How Sheila Got Her Groove Back

Jamaica Reggae Ride, How Sheila Got Her Groove Back

Sheila Johnson getting her groove back on the Jamaica Reggae Ride

How Sheila Got Her Groove Back

by Sheila Johnson

My last son just graduated from college, moved out and I finally had the house to myself. I was so ready to start a new chapter, a new life. I had got back into sports and started thinking about doing things like triathlons in the Sacramento region. Let me confess up front, I am a swimmer and use the bike to get to my running events. Cycling and I just weren’t clicking like that.

I first heard about the Jamaican Reggae Ride from my monthly Knights of Mobay newsletter. I read the Jamaican Reggae Ride article about going through Fern Gully, stopping at fruits stands and mid trip dips in the Caribbean and thought about it and said. ”I need to do this, not I that I want to do this.” I figured the only way to become one with cycling was to just jump into cycling and have some fun doing.

You can’t jump more into it than to ride your bicycle across the island of Jamaica. I love Jamaica! I have been traveling to Jamaica since 2007 and had done all the normal tourist stuff from Negril to Kingston via Ochie but when I contacted Royston, owner of Knights of Mobay where I get my funky reggae cycling apparel, he broke it down for me about the Jamaica Reggae Ride and I was hooked. This was going to be an interesting adventure, ride a bicycle across the island and visit (5) towns at a slow roll.

I was on-line immediately emailing Jennifer Hilton. Every Jamaican has a nick name and the Jamaica Reggae Ride manager in this case, Jennifer Hilton, has the nick-name Storm. When you meet her, you will understand.

Jamaica Reggae Riders on the road

Jamaica Reggae Riders on the road

The ride was scheduled for April 2013 and it consisted of 3 days of cycling from Negril to Port Antonia, Jamaica. I was pushing a heavy hybrid bicycle at home and decided to purchase my first road bike. Yes, I was one of those folks looking good with fly cycling gear on a heavy bike, trying to be a triathlete. I am not going to lie. I had concerns, so I emailed Jennifer every day to ask questions about the ride, fitness, the bike, weather, the men and heck, if I could even do this type of ride. She was patient and encouraging while answering all my crazy questions.

I had recently decided that a Half-Ironman was an exciting goal. I just needed to learn how to do the 56-mile bike portion of the Half-Ironman. At 60 miles in length, the Jamaica Reggae Ride was perfect. You can jump in the air conditioned SAG wagon anytime, but that’s not how I roll! All I remember from those Skype calls is Storm saying, “No worries Mon”. With that, I spent the winter learning to ride my heavy hybrid bike.

The cost of the trip even with shipping my bike was inexpensive because, I wasn’t paying for loads of extras fees that tour companies like to tack on. The tour price covered all my required expenses from airport arrival to airport departure, including airport transport, full cycling support, meals on the ride, transport of luggage between the hotels and of course hotels on the beach. I paid for dinners and drinks, that’s it. I don’t do souvenirs.

Girlfriend was on a budget and the payment plan made it easy. Plus, it was worth more because you couldn’t beat the great customer service and Jennifer’s detailed status emails.

Jamaica Reggae Ride, Storm with friends

Jamaica Reggae Ride, Storm with friends

Storm is one of Jamaica’s top Master Cyclists and owns an adventure travel company. So who do you want to manage your cycling adventure?

Finally, the day arrived and moi, single female traveled from Sacramento, CA to Montego Bay Sangster Airport with my new sporty, light bike and some new funky reggae cycling clothing. Whenever I go to Jamaica, I always get that “Chocolate Moment.” Its that moment I arrive in Jamaica and feel like I’m that special piece of chocolate in the box of See’s Chocolates. You know what I am talking about, the pilot, the immigration guy, the other passengers, all just start to look at you differently.

In the airport, I saw folks collecting bike boxes and found my fellow cyclists. Storm’s crew were all over us. Fowley collected our stuff and loaded us onto buses. They looked at me rocking Irie gear and started calling me Rasta.

We immediately went to the Holiday Tours nearby offices, where my bike was unpacked and reassembled with love and care. Again, I noticed the difference in energy; the guides were all over us, helping us set up our bikes, getting us water or rum punch, answering questions and making the whole experience feel pleasant. We separated our stuff and stored bike boxes and other luggage unneeded for the ride, at the offices. After picking up folks at hotels who came days earlier, we were off to Negril for the first leg of our adventure.

Rooms Negril was nice, right on the 7 Mile Beach and 15 minutes after check-in, my plunge into the Caribbean Sea was only a short walk away. In fact, All hotels were on the beach. This was a triathlete’s dream vacation — ride all morning and open water swim in the afternoon.

Jamaica Reggae Ride, Storm on the right

Jamaica Reggae Ride, Storm on the right

Later that evening, we had a meet and greet. Folks came from all the US, Cuba, Kenya, Cayman Islands, South Africa and Italy to name a few places of origin in our small group. We all went to a cool restaurant on the beach and enjoyed Jamaican nightlife. After a night of hanging out, the group jelled immediately and I felt comfortable. I arrived as a single female, but henceforth, never felt alone.

The next morning, we had the first of many hearty breakfasts and prepared for our ride to Montego Bay. Many of our guides were members of the Jamaican Cycling Team and were awesome bike experts. They looked at me and looked at my bike, then asked me to ride around so they could make immediate adjustments to my bike. I loved the directness of the Jamaican men without being overbearing. The tone of their patois commands was stimulating. Being a newbie cyclist, I was clueless about bike fit. So I just followed instructions. After a number of adjustments, I was amazed that my own bike felt much better.

During the ride, I saw swiftness to action again, as they changed a flat in seconds, sprayed cold water on my hot thighs or the police officers taking a rider out a steep hill on his motorcycle. I loved the the “no problem, we take care of it service.” If you had a similar problem in the USA, you would be taken off the ride.

I had been to Jamaica numerous times, but it was usually sterile. Hotel staffs were afraid to talk with you and you got very little unbridled contact. On tour buses, Iwas always pressing my face against the window, wishing I could scream, “Stop the bus.” Not so on Jamaica Reggae Ride.

Day one ride to Montego Bay was great, the sights and sounds of Jamaica were right in front of you. I wanted to get off my bike and experience all that beauty and in many cases, did. I could finally touch and feel Jamaican life.

Our rest stops avoided tourist traps and we mixed with the community. When we pulled into Lucia, Storm took us to a farmers market. We bought fruit directly from the farmers and rubbed shoulders with folks buying their food for dinner. I got a kick out of young man strolling over with his Jamaican swagger and laying down a line. Here I am, 30 miles of sweat and salt and a homeboy young enough to be my son is rapping hard. Got to love it!

The first descent down the hill by Grand Palladium was breath taking, I felt so free. I had never experienced the speeds being displayed on my bike computer, nor traveled in group line on the street. It was awesome and I was singing Kumbaya all the way down, lost in the tranquility of Jamaica when I saw a hill and said, “Oh my god.”

Jamaica Reggae Ride, tour leader Fowly

Jamaica Reggae Ride, tour leader Fowly

Then I felt a hand on my back and I was flying uphill, while a patois voice, said, “Click 2 on the right, click 1 on the left.” Okay, yes, I told you upfront, I was not a cyclist and yes, I did not know how to change my gears. But on Jamaica Reggae Ride, even before I knew I had a problem, they had a solution. I was now introduced to the “pushcart kings”.

On every hill, I got a little push to help me up — each was another chocolate moment. They didn’t just give me a friendly push or two; they taught me about feeling and loving the bike. I got so much coaching that to this day, all my bike instructions memories are in patois. I learned more in 10 minutes with them than I had in the year I owned a road bike, riding with my group. Not once did I feel pressured or unsafe — on or off the bike. Not bad for my first real experience riding on the road.

Rest stops were planned and spontaneous. If we felt the need, we got off the bike to soak in Jamaica. We had a motorcycle police officer and air conditioned support bus with us throughout the ride. The snacks on the ride were awesome. No “commercial products”, fresh fruit, sandwiches. I drank coconut water directly from the coconut. Our water bottles were always kept filled.

We were treated like celebrities on the ride, people came out to waved, cheer and show us a lot of love. The roads were also clean, cobblestone is bumpy but there was little to no debris in our path. Motorists even gave us respect on the road. I felt safer then when I ride at home.

Sheila Johnson on the left

Sheila Johnson on the left

The ride was progressive, the first day was relatively easy. The second day had a few more challenges with two long climbs, but with the pushes, I was enjoyed fantastic views. The last day was memorable with the quest of Black Hill, a steep winding mountain at the base of the Blue Mountains. On a map, you’ll see Black Hill after Ochos Rios to the east, but before Port Antonio. At the start of the ride, I was a reluctant cyclist. But after two days and all the coaching, I was a new woman with a goal. My goal was to stay on longer than the other ladies in my cycling group, since I was the “big woman”.

As we climbed the increasing slope of Black Hills, I politely waited for one of my cycle mates, Pat, to get off her bike and catch a ride with Officer Farrakhan’s motorcycle. Then Ms. D pulled over and got in the van. Hurray, I was the last woman standing! I was going to do a few more turns and veer off when damn it, I felt that hand in my back and that voice, sit back, drop your heels and relax, we are going to do this, I was nope, its too hard, and that voice took control as I complained and I pedaled up to the top of the Black Hill.

For me, the ride was over when I got to the top of Black Hill, I was now a cyclist. There is no way; I would have thought 72 hours earlier, that I would have made it to the top of Black Hill, when everyone else bailed.

Yeah, we had a beautiful terrain descent through beautiful banana plantations, rapid flowing rivers and a wonderful celebration at the Frenchman’s Cove Beach, but it didn’t compare to cresting Black Hill and falling in love with that voice that told me, “We are going to do this”. The Jamaica Reggae Ride allowed me to see Jamaica up close and personal. The Jamaica Reggae Ride is an experience I will never forget. It completely changed my life.

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