MIKE AND GILL’S MARIE CURIE JAMAICAN BIKE RIDE BLOG
Before we left for Jamaica, Gill and I promised you a blog (should you care to read it) describing our challenge. Unfortunately Jamaica was hit by a series of tropical storms whilst we were there which badly affected the infrastucture of the island, consequently we couldn’t get internet access and post blog enties as we went. So I hope you will accept the blog below as a belated description of our journey!
Should you wish to look at pictures of our ride they are available at:
Day One – 30th September We all gathered at Gatwick airport to be given our tickets and to receive our name badges (it felt like we were back at school!) but in truth it did help in identifying and recognising other bike riders.
We flew Virgin Atlantic for nine hours to Kingston, Jamaica on what has to be one of the most bizarre flights I have ever taken. The reason it was so unusual was that a party of Jamaicans were obviously travelling home for a wedding. Rather than bother the stewardesses with requests for drinks they just cracked open the duty free they had bought at Gatwick and had a party in the last 5 rows of the plane. The noise level went up as the booze went down. At one point I could have sworn I saw 5 1 litre bottles of Scotch, Gin, Vodka, Rum and Bacardi!
Finally we got to Kingston airport to be greeted by the news that we all had to individually take our bikes through customs ourselves to avoid incurring duty. Tired from a long flight we emerged into what looked like chaos but was (we soon recognised) a normal Jamaican crowd scene outside the airport! It was pouring with rain (tropical storm again) and everyone who had a car was blowing their horn regardless of whether they needed to or not!
We eventually got to our hotel guided and chaperoned by Mr Motivator and Jennifer (our tour organiser in Jamaica). After Rum Punches that really punched and a calypso band playing unrecognisable instruments we had a great meal and went to bed early ready for the next day when we would be fitted with our bikes.
Day Two 1st October The Blue Mountains After meeting the rest of the ride team (various god like figures from the Jamaican national cycling team with ebony thighs and dressed in skin tight Lycra!) we were fitted with our brand new bikes for the ride. Once ready we were sent on our way by a pep talk from the Deputy Director of Tourism and a Jamaican Marching Band. We were just starting to realise how important and novel the event was for Jamaica who had not seen anything like 40 riders in Marie Curie Cycling Shirts before!
Although we were due to tackle the intimidating Stony Hill climb (11.5 km and a total ascent of 1076 metres), we were told that due to the tropical storms still blowing hard over Jamaica that most of the road had been washed out so we had to go by a different route instead. Typically this also included some lengthy climbs and even Gill began to use her gears to get up the hills!
We finally made our first stopover of the event at Robins Bay eating Akki and Saltfish and Jerk Chicken. Gill was given a special prize for being the friendliest person in the group and getting everyone to ‘bond’ together!
Day Three 2nd October Ocho Rios Torrential rain again today so a glum start to the days ride which was scheduled to be 58.2 kms. We passed through the pretty (but poor) town of Port Maria and saw Firefly (home of Noel Coward) and then Goldeneye a ‘top secret’ resort where Ian Fleming wrote all 14 James Bond books. Well I say we saw them, mostly all we could see was 5 feet in front of our faces for the streaming water and sweat combined. How it can be so hot when its pelting down with rain I don’t know!
Finally we made it to Ocho Rios only to find there was no hot water in our hotel (Oh how we laughed and chuckled at that after a day in the saddle!). However, no time to complain because in the evening its off to Mr Motivator’s place in the hills – HEvans Scent (his real name is Derrick Evans – well you didn’t think he was christened Mr Motivator did you?! J).
The more manic of our party enjoyed themselves on the trip wires at heights of over 100 feet flying across tropical valleys. Whilst the rest of us had a good old Reggae sing along. Well Jan did anyway she was fabulous.
Day Four 3rd October Falmouth 65 kms today so plenty of Vaseline and padded pants, but guess what? The rain has lifted and its baking hot! Its a good job that we started out at the most famous Jamaica attraction the Dunns River Waterfalls where we had the place to ourselves for the first 2 hours of the day. It was bliss to be walking up freezing cold clear natural spring water and wondering when we were going to plunge to our deaths below!
32kms of cycling later and we are at Discovery Bay and guess what? We have discovered we want the rain back! The heat and humidity is incredible and sunstroke is a real concern. However, our resident doctor (Dr Bob) has found an ingenious solution. He rides up quietly behind you on the road and then jets a stream of iced water down your back. You can hear Gill’s screams on the other side of the island!
The last 18kms of the days ride is the hardest in what the brochure euphemistically calls ‘a tough little climb through the village of Duncans where Harry Belafonte was born’. Well I don’t know if Harry had a bike when he was growing up but if he did he must have been super fit to get it up and down the hills we climbed!
Day Five 4th October Montego Bay Today we started our cycle into Falmouth to see the most complete Georgian town in Jamaica. This is where the police outriders we have had all week come into their own. They are super efficient at clearing the roads in front of us so that we are not delayed and there is something weirdly satisfying about cycling through red lights! There is only one small problem. They are both totally insane! They not only ride their bikes but when they get bored they also kneel on them and perform the most unusual manoeuvres (mostly with no hands)! Gill made the mistake one day of challenging one of them to stand on his bike whilst travelling – so he did!
The climate and change in diet is taking its toll today though as a number of the group are stricken by sun stroke and what appears to be food poisoning. Nine riders in all are affected and can’t manage various sections during the day and Gill isn’t feeling too good either but despite arguments from Mike she is determined to keep up with the front group we have been riding with all week and won’t hear of taking a ‘time out’ in the van.
We have a steady and at times tough 14kms climb to Wakefield and then on in the afternoon to Montego Bay (Mobay to the locals). We have a free evening which is a good job for Mike who by now is feeling unwell himself and has to go to bed early to be ready for the next day. Gill however is now feeling better and went out with the girls for a Pina Colada or three!
Day Six 5th October Negril This was the last and longest day of the challenge in which we cycled 76 kms. The morning was dominated by a visit to a local market in Hopewell. Temperatures were high and the sneaky Dr Bob had apparently taught his now infamous ‘soak them from behind’ trick to the outriders from Team Jamaica and the staff from Action Challenge who are cycling with us. Everyone is at it! One moment you are cycling along out of breath and hot and sweaty and the next you get a jet of ice cold water down your back that takes your breath away!
The market is an experience in itself with the most amazing characters buying and selling all forms of fresh produce in the messiest and most primitive of conditions we have ever seen. Anything further from Tesco’s on a Saturday morning we can’t imagine!
The climax of the challenge is worth it though as we finally finish our riding in Negril, cycling into Town in single file in triumph. We made it! Over 300 kms in five days with a usual 5-6 hours in the saddle every day. There is much slapping of backs and the phrase ‘can you beleive you’ve just done that?’ is repeated endlessly.
In truth both of us feel pretty proud of ourselves. The training that we put in since January has paid off. Despite the heat, the sunstroke, the food poisoning and the punishing schedule we have not only completed the ride but we have consistently been in the first group at the front. We have no injuries and our bodies feel fine.
Would we do it again? This is a topic we discuss over a rum punch in our Negril hotel on the beach. Its too soon for a definitive answer but as the the saying goes ‘never say never’!
Mike and Gill Nevin
Find a road map of Jamaica here http://www.jamaicancaves.org/jamaica-road-map.htm
Steve Gregson writes about his 7th tour in this country ~
`What! You are cycling in Colombia?` was the usual reaction when my wife Anni and I said we were going there for 6 weeks over the Christmas period, but we had previously enjoyed six tours there all with happy cycling experiences.
The initial difficulty, how to get bicycles to Colombia during an oversize luggage embargo, was in the end overcome by splitting them down to a bare frame without forks then the wheels and all other parts in a separate cardboard box. Check-in desks at Heathrow, Newark and Bogota did not blink an eye. Could this be the best way to transport them to avoid damage? Exposed brake cables, down-tube gear levers and well maintained threads ease the dismantling/ re-building.
The trip was to be divided in 3 parts, Christmas and New Year in the Eastern Cordillera followed by a 1000 miles north-south Colombia ride and finally a return to Bogota searching out some Rough-Stuff.
A December 24 flight via USA to Bogota, then a mid-night taxi ride to a central city hotel and a Christmas Day flight to Bucaramanga passed by without delay to let us enjoy what remained of the Christmas and New Year`s festivities. Boxing Day was `un-boxing day` and the 2 bicycles were re-built in a few hours interrupted by a lunch of delicous mondongo (tripe ), yuka, mango and papaya. Invited to a highland area outside Bucaramanga, time was spent at a beautiful old farm with antique furniture , lovely food and the owner`s still-life paintings.
Bicycles OK so it was off over the Andes through coffee and tobacco farms to Barrancabermeja, a hot Rio Magdalena oil town where we had lived and raced from 1977 to 1979. A 76 mile day with lots of long climbs and descents. Colombian Andes` gradients are not steep, braking and pedalling are not necessary on the descents, being able to relax at 25 – 35 mph and view the scenery is the reward for the climbs which can be up to 90 miles long! What excitement when we arrive, great to see our old cycling friends, turning up at the hotel or at various bike shops, cafes. Back over the Andes for New Year`s Eve and a lovely, stylish party with Anni’s friends and family, having to do the Rhumba for the favours they had done for us! I believe the photos must be destroyed! An unforgettable ride home from the party at 1a.m. on lit streets with lots of `Feliz Anos` from the outdoor celebrations.
A package of ‘spare’ money etc had been left in the Barranca hotel bedroom. `Oh heck`, we had realised this on the way back over the mountains- not to worry, a phone call and the package safe and sound, found and handed in by the chamber-maid. Would this have been the case in Europe?
It was an early start on deserted New Year`s Day roads over the mountains again to collect our money and travel north to The Guajira to start long 14 days in the saddle riding southwards the length of the country. 2 Bogota ex-racers were to join us with their friend driving a vehicle so this section was on un-loaded bicycles, quite a novelty for Anni and I.
Leaving Villanuevo, the first 6 days were flattish but very hot, initially with views of the snow covered Sierra de Santa Martha then through attractive cattle ranching and agricultural farmland. No large towns at all but most villages had simple hotels airy, secure and clean. Restaurants had well-prepared steak or fish meals. Breakfasts ( soup, eggs, coffee) in Colombia are to suit the cowboys that are out all day, also in the saddle. The showers are refreshingly cold. Better than a.c. are the ceiling fans which also dry the clothes overnight.
Overnight stops had been at Codazzi, Curumani, Aguachica, Lizama where by now we were in the routine of awake at 5 a.m., off at 6, couple of hours cycling and then breakfast. Roads acceptably quiet and smooth, hard shoulder also rideable.
January 7 to Puerto Arauco, lunch, a beer or maximum two, evenings quiet, write up diaries and have a stroll. We had seen 4 MTB`ers and later a group of Colombians on tour. In the evening we enjoy a walk to the river after an England versus Colombia billiards competition which we won when Anni potted a crucial ball.
To Pto Boyaca. En-route Ann and I fall off heavily during a torrential shower, luckily outside an army barracks, attended to kindly and professionally by military medics.
After a week or so the roads began to be hilllier.
To Mariquita, a day of many little hills rather like Wales and an unusually lumpy surface to bring pain to a bruised pubic bone! Normally a rest day a week is advisable but we put this idea to the back of our mind in view of the very hilly final week to come through the Eastern Cordillera. It is a pleasant small town with tree lined avenues.
To Cajamarca, a 96 mile day with 3050 mt of steady climbing and we arrive after dusk, tired but with half the 40 mile tree-lined Quindio Pass conquered. We see with amusement that youngsters hang around on the main street until a slow lorry crawls past then they hang on the back for a lift upwards, returning at speed for a 20 miles descent!
To La Paila, completing the La Linea climb up the Quindio Pass, at 3350 mt feet and a chilly 9C at the top. Here we needed more than one top layer. A day of 2134mts. climbing. The views included terraces with farmers walking the steep paths. For the 6 weeks, one lightweight layer was sufficient, long sleeved to prevent sun-burnt arms, sometimes adding a Goretex for an early morning start or a long descent.
To Pto Tejada, using the flat new road to by-pass Cali, we eventually look for somewhere to stay at the sugar cane town but we were beaten back by ( unmentionables ) and retreated to the outskirts of Cali.
To Popayan, what a beautiful old, Colonial centre, a few days could easily be spent here. A hard, hilly day through coffee fields.
To El Bordo, lots of downhill but nice and hot. We thought we had a quiet hotel until the early hours when we realised the spare ground was a lorry control park. Scenery quite barren and desert-like but great trees and fruit stalls full of tropical delights.
To El Tablon, not knowing about hotels between Popayan and Pasto we are pleased to find one every 15 miles or so however they are certainly not the Ritz.
16 January, to Pasto, a hard day of lots of ups and downs that deaden the legs. Dramatic Andean views down into deep valleys. We are there, success and a celebration dinner. Still not more than 2 beers! Efrain, Colombia`s first ever international (1950 Pan-American Games) champion at 80 and Anni with a very bruised arm, riding one-handed mile after mile have both done marvellously well to get there. Straight away we visit the Hospital of the Infants Los Angels which has recieved X-Ray equipment and incubators from the London charity FoCSA which are shown to us gratefully by the Directors and medics. This 950 miles fortnight totalled 14144 mt of climbing, most of it in the final week.
There were no places to stay on the wild, muddy near-100 mile road across to San Agustin so it was a bus trip with the bicycles packed in the boot. It took 4 days of resting the legs, body and mind to be ready for the final return cycling back to Bogota via the Rio Magdalena valley, this part just Anni and I with our usual pannier luggage.
San Agustin is full of interest, markets with fish, meat, exotic fruit and veg. and horse drawn covered carts for local transport. Lots of commercial activity. We relaxed by short rides to the Narrows of the Rio Magdalena, towards the Nacimiento and also to the wonderful archiological park of the 3300 B.C. Petroglyths, all the statues set out with the Andes grandeur in the background. Getting to know the breakfast ladies with their pressed orange juice, immaculate scrambled eggs and hot fresh tinto ( strong coffee). Corner shops sell us aperitivo beers and later, treats after our main meal of the day.
21 January. Dragging ourselves away from the delightful and warm ( 23C at 7a.m.) San Agustin, we took our time up and down the widening valley northwards staying in Pipalito, Garzon, Riveras where we treated ourselves to 2 days in a really nice hotel with 3 swimming pools. The next day to Aipe was unforgettable, firstly it rained torrentially but after Neiva it brightened up and we experienced our first ever Colombian ‘Country Lane’ passing also through the Taracoa Desert with its strange sandy pillars.
The winding road had no traffic just a few cows now and again. We thought it too good to last and so it was. Turning a bend in Villavieja the road stopped abruptly at the Rio Magdalena but looking down there was a canoe, so in we jumped for the `ferry` trip ( Anni shut her eyes, the current and rapids shook the canoe) and even I thought we would lose the cycles overboard but the boatman was really skilled and we arrived on the other banking, a bit upstream and then followed a homebound worker on little footpaths across tree trunk bridges into Aipe for the evening. We thoroughly enjoyed a folk music jam session on the pavement outside a small bar, enjoying the heat and the music. Following that venture into Colombian Rough-Stuff, we were able to find back lane earth roads to Purificacion and its wonderful church up on the hill, and then on through Suarez clambering across broken bridges and fording shallow rivers being used for family swimming outings. Finally out to an asphalt road at Giradot and saying a sad farewell to `our` Rio Magdalena. Speaking to the traffic police gave confidence about the cycling and security passing small farms as, again, the Andes closed in approaching the 95 mile long climb to Bogota.
27 January. To Agua-de-Dios which was a leper colony when they believed it was a contagious disease and it remains a small town full of character. A hotel owner presented us with a souvenir 5 cent coin from when the town had its own currency minted to avoid the thought of handling them spreading the disease. There remained 2 more days of steady non-stop climbing with an overnight at El Collegio before reaching Bogota at 2640mts. A snapped cable took only 10 minutes to repair at a handy bicycle shop. This route is generally a quiet, well graded route used by cyclists out to train for week-end races, still popular in Colombia.
Finally in Bogota, plenty of capital city interest including the Bank of Colombia`s Art Gallery where many Botero, Picasso, Chagal originals are on permanent show. There are small hotels with space to re-pack the bicycles for the flight home , clean restaurants, a historical centre and plenty of bicycle shops. Last but not least, our 2 cycling friends had organised a small reception together with other Colombians we had known from six earlier cycling tours there. It was great to see them again and especially Zipo, the instigator and winner of the first Tour of Colombia.
Bicycles were traditional 531 club tourers, gearing 35 – 88inches, 700c x 32 tyres and 7kgs of luggage per person. Total 1 puncture. Average daily mileages whilst on the north-south section were 78 and for the rest where we were unaccompanied, 49 miles. Total mileage 1559.
For recommendations on more Colombian cycle touring possibilities, please contact Steve Gregson, 01268-542835 or email@example.com