Pedal in paradise
With the historic Tour de France returning again this July, Felix Lowe asks whether the world’s biggest bike race could ever come to the Caribbean
The five staggeringly steep switchbacks of Windy Hill had my legs burning and my lungs gasping. This was meant to be a relaxing holiday in the British Virgin Islands but I wasn’t taking things easy on the beach, sailing, diving or sipping a cocktail. I was pedalling feverishly, clad in lycra in the heat of the day, and – as us masochist cyclists like to say – digging deep into the pain cave.
Windy Hill may not hold the same cycling cachet as Alpe d’Huez – the legendary Tour de France peak with its infamous 21 hairpin bends – but this pulverising collection of coils on the west end of Tortola was as hard as anything I’d tackled before on a bike. With the apex of each bend ramping up quite ridiculously, even the grazing goats on the side of the road gave me a quizzical look.
At Stoutt’s Lookout bar, overlooking the white sands of Cane Garden Bay, I took a well earned break before continuing up into the Mount Sage National Park. Hitting the undulating Ridge Road that runs along Tortola’s spine, I was rewarded with some of the most breathtaking views over the island’s pristine coastline and coral reefs, making all that effort worthwhile.
Biking on the up
Hilly and just 54 sq km, Tortola is hardly an obvious cycling destination. Guadeloupe (with its 1,000km of paved roads and French cycling culture), Martinique (another saddle-proud overseas French department), Spanish-influenced Puerto Rico, Dutch-owned Curaçao and even communist Cuba are more discernible hotbeds of cycling in the Caribbean, where the currency is generally more boats than bikes.
Years earlier, I’d visited Guadeloupe and was struck by the innate Frenchness of the place. Not only the red, white and blue tricolour flags, French road signage and boulangéries selling baguettes on every street corner but also the regular pelotons (groups of cyclists) – all extra proof of just how much Guadeloupe shares its mother nation’s passion for cycling.
It’s a passion you’re hard pressed to find in the BVI – save for the odd ex-pat or training triathlete. Part of the problem is the quality of rideable terrain. “I’ve seen roads in a better state in war zones,” Iain Walker, the secretary of the islands’ mountain bike club, told me shortly after my own battle with the BVI bitumen. “Some stretches look like they’ve been targeted by a cluster bomb.”
For that reason, I had ditched my usual road machine in favour of a far more robust mountain bike – borrowed from a friend, a Tortola resident for more than a decade. Alastair Abrehart – a self-styled ’MAMIL’ (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra) – is a key figure in the BVI’s burgeoning bike scene. He rightly asserts that “a mile of Tortola riding is the equivalent to two miles anywhere else”.
The BVI Mountain Bike Club puts on a dozen events over the course of the season, with popular races taking place on the dirt tracks of Peter Island, the coral trails of Anegada and the challenging roads of Virgin Gorda where, on Alastair’s suggestion, I ventured for my second riding experience – this time with a swish mountain bike hired from Last Stop Sports in Road Town.
Dripping in the humidity but inspired by my surroundings, I scaled the 414m Gorda Peak from both sides before treating myself to refreshments at Hog’s Heaven, an iconic bar overlooking Virgin tycoon Richard Branson’s Necker Island – the same Branson who saw his life “flashing before my eyes” when he swerved to avoid a bump and crashed on these very same bone-shaking roads when cycling last August.
Those pesky roads again. They’re the main reason why the BVI are possibly unlikely to take off as a cycling destination. The conditions and terrain are just a little too extreme for your social rider.
Tour de Caribbean?
While BVI may present a perennial challenge, there are some brilliant places to pedal in the Caribbean. Take Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico, for instance. Puerto Rico attracts cyclists (including Abrehart) from all over the world for its Vuelta – a three-day circuit of the island – each January. Guadeloupe goes one better with an annual multi-day race that has put the Butterfly Island firmly on the cycling map (www.guadeloupe-islands.com/tour-de-la-guadeloupe).
“The race attracts more and more spectators each year – a passion that is transmitted from generation to generation,” said Philibert Mouëza, the president of Guadeloupe’s regional cycling committee, when I reach out after my own Caribbean cycling experiences.
Running since 1948, the semi-professional race takes in the plains, forests and coastal roads of Grande-Terre as well as the more mountainous terrain of Basse-Terre, including occasional jaunts up the active volcano of La Soufrière. Such is the buzz the race instils that there has even been talk of the Tour de France – which has a long tradition of foreign starts, this year from Dusseldörf, Germany on 1 July – venturing across the Atlantic.
Such a possibility is “absolutely conceivable” according to Mouëza. In fact, it almost happened in 2000 thanks to an initiative led by the then-French President, Jacques Chirac. Logistical problems – including an eight-hour flight back to mainland France – proved the stumbling block. But a Grand Départ in Guadeloupe – where, unlike the BVI, the roads are awash with cyclists and cycling is the number-one sport – is not something that has been ruled out.
“It’s complicated but not impossible,” said Christian Prudhomme, the race director of the Tour de France, who himself covered the Tour de Guadeloupe as a journalist back in the 1980s. “What is crucial is that it doesn’t appear to be merely a gimmick and that there is a genuine desire. And I know from experience that the fervour for cycling in Guadeloupe is just incredible.”
5 Great Caribbean cycling spots
The Francophone islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique aren’t the only places to get in the saddle. Felix Lowe picks five other Caribbean islands to practise your pedalling
1 St Lucia
GREAT FOR: Jungle biking adventures in a historic setting
A network of rough mountain biking trails weave through St Lucia’s dense rainforest, exploring the island’s spectacular shoreline and challenging contours. Join up with Bike St Lucia on the east of the island at the Anse Chastanet Resort to take in the pristine beaches, lush tropical vegetation and colonial ruins of the Anse Mamin Plantation. Bike St Lucia’s 13km of custom off-road trails suit all abilities while showcasing the plantation’s natural beauty and heritage – from exotic fruit trees to wild orchids and old sugar mills. Experts should tackle the Tinker’s Trail – designed by former BMX and MTB world champion Tinker Juarez – for steep switchbacks and a heart-thumping descent. Cannondale suspension bikes are available for hire and riders can brush up on their riding skills in an enclosed training area.
GREAT FOR: Miles of mule trains and hilly backroads
Potholes and savage gradients hinder the road-biking scene on the Spice Isle – although the Grenada Cycling Federation does organise occasional club events. Most Grenadine cyclists are triathletes hitting the heights of the Grand Étang National Park or the flatter, peaceful roads between Sauteurs and Victoria in the north. But the best way of exploring the island’s hundreds of trails and backroads of varying difficulty is by mountain bike. Mocha Spoke in True Blue Bay – supposedly the first and only cycling café in the Caribbean – offers MTB hire and guiding. Popular sightseeing tours include an off-road exploration of the south peninsula and a more demanding ride inland to the famous Annandale waterfall. Afterwards riders can grab an Italian Lavazza coffee and a ‘Bicycle Bell’ or ‘Pedal Pusher’ panino at the café, which is made from shipping containers with tables held up by old bike wheels and frames.
GREAT FOR: Back-country roads and lung-busting trails
Barbados was recently featured in a documentary on the UK Bike Channel, and had the show’s host swooning over its absolutely breathtaking scenery, laid-back vibe and demanding cycling terrain. She joined the St Lawrence Gap-based Bike Caribbean for a challenging but fun MTB trip, taking in natural springs, idyllic forests and exciting cliff-top trails. With a fleet of Raleigh, Trek and Cannondale road and mountain bikes at its disposal, Bike Caribbean blends sightseeing with a thorough workout – exploring the hidden surf spots of Bathsheba, cruising along the East Coast Road or climbing the steep slopes of Cherry Tree Hill. That Barbados hosted the Caribbean Road Race Championships in 2015 in the presence of Brian Cookson, the president of the UCI (cycling’s world governing body), shows that the Bajan road biking scene is also growing fast.
GREAT FOR: Volcanic peaks and rugged terrain that pack a punch for cyclists
The self-styled Nature Island of the Caribbean, Dominica’s unspoiled natural beauty is home to many rare plants, animals and birds. Until recently, cyclists were among these rare species, but that is starting to change. Dominica’s eye-catching contours and tropical weather make for a memorable cycling experience – as long as you’re a fan of the steep stuff (it’s the most mountainous island of the Lesser Antilles). The twisting road from Roseau to Pont Casse is particularly gruelling – and a rite of passage for any roadie. If narrow roads, challenging gradients and deep drainage gutters aren’t your thing, Dominica’s mountain bike trails offer an invigorating alternative, with numerous coastal routes and a wilderness ride towards Boiling Lake, the world’s second-largest hot spring. The best bike rental options are in Roseau; guided tours are encouraged.
• www.dominica.dm or www.caribya.com/dominica
5 Puerto Rico
GREAT FOR: The region’s biggest amateur event
Circumnavigate the island like a pro. The annual Vuelta Puerto Rico is the biggest amateur road-biking event in the Caribbean, with 500 riders covering 600km over three days in a fully supported tour now in its 11th year. See why the locals call this the ‘island of enchantment’ on a challenging route through Puerto Rico’s 42 coastal towns. Billed as the ultimate cycling adventure for serious endurance athletes interested in a pro-like experience, the Vuelta was described by Bicycling magazine as ‘one of the greatest hard rides’. Riders are grouped according to speed, and a police escort ensures safe passage on tricky intersections (though they can’t do anything about the potholes). From the rainforest of El Yunque to the beaches of Isla Verde, the route passes Spanish colonial buildings, historic fortresses, lighthouses and roadside stalls selling oysters, bacalaitos (cod fritters) and beer.