Join the CSC bike ride to Cuba

Autumn 2003

Wheels in Revolution

Pedal with the Flying Pigeons to deliver educational materials to a Havana school for visually impaired children as part of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s annual sponsored bike ride in February 2004. Simon Bull, CSC Tours Coordinator, reports on what to expect on the Cuba Cycle Challenge

In the cool shade of the large Cieba tree, in Pinar’s bustling Calle Martí, the young men playing Sunday League dominoes were convinced that we had been cycling for too long with the sun on our backs. “Sigue creyendo que la cucaracha coge FM, porque tiene antena.” (Keep thinking that the cockroach can receive FM because it has an antenna!)

This was the consensus of informed opinion about our prospective route into the looming Sierra de los Organos, Cuba’s third largest mountain range. We had tried to convince them that we were on a sponsored bike ride. It was a hard sell. We were three days into the cycle challenge on this enchanting island to deliver 10,000 asthma inhalers to William Soler Children’s hospital in Havana.

The event was fully supported with a comprehensive back-up service, which meant somebody else carried the luggage and sorted out the accommodation and food, while we were free to cycle at our own pace and experience a rural Cuba not often seen by tourists. There was a physiotherapist to restore tired calf muscles each evening and Miguel, a mechanic with the Cuban national cycle team, who lovingly maintained our chain stays con cariño. We instinctively held a minute’s silence as we remembered the cyclist of the 2% body fat variety, nerves frayed, anxiously waiting at the check-in desk at Gatwick with pannier bags conspicuously toting his kitchen sink and tool shed.

As the clock clicked over 100 kms I had the unmistakable feeling of dying and waking up in paradise. An ordinary paradise where people on bikes come first, days always get longer and cyclists get younger by the mile. This was Cuba, and this was a cycle tour where the culture, the people and the landscape were as significant as any biking I had done.

The crisp sound of dominoes slamming onto a makeshift metal table had long faded as we finally reached the spectacular Viñales Valley, where tobacco fields blended with royal palms and bougainvillea. I peered into the distance at the awesome peaks, plumed with white clouds.

Climbing since leaving the busy market town of Pinar, 15 miles and numerous watering holes behind us, meant that the drop was approaching. The icing on the cake. The reward for all that blood, sweat and gears. The downhill.

All one needed was the necessary cojones to negotiate the switchbacks and hairpins. The downhill run that blotted out the hills we had just struggled to climb. Good to see the old reflexes were not (quite) dead: lean, jump, brake, pedal, shift down, shift up, scream with laughter.

But we did not have it all our own way. We rolled into the small village of Viñales, rather deflated. A “Flying Pigeon”, loaded with rider, passenger and Soviet TV, had dropped us on the final stretch. The rider and his younger brother had more urgent business. In the Baseball World Series, Cuba was playing the USA and the game was due to start. A lot was at stake.

Their family was patiently waiting for the TV to arrive from Aquas Claras, over 12 miles away. These sturdy bicycles had been imported from China to help resolve the acute transport problems when the supply of oil from the Soviet bloc started to dry up in 1991. Granma, Cuba’s newspaper, called it the “bicycle revolution”. Everywhere we went we ran into these innovative workbikes that had been transformed from single-speed Chinese bicycles to movers of commerce. In Havana bicycles outnumbered cars by 20 to 1.

In an hour there would be a glorious sunset, shot from the bridge high above the river Jíbaro. But first we had to locate the hotel. Navigation was a no-brainer thanks to terrific maps that had been leading us through a maze of scenic back roads and small, busy rural villages. Nevertheless, we were not short of offers of help to locate our destinations.

At that moment a motorcycle and sidecar Ministry of the Interior man, dressed in the now familiar mustard coloured uniform of the Inspección Estatal, came along and volunteered to guide us. During the day these inspectors co-ordinate state vehicles picking up Cubans hitching between towns, due to public transport shortages. We turned and tucked in as he led us through dusty side streets. Occasionally he waved to people he knew and once popped in a house, presumably to tell someone he would be late home and to keep the congrís warm, a local speciality of black beans and rice.

A friendly welcome awaited us at the Villa La Ermita. That night we lost power and dined by dozens of candles. This was “carbo loading” at its finest as we eagerly piled into the buffet of pork, sweat potato, plantain, yucca and malanga. We relaxed to a local son trio singing “Comandante Che Guevara”, practising our best trip stories on each other, honing them for the audiences back home.

Once more on beloved tarmac our wheels hummed along the route. We had learned fast to hold our own piece of the road, and the trucks and wheezing buses were remarkably considerate. Cooling air, the sound of a waterfall and pure blue sky. There was more scenery here than you could shake a tyre lever at. The country schools filled with happy healthy children in bright reds and whites. A cattle drive led by shy, smiling cowboys.

Rural houses, all with electricity, their wooden fences decorated with brightly covered laundry drying in the sun. At each turning we were compelled to slow down and absorb the heady mix of sights, sounds and rhythms. An invitation to coffee from a family doctor who had just finished making her house calls was an added bonus. She proudly informed us that Cuba had 56,925 doctors, 1 for every 193 inhabitants, and 94% of the population is under the family doctor programme. A unique achievement in Latin America.

There was a treat for the last day of the ride, a trip to the caves used as Che Guevara’s hideout during the Cuban missile crisis. Among the items still preserved were the beds used by his bodyguard and the great man himself. Arriving at San Diego de los Baños we were rewarded with a hot sulphur bath, a wonderful end to 210 miles of pedalling.

In Havana, we visited the William Soler Hospital and handed over our much-needed donation. The sponsorship monies raised by the group had been able to purchase over 10,000 asthma inhalers. After a rousing speech, the hospital Director presented us with our certificates commemorating our achievement. It was both a proud and rather humbling moment. I knew that, valuable though our efforts had been, the staff here worked daily to sustain the benefits of the Revolution.

Back at the hotel and sipping a cool killer mojito, a smooth mix of rum, a sprig of mint, sugar, limejuice and soda, I leaned back and soaked up the atmosphere. The music of the breeze through the trees sounded more melodic, the freshly cut sugar cane smelt sweeter and the children greeted us more enthusiastically. Somewhere in the distance I could hear that Cuba had won their baseball match and I thought that just maybe the cockroach really does receive FM.

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