“It was February. It was 85 degrees and I was riding outside. In shorts.”
Nevis: A Triathlete’s Playground
by Trish Dugan
Determined. You Pick Your Choice. Danger.
These were a few of the inspirational messages I read on the back of taxis as they sped past me while I steadily pedaled my way up an eight mile hill that winds along the eastern side of the lush Caribbean island of Nevis (pronounced nee-vis). They seemed entirely appropriate as my husband, Chris, and I raced down the back side of this hill, dodging the random goat and passing a slow-moving dump truck at high speed on our rented road bikes. But what was I complaining about? It was February. It was 85 degrees and I was riding outside. In shorts.
But let me back up. Like many Central New Yorkers, my family decided to take advantage of February school break week to escape our snowy weather. After lengthy dinner table debates with our four children ages eight through 15 years, we settled on the Leeward Caribbean island of St. Kitts because it had a range of activities that would please everyone. Body surfing in the waves on the Atlantic side, snorkeling in the pristine waters on the Caribbean side, hiking through an oceanic hardwood forest to the rim of a dormant volcano on the interior, and ziplining across a tropical ravine, to name a few.
Like many triathletes in their endurance base phase of training, I was looking for a vacation spot that would let me do some warm weather training in between lying on the beach and enjoying time with our kids. When I discovered a small bike shop on its sister island Nevis that also ran a series of early season sprint triathlons, I was sold.
So at the tail end of our weeklong visit to St. Kitts – where we did manage to body surf, snorkel, hike, and zipline – we boarded the Sea Bridge Ferry at the southern tip of the island for the short ride to Nevis. Out of the 10 or so passengers on board, I easily picked out my fellow triathletes. Fit guy in tri shorts and dreadlocks. Equally fit looking girl in an Ironman 70.3 St. Croix triathlon top and cute wraparound beach skirt – triathlon shorts underneath.
Eager for some pre-race recon, I introduced myself to American Laura Talaga, who was finishing her last year of veterinary school on St. Kitts. In keeping with six degrees of separation, it turned out that she recently graduated from Hamilton College and has a brother who went to graduate school at Syracuse University. “Training on St. Kitts is amazing,” she said. “For my long rides, I’ll park my car on the side of the 32-mile road that rings the island and ride ‘laps’ stopping at my car to refuel.”
As the ferry docked, with a quick wave and “see you in a few,” Laura hopped on her bike for the short ride to the race site at Oualie Beach. A friendly taxi driver greeted our entourage upon arrival, “You’re here for da race, correct? Winston send me to collect you.”
Winston Crooke landed on Nevis some 14 years ago and opened a windsurfing shop on the north end of the island. He soon recognized the demand for a tourist based cycling business and Wheel World Cycle Shop was born. He moved his shop to Oualie Beach, conveniently located next to a small hotel and dive shop, where he offers both mountain and road bike sales, rentals and tours.
A cyclist and triathlete in his own right, Winston brings a passion to his job that is evident right away. “I’ve seen firsthand how triathlon can boost the local economy. Just look at Ironman 70.3 St. Croix. I was in discussions with World Triathlon Corporation to bring a race to Nevis, but unfortunately they decided to go with placing a 70.3 in Puerto Rico.”
Eight years ago, Winston started the Nevis Triathlon which included both Olympic and Sprint distances. That first year he had 20 participants. By last year, he managed to grow his event to include 87 athletes from St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, the United States, the United Kingdom, and even one athlete from Zimbabwe.
Hoping to build on this success, the St. Kitts & Nevis Triathlon Federation just this year joined forces with the TriStar Sports events group to introduce the TriStar 111 Nevis Triathlon to the Caribbean Region. Over 500 athletes from all over the world and the region are expected to come together on Nevis on Saturday, April 2 to participate in the race featuring a 1K swim, 100K bike and 10K run.
But now it was time for the fifth race in the Nevis Mini-Sprint Series to start. My 15-year-old son, Shane had decided to join in the fun today, so we headed over to the small transition area with our rented Trek road bikes together. I noticed a bunch of black Trek E9 Equinox triathlon bikes with “Nevis Cycling and Triathlon Club” emblazoned on the down tube. They even had their names painted on their bikes. Cool.
“Hey, I’m Reggie, glad you’re here today.”
I later learned that this laid back islander was Reggie Douglas, one of the top cyclist-triathletes not only on Nevis but in the entire Caribbean. In his early 30s, Reggie has stacked up impressive age group wins at local triathlons and cycling races. He won the inaugural St. Kitts and Nevis Cycling Federation National Championships in 2009, earning him a spot to represent SKN at the World Championships in Switzerland that September. Reggie summed up his experience there saying, “I was overwhelmed to be at the World Championships, among good friends, good people, and to be a part of such a huge event, amongst athletes I have admired over the years, like Fabian Cancellara and Paulo Bettini.”
On the triathlon side, Reggie posted an eighth place age group finish at the 2007 Ironman 70.3 St. Croix, earning a slot at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater that November. He has his sights set on one day qualifying to compete at the Ironman World Championships in Kona and on representing SKN in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
When not busy leading kayak and bike tours with Winston, Reggie trains with his teammates and is coached by Carmichael Training Systems. The Nevis Cycling and Triathlon Club numbers about 40 or so local triathletes all ages, including several juniors. Winston, with the help of a local benefactor, managed to equip several of the top triathletes with their Trek E9 Equinox bikes. “The Nevis Cycle Club was formed on a whim in 1996. We heard about a race on our sister island of St. Kitts – the Caribbean Cup Mountain Bike race series. We got a few sponsors together, had some T-shirts printed, grabbed our bikes and off we went, to battle. It was an unmitigated disaster, we had no experience or training, we got lost, injured, dehydrated, you name it, but we nearly all finished, and we had been bitten by the mountain bike bug,” relates Winston.
After the unfortunate demise of the mountain bike series, the Nevis Cycling Club turned its attention to triathlon. “We just had to get over the very slight hurdle of not being able to swim!” says Winston. But not to be deterred, club members started training and entered the St. Kitts mini triathlon series. “With our biking background, we would emerge en masse from the water at the back of the pack, but soon managed to claw our way into contention, so that going into the run we often had the top six positions for Team Nevis, ready for the run off to finish.”
The year round sunny weather and unspoiled beauty of the island makes Nevis ideal for triathlon training. Wheel World Cycle Shop serves as team headquarters and sits about 10 feet equidistant from the calm waters of the Caribbean and the 20-mile main road that circles the island. It’s also just a short jog from miles of running and technical mountain bike trails that crisscross Nevis’ interior.
“We ride here on the island four or five times each week,” says Reggie. “One day is a long ride where we may circle the island three or four times to get in 60-80 miles. Another day we head up toward the airport where the road surface is good and fairly flat for an interval workout.”
After we finished our introductions, Shane and I made our way to the beach for the swim start. The 450 meter course in the bay was choppy, as an off shore breeze kicked up some small waves. Shane, who swims on the FM High School Varsity team, easily passed me in the water. Luckily I can get my cycling shoes on faster than Shane can tie his sneakers. We can blame my affinity for the ease of Velcro shoes when he was younger for that.
The bike course was an out and back 20K along the coastline that left me wondering whether to enjoy the view of the stunning rocky coastline to the left or the rugged ridge line of Nevis Peak to the right. Better to focus on the road straight ahead as we had to dodge goats, monkeys and a wandering bull at one point. Nevis was once a British colony, so you ride, with the cars, on the left of the road. This takes some getting used to but I was pleasantly surprised by the consideration of most drivers who slow down and give you ample space as they pass you by.
Back at Oualie Beach for a quick bike to run transition, I ran onto the road shoulder and immediately realized that my long, zone 1-2 endurance sessions hadn’t quite prepared me for a fast 4K this early in the season. But I dug deep and just tried to get my legs to turn over quickly. That “ton of bricks” feeling in my quads that we triathletes get to know intimately was there for most of the run, but I was running outside in February. In 85 degree heat. In shorts. Did I already mention that?
Reggie took the win for the men, I managed to win it for the women, although Laura was my only competition that day and I’m pretty sure she had already ridden her bike 15-20 miles just to get to the ferry. Shane finished third in the swim and eighth overall. All in all, a great way to end our sun filled week of adventure.
After the race, Chris and I hopped on our bikes for a ride around the island, while my mom lounged on the beach with the kids. Then we all got into sea kayaks and paddled down the coastline, stopping to snorkel and enjoy a short picnic on the beach.
Regretting that we didn’t have enough time to sample the single track, we said goodbye to our new friends and wished them the best of luck in the upcoming TriStar 111 Nevis Triathlon. As we crossed back to St. Kitts at sunset, I marveled at the raw beauty of the island as it slowly faded into the distance. Winston and Reggie had both called it “a triathlete’s playground.” I couldn’t agree more.
Trish Dugan is Director of Communications and Marketing at Syracuse Bicycle in Syracuse, NY. She is also an avid triathlete and USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach with Endurance Factor, a professional endurance sports coaching company. She lives in Manlius, NY with her husband and four children.