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Photograph by Steve Zdawczynski

Trailblazing Haiti: Scouting the Country’s First Pro Mountain Biking Race – Part 1

This spring, a small team of Americans scouted a course for the first professional mountain biking stage race in Haiti. The terrain was beyond any of their wildest expectations. Award-winning adventure travel writer Jayme Moye reports in this three-part series. Photographs by Steve Zdawczynski

Part 1 

The children had never seen mountain bikers before. They crowded around the pickup truck to watch as we pulled out the bikes and lubed the chains. We’d driven fifteen miles from Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, to start our ride in Furcy, a village at 5,000 feet above sea level. The kids’ mothers walk the rugged route we were about to pedal—a 12-mile footpath along the ridgeline of the Chaîne de la Selle—weekly, sometimes daily. They balance 30-pound bundles on their heads, trading vegetables for seeds and fertilizer in the handful of villages along the path. As far as we knew, no one had ever tackled the trail by bike.

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Photograph by Steve Zdawczynski; See more photos at www.steve-z.com

Our team was riding the path as part of a course scouting trip for Haiti’s first professional bike race, planned for February 2013. The brainchild of Philip Kiracofe, a New York City-based Ironman triathlete and the owner of Travelcology, a company dedicated to adventure travel in the developing world, the Haiti Ascent Mountain Bike Stage Race is an ambitious project. It aims to lure at least 50 elite cyclists to race in the most stigmatized country in the Western Hemisphere, and to put Haiti on the map as a viable destination for adventure tourism.

Kiracofe, 39, is the co-founder of “The Failure Club,” a group whose members learn to embrace failure as a necessary part of success. They seek out and pursue seemingly impossible goals, from physical challenges to business proposals. I met Kiracofe in Port-au-Prince in April for one such impossible mission—to prove that Haiti’s trails are pro cyclist-caliber, capable of extending the country’s media coverage from CNN to ESPN.

He was relying on my opinion as an adventure travel writer, and my experience as the former captain of the top-ranked women’s amateur bike race team in Colorado. I was already in Haiti on assignment and had spent the week prior to our meeting backpacking in the mostly flat, depressingly de-forested Central Plateau. I was skeptical that mountain biking was possible in Haiti, but drawn in by Kiracofe’s enthusiasm.

Our team consisted of a photographer, a trail specialist from the International Mountain Biking Association, and two American men working in Haiti who’d done some preliminary work identifying a course. We’d all crammed into the pickup truck, our bikes in the back, to explore the terrain that Kiracofe envisioned as Stage 1 of the two-day Haiti Ascent race. We had driven the first section, the steep switchbacks from Port-au-Prince to Furcy, to save time and energy. The Chaîne de la Selle are the tallest of Haiti’s four mountain ranges, topping out at nearly 9,000 feet. Stage 1 is not for newbies. It will cover about 30 miles in total, gaining a whopping 7,000 feet of elevation.

Standing beside my bike, under the watchful gaze of the village’s children, I got ready to ride the remainder of Stage 1—the climb to La Visite National Park. The landscape was unlike anything I’d seen while hiking in the uninspired Central Plateau. We were surrounded by jaw dropping 360-degree mountain views—toothy emerald peaks punctuated by rust-colored rock and deep plunging valleys. I surveyed the path I was about to pedal. It flowed like a ribbon cut into the jagged mountainside, climbing higher and higher before it disappeared into the mist. I felt a surge of adrenaline. Maybe Kiracofe was onto something.