Cuban Cycling: ups and downs

Ernesto & Friends

“If you are in difficulty, tell them my name, ‘Ernesto, Professor of Plant Breeding’. They will find me,” advises this extraordinarily caring stranger I met just 15 minutes ago. Here at this roadside stall, he warns me against continuing my journey. “The road is very bad,” explains Ernesto, backed up by nods from those assembled.

I value their honesty and their care: it’s been like this everywhere so far. Help is there, and yet at the same time, I sense a ‘live and let’ approach to others. As I pass people, they look neither away or towards. My sense is that in this ultra-special socialist country, an extraordinary lack of judgement of others. Just care.

I do plan to continue though, and attempt to explain: this way it’s just 22km further to reach my destination; the alternatives, as they agree, seem worse. I savour each mouthful of cold cola. Discussion ranges from plant breeding (focus of my 1980 university degree) of Cuban hybrid coconuts to the All Blacks and Cuba’s international soccer hopes (nil), until one of the Professor’s students, there to buy whisky to take to a Sunday afternoon party, asks a very reasonable question. “Why are you on a bicycle when you could be in a car?”

My answer feels glib, “Cars are too fast for me, walking too slow.” I have shared my joy in the journey. What I have been unable to honour is my glee when I finally arrive after a day in the saddle.

Right now, though, any such glee seems a long way off. In a conversation hindered by my paucity of Spanish vocab and the professor’s imperfect English, Ernesto seeks to communicate not only the gravity of the potholes and dust, but the concern that farmers up ahead have neither resources nor knowledge of English.

An hour later, I get his point. The road is so rutted, I can only walk. For 15km I encounter just 2 riders on horseback and one double-yoked ox cart, but am buoyed as I watch the little blue dot on the the offline Google map: slowly, very slowly, I am closing in on Vinales.

Without a Google map, my 3-day ride would be impossible. In a country where everyone clearly knows where they are heading, there are few signposts. This digital map has a downside though. With the help of my previous host, I booked my first night at ‘Villa Juanita’ in the Las Terazzas district. This BnB is clearly marked on my Google map, so as you might imagine, 80 hot dusty kilometres from Havana, I’m glad to reach the exact marked location; until I find myself in the middle of an open country road, not a house in sight.

I cannot begin to explain my feeling of disappointment on this first day out on my bicycle. ‘Time to call them’, I decide wearily.

Blue marks actual location of BnB : Red is where I arrive – and find nothing!

The Villa person speaks English yet my issue seems incomprehensible. “I’m lost”, I explain, “Where is your home?”

Quite reasonably he suggests, “Just ask anyone. Everyone knows Villa Juanita.” Which may indeed be the case but I am hot, super-weary and here in the midst of this bush-lined road, there is no-one in sight. Ten minutes later, like a spider with web spun, Im still waiting a passing vehicle. When a motorcyclist finally heads towards me, I flag him down: sure enough, he knows the place.

Four excrutiatingly wearysome kms later, my heel now so sore, each pedal rotation is harder than the last, I am warmly welcomed by Juanita. I mark the actual location on my map (see pic) and attempt to explain the issue but really it’s of little import. Im here . Within half an hour, I am showered and attempting to rehydrate with a cold beer.

Keeping hydrated in this climate is quite a challenge. (If you are not one for practical details, you may prefer to skip this next bit). Each morning I set out with my 750ml Camelback, a full 1.5litre water bottle, plus a second one half full, three litres in total. To reduce waste from purchased plastic bottles of water, I use the rechargeable UV device that screws onto my Camelback drink bottle. In 750ml lots, it takes only a few minutes tosterilise enough local tap water for my day.

The upside to cycling in hot weather is no issue with toilet stops. There aren’t any! Copious stops to drink water, a dampened ‘sweat-wiper’ facecloth in a zipped plastic bag and one of my carefully hoarded individual salt packets from the plane, yet my bladder stays empty. Even a first beer at the end of the day, is insufficient: it will be several hours into the evening, continuing to buy more water (or beer ūüėÄ) before my bladder rejoices and makes its emptying needs known.

Las Terrazas – UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Extract from journal.. ‘Arrived at 5pm. Shower the best feeling in the world, though just a drip..Coffee en route – ‘motorway stop’ – they basically had run out of anything except coffee. Small strong ,just 50CUP (about 50c). At another ‘motorway’ stop (though visualise a 4 lane road with double oxen carts, people on horse back, electric 3 wheel trucks,a few bicycles,as well as glorious 1950s cars, trucks and strange, square buses), I down 2 cans of peach nectar. Cold. Sweet. Thick.
Did about 90km due to getting a bit er lost…
Right heel strangely sore. Bit of a challenge.. Also left knee continues to challenge. Anyway, Im here, showered, clothes washed, beer in hand. Whats not to like?’

An obvious ‘not to like’ turns out to be my skill in bike construction. It is not until the end of the following day as I arrive at San Diegode los Banos, my heel so sore I’ve dosed up on Paracetamol, that I realise my saddle is back-to-front. Well, the seat post to be exact.

The (relative) bliss I feel cycling on Day 3 with the bike now set up properly is almost indescribable. Notwithstanding parts of the road. Ernesto wasn’t joking.

After a shower, I’m ready to take up my host’s recommendation to walk 2km up the hill. 24 hours ago I could only hobble, in such pain I thought my cycling plans might be over, Now a hike to find dinner seems fine. It’s extraordinary the difference a day on a well- fitting bike, the saddle 15cm further back, makes!

The Finca Agroecologica retaurant is run by my host’s relations. As the sun sets over the mountains, my legs are weary yet my heart is so filled with my good fortune. I chat to a German family on holiday with 3 young daughters:”May your girls bring you as much joy as mine continue to do”, I say. “Was it hard at times?” queries their mother.

“Yes”, I reply, but like a cycle journey, it’s so worth it!”

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