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
I woke to the sound of birds chirping in Haiti’s lush La Visite National Park, and for a moment, forgot that I was in the most decimated country in the Western Hemisphere. Our scouting team had a morning of mountain biking ahead of us, exploring the footpaths that crisscrossed the park’s 20,000+ acres to determine if they’d be suitable to include in what organizers hope will be the first Haiti Ascent Mountain Bike Stage Race, planned for February 2013.
The day before, I’d been skeptical that Haiti would have the natural beauty or the adrenaline-pumping trails to lure the international bike racing community. But after biking the startling Chaîne de la Selle mountains, and then waking with the all-over body ache that comes from navigating tough terrain at altitude, I was changing my mind.
The man with the vision, Philip Kiracofe, pictures Stage 2 of the race starting in the park’s ample trail system and then plunging down the other side of the mountains to the coast, ending in the beach town of Jacmel. The paths in La Visite are unmapped, but we asked Winthrop Attié, the owner of the inn where we stayed and an avid hiker, to direct us to what he thought would be the most memorable singletrack.
La Visite National Park is covered in soft, narrow footpaths worn into the landscape by farmers and schoolchildren from the nearby village of Seguin—ideal terrain for mountain biking. We set out immediately after breakfast, pedaling trails that traversed gently rolling farmland and wound though the pine needle-strewn forest floor. When we climbed a steep trail to a waterfall that included a brief (but gratifying) hike-a-bike section, everyone agreed we could have spent days exploring, and lamented that we only had hours.
After we shot over a narrow path bridging a 25-foot deep sinkhole, we stopped and went back to get some action photos—it was like nothing any of us had seen. The bottom of the sinkhole was covered in fuzzy green ferns and tropical flowers. Steely grey stalactites dripped from the base of the strip of path we’d just ridden across. We ended the ride at an overlook that Attié said offered views all the way to the ocean. Heavy clouds had rolled in, blocking the line of sight to the water, but adding to the misty magic of the place. I turned to Kiracofe: “You had me at the Sole Collector.”
Chris Kehmeier, the trail specialist from the International Mountain Biking Association, agreed. “This is absolutely an IMBA-caliber course. It’s epic.” Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones Kiracofe needed to convince. And we had to get moving—he was presenting his race plan to the Haitian government that evening in Port-au-Prince.
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Back down in the capital, Haiti felt like a different place. The congestion, the piles of trash picked through by pigs and dogs, and the unruly traffic were an unsettling contrast to the serenity of La Visite. A boy nabbed a knapsack from the back of our pickup truck when we slowed in traffic, making off with the wallet and passport of one our teammates, a young doctor doing a volunteer year in Haiti.
Later at the Kinam Hotel, I watched Haiti’s VIPs arrive, shaking Kiracofe’s hand and kissing him on both cheeks, a custom in the former French colony. If he was nervous, the tall, blue-eyed American hid it well. After Kiracofe’s presentation, I talked to Olivier Martelly, the president’s son and an advisor in the government’s Youth and Sports Department. He was impressed. “This is a great opportunity for people outside Haiti,” Martelly said. “But it’s an even better opportunity for the ones inside—to see their country in a way they’ve never seen it before.”
Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s minister of tourism, told me that the Haiti Ascent Mountain Bike Race was exactly the kind of project her country wanted to support, and that she would make her department’s resources available to promote the race. On the way back to the airport the next morning, I expected Kiracofe to be in higher spirits. His scouting mission was, by any measure, a success. He had government buy-in, and the International Mountain Biking Association’s stamp of approval. But he was already looking ahead. “Haiti has too much stigma for this race to be a build it and they will come type deal,” he said. “This is where the real work starts—convincing elite mountain bikers to show up.”