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
Haitians walk the 12-mile dirt path between the village of Furcy and La Visite National Park in about six hours, which sounds long until you’ve seen the extreme terrain, or tried to walk it yourself. We were there to bike it, part of a scouting trip for Haiti’s first professional bike race. Two hours into the ride, Chris Kehmeier, the trail specialist from the International Mountain Biking Association, called it the gnarliest trail he’d ever seen that gets that much daily foot traffic.
For locals living in the remote villages of the Chaîne de la Selle, it’s a lifeline. However steep, rocky, and exposed, the path is their only connection to buy and sell goods. For the Haiti Ascent Mountain Bike Stage Race, it’s a raw challenge that will draw the world’s top cyclists.
As a former road bike racer on the amateur circuit, I was far from the world’s best mountain biker. I’d never seen a trail like this. I walked my bike almost as much as I rode it. The pitch was so steep in parts that I couldn’t keep my balance in the technical rocky sections. “Wait until the last climb,” Phillip Kiracofe, the American trying to organize the stage race for February 2013, cajoled. “Everyone will be walking their bikes.”
Indeed. When we reached the final section of the Stage 1 climb to La Visite National Park, I knew it would become the defining leg of the entire race. The path went from steep to impossible—a 30 percent grade. Even the most elite cyclists will be forced to carry their bikes up the demoralizing 45-minute slog to the top. I dismounted and pushed my bike up the sketchy slope, struggling to keep traction in the loose rock with the slippery carbon fiber soles of my race shoes.
I wasn’t the only one. I noticed flat pieces of rubber cracked by the sun littering the route. As I watched local women pass me, picking their way slowly up the route by foot, it hit me—the rubber pieces were shoe soles. We dubbed the section the “Sole Collector,” in tribute to the terrain that literally blows out locals’ shoes. The name is also a reference to the voodoo that is still very much alive in the mountain villages of the Chaîne de la Selle, whose inhabitants believe a camera can suck your soul from your body.
Both my shoes and my soul remained intact as I summited the Sole Collector, but I definitely got some sideways glances from the women balancing bundles of vegetable and garments on their heads. They’d never seen a foreign woman huffing a bike up the rocky slope. Dripping sweat, and panting from both the incline and the altitude, I was too exhausted, and my Creole too rudimentary, to try and explain.
Thankfully, once we got over the summit, the course changed from a scorching hot, uphill grind to a rolling path through the cool, serene cloud forest of La Visite National Park. The mist was so heavy, we couldn’t see more than three feet in front of us.
One of only two national parks in Haiti, La Visite is an oasis—a swatch of unspoiled forest in a landscape ravaged by charcoal production and agriculture. With more than 80 species of birds, virgin broadleaf and pine forests, waterfalls, and rolling grasslands, La Visite could become a legitimate adventure tourism destination for hikers and bikers, if only it had the infrastructure to support them.
Part of Kiracofe’s vision for the Haiti Ascent is to increase exposure for places like La Visite, drawing visitors to ride the trails they read about, heard about or saw in TV coverage of the race. He hopes the race will become a catalyst to economic development in the Chaîne de la Selle region of Haiti, spurring trail maintenance work, bike rental establishments, tour outfitters, and eco-lodges.
The only lodge in 20,000-acre La Visite National Park is Auberge La Visite, a charming two-bedroom inn. The innkeeper, Haitian native Winthrop Attié, served us a made-from-scratch dinner featuring fruits and vegetables from his garden. Attié, 58, told us about our next ride: a network of footpaths through the forests and grasslands of La Visite. Besides a preliminary scouting ride done earlier in the year by one of our team members living in Haiti, the trails are mountain bike virgins—actual unchartered territory.