks required three-point turns. We unloaded at an intersection of trails in a grove of coffee trees. After popping two beans into my cheek that were probably worth more than a Venti cup o’ ‘Bucks, I fell in line and pedaled up a rust-colored ribbon through dense jungle and golden, alpine meadows before reaching the LZ.
The view—and realization of my whereabouts—are dizzying. The click of the grey, interlocking plates beneath my tires as I roll off the LZ sounds alien. I realize it isn’t the first time this week I was caught off guard by an unfamiliar sound beneath my wheels.
We press on toward The Compound’s 5,500-foot summit, still nearly 2,000 feet below Big Blue’s 7,400-foot peak, the second highest in the West Indies. While that altitude may be respectable, it’s hardly impressive among exotic riding destinations. But the short distance in which these mountains reach such heights—fewer than 10 miles from shore to summit in most places—results in some of the steepest natural pitches in the world. It is into such reliefs that The Compound’s trails are etched.
We have 3,500 feet of vert to burn via endless trail combinations before returning to base and doing it again. We drop in, hooting and hollering through fast, flowing, banked, bermed, undulating waves of raked soil across steep, alpine fields and through dense bamboo forests. We descend into steep, exposed, technical gauntlets of rocks and roots with tight, near-vertical switchbacks littered with detritus, and drops leaving little margin for error. Rear tires seem to fall away in the steepest of corners. Vines and branches threaten to snag wide bars. I fear a wrong turn might find me haplessly plunging into a Punji pit where no amount of tire sealant will save me. As my vision blurs into jade tracers, I’m reminded of two of my favorite 8-bit videogames—Pitfall! and Paperboy—rolled into one. Except here there is no reset button.
I was met with more than a few puzzled looks when I told people I was going mountain biking in Jamaica. Some couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave the security and convenience of a surfside resort where there was plenty of sun and sand. And who could blame them? Accounting for more than 50 percent of foreign earnings and employing a quarter of the country’s workforce, tourism is Jamaica’s largest breadwinner. Its pristine portrayal in brochures and commercials—comprised almost entirely of beaches—obscures poverty and its earnings eclipse the once-dominant industries of agriculture and mining. Upon my arrival, the bus from the airport passed a port where bauxite—an ore used in the production of aluminum—was once exported. The dock, road and surrounding flora bore sanguine stains. I was wedged in with pale, round tourists who at different stops, waddled off and into all-inclusive bubbles where they would remain for the duration of their stay. As they entered, island music was cued up and festively dressed performers swayed to provide a welcoming ‘Jamaican’ vibe.
Others I told about the trip didn’t know the tropical isle has mountains. It does. I was plummeting down one of the biggest, hanging off the back of my seat, starfish to tread, wondering if I should have brought a bigger bike.
Then I thought of Sanchez.