Mountain Biking In Saint Martin | How One Small Caribbean Island Is Bouncing Back From The Devastation Caused By Hurricane Irma
Epic trails, epic views, epic music festival... mountain bikers will love what St Martin has to offer
There’s a monkey laughing at me. It’s pretty far off in the trees, so there’s a possibility it’s just laughing at a monkey joke it’s monkey mate made, but somehow I don’t think that’s the case.
If I was a monkey, I’d be laughing at me.
“This is my first experience of proper sweat”
I’ve been making my way up the same trail now for at least half an hour, forcing pedal stroke after pedal stroke on my Trek Fuel Ex 8, or, on particularly steep or technical spots, pushing the full-sus bike up the hill in the 30-odd degrees of baking heat.
I’m in Saint Martin, an island near Anguilla and Saint Barts in the northeast of the Caribbean Sea, sweating more than any one man has ever sweated before in the history of the universe. When you’re used to 16-degree Scottish summers, this is quite the solar step up.
I can’t help but feel like I’ve really never sweated before. That all ‘sweat’ prior to this moment has really just been meaningless dripping. That this is my first experience of proper sweat.
It’d become fairly evident long ago that I had missed the actual turn off to the trails I was meant to go to. Susy Piscione, owner of the wonderful local Tri-Sport SXM bike shop, had given me detailed, simple instructions to follow on how to get to the trails at Bellevue, on the French side of Saint Martin, which is divided between the French Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. But following those instructions would’ve meant leaving this initial trail, which went to the summit of a hill with a view over the island, and call me stubborn but I was intent on getting me some of those Caribbean views.
“With every pedal stroke I became more on intent on riding back down it”
The trail I was climbing seemed like a hell of a downhill track too – rocks, roots, twists and turns all the way – so with every pedal stroke I became more on intent on riding back down it.
The climb was only about 300 metres in elevation, but steep, humid and oh so hot. If it wasn’t for the occasional batch of clouds, I’d have probably been safe to eat by now.
And the fact I’d been partying at SXM Festival all week – a boutique music festival which brings the best DJs in the world to Saint Martin each March – admittedly hadn’t helped me.
A cattle farmer had pointed me in the direction of the summit a while back but other than that, I hadn’t seen anyone else on the hill since.
The dusty, open trail ascended into jungle trees for the final segment of the climb, and though the trail got more technical, the cover from the branches was priceless. Not long later and I’m eating an apple on a big rock next to a small, very colourful bird (which is not laughing at me), looking out over rolling green hills, villages and endless turquoise ocean.
Hurricane Irma hit Saint Martin on 6 September 2017. It destroyed 80% of the buildings, cost billions in damage and numerous people lost their lives.
“Directly after the hurricane we had no electricity, no water and it was difficult getting in contact with family, but that did pick up quickly,” says Claudia Arrindell, who works for the tourist board on the Dutch side of Saint Martin, known as ‘Sint Maarten’.
“The biggest problem was people losing their homes and their roofs.”
The island is still dealing with that problem. A tour of Saint Martin mixes typically exotic views with literal shipwrecks and ruined buildings.
“That’s what we do in the Caribbean”
“We had time to prepare but you never expect the impact,” says Claudia. “But it was a quick one. It didn’t drag. It went fast.”
As you can probably discern from this, a hurricane is no rarity in Saint Martin. There’s been 13 in the past 30 years. Irma, and Hurricane Luis in 1995, have been by far the two worst.
In the days and weeks after Irma, the Caribbean and the world sent help.
“Everyone came from the neighbouring islands and sent aid to us,” says Claudia. “That’s what we do in the Caribbean.”
They’re almost there now. The flights are running smoothly and frequently, the hotels are open again and the tourists are returning.
SXM Festival, which took 2018 off after the hurricane, has returned to the island as well.
“This festival is dependent on flights and hotel availability so when they started cancelling flights and we realised even more than half of the hotels were demolished, it just wasn’t possible to run it last year,” says Julian Prince, founder of SXM Festival.
“Irma continued its route and it did even more damage and it broke so much glass that there was a shortage of glass, and a shortage of all sorts of materials.”
After the hurricane Julian, who calls the island his second home, his first being in Montreal, raised tens of thousands in aid, and founded the Two Bunch Palms non-profit “to assist the rebuild efforts of the island and to revive its international reputation”.
We join a project run by the festival to completely renovate a torn down basketball court with volunteers ranging from regular festival goers to DJs and artists.
The motto of “SXM Strong” has come to represent the recovery efforts and the mindset of the people on the island who are – and I cannot stress this enough – incredibly chilled and welcoming. It’s known as “the friendly island” for a reason.
One house at a time, one hotel, one basketball court, one festival, Saint Martin is recovering.
“We opened three days after Irma,” says Susy at Tri-Sport SXM. “We didn’t have water or electricity and the place was totally flooded. We lost all our warehouses in the back but the point was that people couldn’t drive because the roads were blocked, so you needed a bike.
“What we’ve learned from past big hurricanes, category five and up, is that you can’t use your car. Gas becomes obsolete. So basically you have to use a bicycle.”
There’s a keen mountain biking community in Saint Martin. It’s not as keen as the road cycling community. But it’s there, and the trails are more developed than I expected them to be, especially given the hurricane.
“There’s a keen mountain biking community in Saint Martin”
It turns out the hilltop trail I had strayed onto didn’t look like a downhill trail by accident.
“It used to be a walking trail and then after Irma we were looking to open up more trails so we opened that one up,” says Susy. “It became the downhill section of the Xtreme Duo race. That’s a race that traverses the whole island. It attracts a lot of people from other islands.
“There’s a lot of other downhill trails that are longer and nicer on the other side of the mountain too. Peak Paradise is our highest point in St Martin and when you get up to the top of Peak Paradise there are two downhills that are very nice and technical.”
This one wasn’t too shabby itself, emerging from rooty forest to a panoramic view of the Caribbean Sea I won’t be forgetting quickly.
The 45-65km Xtreme Duo isn’t the only race on the island, either.
In fact, the Caribbean Mountain Bike Championships, a UCI event, were held on Saint Martin for the first time in 2016, the year before Hurricane Irma.
“That created this huge interest in mountain biking on the island which started to develop in 2017,” says Susy. “Then Irma hit. In 2017 the mountain biking kids club got going, there were a lot of events throughout the year, and we were told by the UCI that we had at that time a world class mountain bike trail – the circuit that we used for the Caribbean Championship was fantastic, and then Irma killed it. Nobody had the morale to do exercise for fun.
“We couldn’t go mountain biking for at least three months because the trees were blocking the trails and it took months for people to start working on it again. Then maybe about six months later the mountain bike kids club started again and we’ve taken it from there.”
The trails are one of the few places now where you’d be forgiven for missing the fact that there ever was a hurricane on Saint Martin.
There’s no signposting – it was blown away and is yet to be replaced – but the trails are on Trailforks, and they’re well built. Like, really well built. The loops in Bellevue are technical, they’ve built jumps on many of the routes, there are rocky drops that have been sculpted by the community and more natural, speedy chutes which are just plain, childish fun.
To be perfectly honest, I expected nothing of the sort when I picked up my Trek Fuel E8.
“It’s been years in the making,” says Susy. “We’re thankful to the cows because they keep a lot of the trails open and more people are using them now – trail running has become huge here – so that means the trails don’t grow over. It’s taken the effort of a big group.”
Susy opened her shop with her father in 1992. She was the mechanic then, and now runs the place with her husband. She’s seen how the community has changed in that time.
“Back in the 90s mountain biking was very big,” she says. “Those were the times of Missy Giove and John Tomac. But then the mountain bikers here got a little bit older and it died off.
“There’s no signposting – it was blown away and is yet to be replaced”
“The trails in St Martin are technical and most of the people who visit the island to mountain bike aren’t real mountain bikers. They aren’t used to stuff as rocky and technical as here, so the riding here doesn’t attract a lot of new riders.
“When we saw that it had started to fade out we created the kids mountain bike club and that stimulated it again.
“Now the next step is to get more people mountain biking, and to get an easy to follow circuit of trails and maps and so on. But it’s definitely coming on.”
Having flown down the trail I’d spent so long getting up at the start of the day, I went on to venture onto the main trail network in Bellevue.
Taking on the technical drops and jumps, picking up speed on the dusty dirt and with the trails all to myself, it’s hard not to feel like you’re riding in an untapped Caribbean mountain biking paradise. They’ve definitely got the essentials already in place – a variety of challenging trails, views for miles and a damn good bike shop.
If all goes to plan, in 10 years time the trails will be crowded with locals, and a network well deserving of attention will be a hotspot for mountain biking tourism in the Caribbean Sea.
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