There was a time when the place to be the first week of February was Negril. It was an action packed week, starting with the Donkey Races in Little Bay and ending with the best party in Negril, bar none. I would need that second week just to re-group; there was something going on every day and every night. It was during this week in February that for ten years the Negril Fat Tyre Festival took place.
The Mountain Bike Festival was the brainchild of Linda Levy and Rusty Jones, a world ranked Mountain Bike racer transplanted to Negril from Ohio. The couple had made their home in Negril and Rusty had started a business giving Mountain Bike tours in the hills and countryside. The whole Mountain Biking concept on a relatively flat area of the island was strange to some but he soon picked up a sincere following from some serious riders, blazing trails through the bush to Little Bay and Lost Beach and over dried waterfall beds in the bush behind his house. The riders loved the challenge of riding over tree stumps and coral and taking in the beauty of riding along pristine coastline following a goat path.
Tourists were not the only ones captivated by this “new” type of bike riding. The kids ont he neighborhood already had a love affair going with bicycles and were eager to learn how to navigate them off-road. Rusty was eager to coach them and saw special promise in one young teen from the neighborhood, Zerial Hayes. As long as he stayed in school Rusty agreed to coach and mentor the young man with the goal of getting him in the Olympics in Beijing. Thus JAMBA was formed – the Jamaica Mountain Bike Association – and with it the Negril Fat Tyre Festival came to be.
The entire business community jumped on board to support the fledgling festival donating money, dinners, hotel stays and the like for prizes and festival related events. Linda worked tirelessly to cultivate deep pocketed sponsors such as Air Jamaica. The event was covered in the media by Dirt Rag Magazine, Mountain Bike Magazine and local television stations such as JTV. Even Telemundo sent a crew out to enjoy and report on the festival in 2003.
It was a week of competition, riding trail and partying where the participants from all over the world would gather for. There was always a great group that included professionals such as Shaums March and Lars Tribus, NORBA racers from the US and Canada and Mountain Bike enthusiasts from all over. They mixed with the strong young athletes from Jamaica in their common passion.
Festival Central was at Rusty and Linda’s home deep West End. Tucked into the bush almost at the end of Hylton Ave. the four-story tower rose above the tree line welcoming the group. Its architecture and eclectic design made for a perfect background functioning as guest house and headquarters for the event.
The week consisted of three races. In between races there were trail rides led by Rusty, Madman or Zerial, parties and dinners at the Happy Banana and LTU and expositions for the kids and neighborhood at Sexy Rexy’s or at one of the schools. A favorite display of guts and skill would be Rusty’s jump from the cliff at Pickled Parrot. A ramp would be built and Rusty would ride, at tops speed, leaping off the ramp, over the cliff and into the sea – on a mountain bike. We would sit at the bar and on the property by the cliff, hearts stopped until he would surface and the bike retrieved by his “spotters” in the water.
The first race of the week was the down hill race. Its starting point was at the Parkinson Great House in Whitehall. Viewers from all over town would come with their families to watch this adrenaline packed race and enjoy the views from the top of the hill. Rider after rider would make the leap from the wall of the ruin onto the trail and navigate down through winding bush, rock and finally through a marl pit. They would cross the finish line down below on the road where “Smilin’ Ron” would record and report their time. After the race everyone would gather up at Bigga’s place in Redground where drinks were served from his thatch bar and food was served from his mother’s kitchen. It was there where the winners would be announced and prizes distributed.
The following night often featured a pasta feed at either Happy Banana or LTU. This was always a great party, attended not only by festival participants but by locals and tourists as well. Everyone would mingle freely, swap stories and enjoy the balmy sea-side location with each other. If all went as planned, the racers at least would get an early bed time to rest before the cross-country race the next day.
In the week before the festival Rusty would carefully map out and carve a trail in the bush behind the Athletic Field in Good Hope. When completed the challenging course would wind in a loop of about one mile – five laps would complete the race. The course would not only challenge the riders skill and endurance, but their tenacity and quick thinking as well. Over the years that course would literally eat up mountain bikes – anything from a flat tire to a broken derailer would need to be dealt with right there in the middle of the bush. This race was the best attended of the three that week. Again, people from all over the area – Redground, Good Hope, Whitehall and Negril, would gather at the field with their families to cheer the riders on. The children would wait in great anticipation for the race to finish because they knew what came after that. Once the last rider crossed the finished line it would be the kid’s turn. The riders would turn over their fancy Gary Fisher and Santa Cruz Mountain Bikes and the kids would have their own race around the athletic field.
After a couple of years a road race was introduced to the festival with encouragement from the Minister of Sport. While several Jamaicans participated in the Mountain Bike races, it was the road race that brought Jamaicans into Negril from all over the island. Complete with a police escort and a media truck the riders would take off from the southern part of West End Road, just past the intersection at Hylton Ave. From there they would ride south, over Mt. Airy, through Green Island and end at the Community Center on Norman Manley Blvd. on the beach.
The event would often culminate with the best party of the year in Negril. PeeWee was a charismatic and popular bar and restaurant owner who died suddenly over twenty years ago. His birthday is still celebrated on February 8th and its an event no one in town wants to miss. A live Mento Band played, mannish water was passed around and everyone in the neighborhood got together and partied late into the night. The riders from the festival would always join in capping off a great week in Negril in style.
The last Fat Tyre Festival in Negril was in February 2006. Since then another organization has formed, the St. Mary Off Road Biking Association (SMORBA) and they put on their annual festival in and around Robin’s Bay each year. What Rusty and Linda started fifteen years ago lives on and passionate Mountain Bikers can still be seen riding the trails in Jamaica.