Here’s the deal with cycling. The community of people who are passionate about bicycles is great just about everywhere. The trick is finding them.
On a recent winter escape, the path to road cycling in Antigua led to Ira Fabian.
Who’s Ira? He’s the guy you want to connect with if you need to find, as I did on my vacation, a road bike, a trainer, a guide to the local scene. He’s got more than 30 years of cycling in his legs and he knows just about everybody in the cycling community on this West Indies island.
Did I mention that Ira (photo, right) represented Antigua and Barbuda in the 200 M Time Trial in the Seoul Olympics in 1988, still holds TT and criterium records in the Caribbean region, and is a coach of the Antigua and Barbuda Cycling Team?
The point is that most cycling communities have an Ira or two. They’re not always racers; they may be bike shop owners or writers or advocates. But if you’re fortunate enough to find them, then you can experience a locale and get to know it more fully from the best seat in the house — a bike saddle.
How did I make the connection? On the telephone, my hotel offered up mountain bikes. When I told the concierge that I needed a road bike to help jump-start my spring riding, she sent the phone numbers of two Antiguan bike shops. The first rented hybrids only. The second said the same. Then I re-framed the question: Do you know any local racers who might be able to find me a loaner bike and whom I could hire to guide some rides around the island?
A conference ensued in the background.
Then: Call Ira. He’ll fix you up.
So I called Ira from New York. He answered his cell phone right away. Yes, he said, he could locate a size 54 frame and he would help me navigate the island.
A week later, I landed on the warm, sandy shores of Antigua so exhausted from the general grind of New York City winter and weeks of fighting a cold, that I forgot to call on arrival as arranged. I simply fell asleep.
But Ira had already connected with my hotel, so the agenda was set for our first ride the next morning.
As I slipped into my cycling shoes in the hotel lobby, one of the managers, a cyclist himself, gave me a road report:
Watch out for the potholes. They can swallow up a car.
I laughed and nodded, neglecting to add that, in addition to road cycling, I ride a bicycle for transportation in New York City, where we practically invented the pothole.
Ira arrived in a white Land Rover, pulled an excellently maintained Fuji carbon road bike from the back, and after we swapped in my own pedals and adjusted the seat height, we set off on a 30-mile loop up the westerly coast, taking in the vistas along the breezy shore, then proceeding to the capital of St. John’s and back down the center of the island. The abrupt transition from NYC temperatures in the 30s to the Leeward Island 80s proved draining at first. (Although the roads are narrow and shoulderless — and, as a remnant of British rule, motorists drive on the left – speed bumps and occasional encounters with livestock were the most notable obstacles.)
On the second day, Ira brought along his nephew Joel Phillips, 14, and Nigel Fabian, 13, (above) both rising junior racers in the Caribbean. I think the point was to keep them at a steady state on the day before the season’s first local criterium race. But the boys occasionally sprinted away together on straightaways at lightening speeds, laughing exuberantly, then holding up and rejoining us a few miles down the road.
Another group of cyclists out for a training ride jumped on with us for a while, eager to chat. Some, like the local racing star Jyme Bridges, had competed in the States.. Others had family in the New York and New Jersey area. We swapped opinions about Lance Armstrong and banned substances, talked about the next day’s criterium and I also learned of the talented Antiguan women’s racer Tamika Butler. That’s the thing – cyclists can’t get enough of talking about cycling. So bonding on a ride is easy.
Along the way, Ira pointed out local landmarks – a church above Valley Church Beach, the rusting remnant of a sugar processing factory, spiky pineapple fields in the shadow of the Shackerley Mountains, an ancient kapok tree perched on a promontory. We stopped at a roadside stand for tiny, sweet bananas and equally tasty green oranges, peeled and sliced open with a machete, and ripe pineapples no bigger than a baseball .
On the final day, Ira picked me up at the hotel and we drove to the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Ground at the northeast of the island, where Nigel and Joel met us after school, and another pair of local riders joined in. The tarmac surrounding the new stadium is the widest and smoothest on the island, its surface is marked discretely with lines in 100-meter increments for sprint training. It serves as the finish line for most races, and the gathering point at a certain time of evening — We just watch the sun for the timing — where groups of cyclists working out on other parts of the island converge for a ride, or a friendly race, home.
On that day, donkeys grazed in the grasslands next to the road, and nosy by nature, occasionally wandered into the middle of pavement. A shepherd tended a large flock of sheep and goats by bicycle, a dog at his side, all as our small group road steady-state loops for about 15 miles. I tried a couple of sprints with Joel and Nigel, just to get in some intervals – they passed me smoothly on their big rings without a whisper of wasted motion.
As we loaded the bikes into the truck, the two boys rode ahead toward the hotel. When we caught up with them, they dropped behind the truck, drafting in parallel with their wheels no further than an inch from the bumper. Then they took off again, climbing the steep hill on Fig Tree Drive and then handling the curvy descent (the most technical on the island) with grace and skill –- all under the watchful eye of their coach, Ira.
Back at the hotel, we bought the boys Cokes and recapped the ride, ending our day with handshakes and a resolution to explore the eastern side of the island – and maybe some trails — on my next visit. A few names were mentioned: friends and contacts in New York and New Jersey, thus closing the circle among communities in two different parts of the world who share equal passions for cycling.