Leo Hoogenboom leads it out. Photo by Barry B. Brown/Coral Reef Photos
On the island of Bonaire last week, I solidified my opinion of cold-weather biking: like getting a flu shot or cleaning the toilet, you have to do it, but it’s not really much fun. I hear the protests already—the cold air is invigorating; it’s not bad if you dress right; snow bikes are fun—and I’ll concede it all. But next winter, you take a break from rides that require bundling up like Ralphy from A Christmas Story and head down to the Caribbean for some mountain biking—as I did last week—and then come talk to me about how good it feels to ride with numb fingers and frozen snot and a sore throat. I’ll take the crackling dry single track and hot Caribbean sun on my bare skin every time, thank you very much.
A municipality of the Netherlands, Bonaire is the “B” between Aruba and Curaçao in the ABC islands and drifts just 50 miles north of Venezuela. Divers love it for the unique double reef and windsurfers flock here as well, but I discovered that the island has a secret life as a mountain bike destination. Usually the drawback of riding in vacation destinations are the pieces of scrap metal that hotels pass off as rental bikes. But I found a friendly local bike shop in downtown Kralendijk called De Freewieler that rented Ridley Shark hard tails with working shifters, brakes, and—bonus—life left in the front shock. They also arranged for a local to show me around.
Guides are the second of three question marks in exotic bike touring: half the time you get some older guy, who, accustomed to babysitting overweight tourists, wants only to spin around the corner for a cold one at the beachfront bar; the other half the time you get a young punk with a nose ring who takes obvious relish in torturing out-of-shape visitors. Our guide, Leo Hoogenboom, arrived riding a lubed-up Cannondale RZ140 and dressed in reasonable bike clothes, and I thought, except for the kooky Dutch name, this guy’s alright. In fact Leo ripped up our expectations, not an easy task given the audience: my wife is an ex-racer; Barry Brown, a friend and photographer from Curaçao, built the World Cup mountain bike course on that island; and I have more bikes in my house than I have friends.
The third pitfall of vacation destination mountain biking is the terrain, usually a manicured lawn ride to ensure that nobody scuffs a knee or has a bad time. I was mildly worried to begin with when Leo led us up a decrepit dirt road, but then we swung onto a trail that was so tight with fins of white limestonet and ten-foot-tall cadushi cactus that I feared for my hands. Next up was an even narrower trail that kicked me around like flotsam in the surf and had me laughing out loud, especially when we rounded a bend and nearly dead-ended in the Kool-Aid blue sea. The ride kept unfolding: here a gravely little climb, there a rubbly saddle-in-the-gut descent, next a calf-stretching hike-a-bike, and finally a wide-open single track that we tore down, zinging past cactus bigger than anything I’ve seen in Arizona and scrubby views out over the sea. At the bottom, we all stood looking at one another in stunned silence, trying to comprehend how we’d been so fortunate to stumble on such a classy ride in this most unlikely of spots. “Not so bad,” Leo said with a smile before turning toward town.
Now I’m back stateside, once again bundled up like an ice fisherman in Minnesota for my rides and fixating on all the reasons bikers should book a winter getaway to the Caribbean. In case you’re in the same boat, here’s a few leads:
Bonaire, Netherlands Riding here is still small-scale, but there’s enough trail to support the annual Xtreme Bonaire, a 45-mile race that traverses the island from east to west. Expect classic desert-style riding, with jaggy rocks, vicious plants, and barren landscapes. De Freewieler rents bikes, and Leo, who owns Bon Photo Bonaire, will guide you himself or put you in touch with other locals.
Curaçao With 25 miles of single track and even more dirt road riding spread across five separate areas, Curaçao is a biking destination unto itself. The highlight is an extremely technical five-mile loop from the aquarium that was included (at the urging of Dutch rider Bart Brentjens) as a stop on the 2006 World Cup circuit. Barry Brown of Coral Reef Photos, who built that loop and many of the other trails on the island, will point you in the right direction.
Puerto Rico, United States Toro Verde Nature Park, 50 miles southwest of Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan, opened last May with eight miles of flow trails designed by pro racer Marla Streb. It’s not cheap to ride here ($25/day), but the fee buys you all-day access to swoopy, well-constructed single track that’s carved into the lush, hilly landscape. Streb is set to begin construction on phase two of the project, which will add another six miles of trail, in August.
Margarita Island, Venezuela If you’re not too fussed by Hugo Chavéz’s politics and can negotiate the hazards of getting into and around Venezuela, you’re in for a riding treat on this almost 400-square-mile island off the country’s northeast coast. El Yaque Tours operates good mountain biking excursions from its base in El Yaque, a windsurfing destination on the island’s south coast, though much of the best riding is on the sparsely inhabited western half of the island and on a small islet off the south coast called Isla Coche. Expect motocross style trails through a dry, lunar landscape.
Saint Lucia Set in St. Lucia’s ritzy Anse Chastanet resort, on a placid bay on the island’s southwest coast, Bike Saint Lucia is a private park with a dozen dedicated mountain bike trails and a fleet of Cannondale bikes for exploring them. Legendary endurance racer Tinker Juarez oversaw the creation of the eponymous Tinker’s Trail, which grunts 900 vertical feet to a scenic overlook before plunging back down to the sea by way of a tricky, technical descent.