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What they Said

CanBiCuba An Advenure on Two Wheels

By: John Swart

The hotel location, perched above VinalesValley in western Cuba, was spectacular.

John Swart

John Swart (eswart3@cogeco.ca)
Is The Standard's running and cycling Columnist.

Feet resting on the balcony rail, Bucanero in hand, the view was postcard. Three-hundred-meter tall limestone mogotes squatted like footballs stuffed nose first into the valley floor.

Fertile, sandy, red fields produce the finest tobacco in the world and corch palms shared the remaining land.

The prosperous town of Vinales sprawled below. It is home to 26,000 Cubans who each own 1.3 roosters. As we headed to bed early in preparation for tomorrow’s ride, the sunset backlit the mogotes with breathtaking yellows, pinks, reds and purples.

At 4:24 a.m., the first rooster crowed and by 4:26, all 33,000of the feathered alarm clocks were at it. By 4:28 the donkeys and pigs joined the chorus. The valley formed a perfect megaphone, amplifying the volume enough to lift the roof off the hotel. The sunrise was magnificent and thank you to the roosters for the wake up call.

Peter Marshall’s CanBiCuba cycling trips begin where other tours end- exploring remote and authentic Cuba with lots of cycling adventure and local interaction. A common Vinales stop on traditional tours is Cuevo Del Indio, caverns where one can take a boat ride into a mogote. Get out of the bus, sit in the boat, get back in the bus; you know the drill.

Instead Marshall’s guias – Cuban bicycle racers serving as guides – lead us up a twisting mountain road, their strong hands pushing those needing assistance. We left our bikes, hiked an oxcart trail through a coffee plantation, sidestepped a garden patch mere inches from tethered Brahman bulls. A small stream guided us to a hidden grotto.

After assurances the murky green water wasn’t toxic, a few of us cautiously dog- paddled in.

Within a dozen meters, we were consumed by darkness; pierced only by the cycle light one of the group had strapped to his head. This directional light made the cave walls dance menacingly and our retreat was rapid.

As we dried ourselves in the sun, farmers toting pails of rice, chicken and salad appeared, creating an impromptu picnic.

Our next day’s planed route, a 90 kilometer loop through the mogotes was changed at the halfway point when locals advised us that our anticipated route was impassable. Plan “B” was adopted and we cycled to an isolated ferry terminal. Marshall recognized what appeared to be a local home as a palladare, a Cuban family restaurant.

After a quick consultation, Marshall reported. “Lunch will be served in an hour, $8 each”’

Fifty minutes later, a dozen of us dined on mouth watering fresh fish, black bean soup, rice, cabbage and tomatoes, seemingly produced out of thin air.

That is CanBiCuba for you !

Breakfast was raucous. Dan & Dean were sharing a room and Dan awoke in the night to use he bathroom. At some point, he declined to share the details, he realized there wa s a huge, slimy frog in the toilet. Rather than wake Dean, he decided to take photos of it. Dean awoke at the sound of the shutter and the light strobes in the bathroom. It was rather disconcerting on the second night with their new room mate.

Day 4 was a serious climb over the Cordillere de Guaniguanico. In preparation, our guia motioned us to a tiny tin-roofed roadside stand. We stood in line behind thirsty Cubans for sugarcane juice, pressed to order and served in the bottom half of cut beer bottles. Powerade or Hammer Gel pale compared to the instant energy of this unbelievably sweet drink and the total bonk when it is depleted 20 minutes later, halfway up the mountain.

The trip highlight was the “Tailwind Ride”. Cuba has a notoriously strong east / west trade wind, along he cost. We took our bikes to and bused 140 kilometers east of Havana to Varadero, then cycled back along the coast with the tailwind at speeds in excess of 50 km/h – cyclists’ Utopia.

CanBiCuba is 60% excellent cycling, 30% unexpected adventure and 10% you won’t know what is happening until its too late.

Perfect.


Canadian cyclists toured in Cuba

By: David Cohen

The relationship between the bicycle and Cuba is not the same as, say, the bicycle and Holland. But biking in Cuba is nevertheless the real thing– a popular way to get around, especially since the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its aid to Cuba in the early 1990s.

David Cohen

David Cohen
Is a professor at Mohawk College and a member of the Hamilton C.C.

Visitors to Cuba quickly learn that the bicycle is a respected mode of transportation and thus a convenient and inexpensive way to see and experience an incredibly beautiful country.

So, it’s not surprising that among the 600,000 Canadians who travel to Cuba each you’ll find a fair sprinkling of cyclists.

CanBiCuba is the name of an annual bike tour organized by Peter Marshall, a 61-year-old former competitive cyclist (in the U.K. and northern Europe) from St. Catharines, Ontario.

This year’s eight-day tour, the group’s second, took place at the end of March. It began just east of Havana and then moved southeast to Cienfuegos, and wound up at a resort in the hills just west of the southern city of Trinidad, which was founded by Spaniards in 1514.

The 27 cyclists on the tour stayed at three resorts along the way. An accompanying bus carried their luggage between stops and acted as a “sag wagon” for cyclists unable to complete a day’s ride.

Assisting Marshall in drawing up itineraries was Cuban Pedro Curbelo, a biologist turned professional guide (bike tours are his speciality) with an impressive store of information about Cuban history and its culture. He was assisted by Frank Perez-Maza and Juan Alberto Villa, a former competitive cyclist in Cuba. All are experienced bike mechanics.

CanBiCuba’s tourists were divided into three groups – A- faster - 26 km); B- medium- 21-25 km; C- slower -16-20 km.

Tour— athleticism, culture and history

This year’s tour offered a mix of athleticism, culture, and history … and a little of the unexpected.

Tour leader Peter Marshall got married! Yes, while overseeing the myriad details of the tour, Peter managed to wed a beautiful Cuban woman named Anna-Maria, a medical research scientist and mother of Frank, whom he met several years ago. A number of riders attended the ceremony, which took place in hallway (lit by a single bulb) above a restaurant in a western suburb of Havana. A smiling Cuban lady lawyer supervised the exchange of vows.

In Havana and Cienfuegos the cyclists stashed their bikes in a safe areas and went on walking tours – in Havana to the old city with its spectacular architecture and monuments (some dating back to the city’s founding in the early 16th Century) and in Cienfuegos, a more modern city dating from the 19th Century with a spectacular square lined with richly designed neoclassical buildings.

The tour wound up in the southern coastal city of Trinidad, as ancient as Havana if smaller. After dinner in the impressive dining room of house a once owned by a lawyer (his and his wife’s portraits peer down from a wall), the group went dancing to music provided by a splendid salsa band in a town square.

History enveloped the tour on its fourth day when riders pedaled along roads near the Bay of Pigs, in the province of Matansas, just west of Cienfuegos. There, in April 1961, Cuban troops led by Fidel Castro repulsed a combined air and land invasion by Cuban exiles organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Plain stone memorials cropped up here and there along roadsides, memorializing Cuban troops who fell in the battles 46 years ago.

Rider delivered medicines

In this area a member of the tour, Dean Tebbutt, delivered medicines to a village doctor. The medicines were provided by a southern Ontario organization called Not Just Tourists (see sidebar) which sends medicines to more than 60 countries worldwide, including Cuba.

My wife and I broke away from the tour on its second day to investigate another historical site in Cuba – one of a different kind and not generally mentioned in the guide books.

We got an unofficial tour around the perimeter of a major cultural centre that was constructed in Havana in the early 1960’s. Called the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (NationalArtSchools), these were a series of schools for the teaching modern dance, ballet, music, and the dramatic arts. They were built on what was a golf course for Havana’s pre-revolutionary white elite. A group of young architects headed by Ricardo Porro designed the complex. The domed buildings are now considered an important landmark in 20th Century architecture.

Towards the mid-1960’s NationalArtSchools languished. They went unoccupied. A more conservative, practical sort of architecture then in favour in the Soviet Union gained support in Cuba. The schools, unused, were forgotten.

But architects, in Cuba and elsewhere, could not forget the building and since the 1980’s efforts have been underway to revive the schools and restore the buildings, several of which have been damaged by neglect and vandalism over the years.

But…to return cycling. How is it to cycle in Cuba?

Cuba is a poor country, but it nevertheless has an impressive network of roads. These include multi-lane expressways, two-lane highways, and quiet country roads.

But its roads are different than most North American ones. They are calmer, cars travel at lower speeds generally, and they are domesticated.

A typical Cuban highway – and this includes the expressways – has hitchhikers aplenty, who are often clustered at intersections and beneath bridges and underpasses.

Buses ply many of the highways, and there are frequent stopping places for them.

(The buses are always full, often it seems to the bursting point).

Highways are calmer

Cuban roads and their margins are also alive with animal life. Horse-drawn vehicles of all sorts are a common sight. One can also frequently see other animals – sheep, goats, horses, barnyard fowl – grazing along roadsides. Once this cyclist saw a tethered horse grazing on a highway median.

Also seen with fair frequency are racing cyclists training. In one instance, a peloton of about 15 cylists were seen occupying a lane of an expressway! (Cuba has a rich bike racing culture. It has an annual vuelta – tour – on then scale of the famed European ones. This year’s edition was won by Canadian Sven Tuft.)

More importantly, perhaps, the bicycle is a respected form of transportation in Cuba. Motorists give cyclists a wide berth. If there is no room to do so, they slow down and wait until there is.

Would-be touring cyclists in Cuba, however, should be aware of two realities of Cuban biking: potholes and the wind.

Potholes can be frequent on some secondary roads. Caution and slower speeds are called for.

The famous trade winds that powered Christopher Columbus’s ships to the New World unsurprisingly continue to blow over Cuba.

To be riding with the wind at your back is to have a little motor assisting your pedaling.

The tour’s first ride west to Havana was such a ride. Unfortunately, most of the riding thereafter was into the wind.

But it was mostly a gentle wind, just enough to challenge, but not discourage, the riders. Combined with temperatures that averaged about 27-28 C., these were excellent cycling conditions.

The CanBiCuba tour, although it includes some former racers, is not a race. In fact the overall pace was quite leisurely, with time out for long lunches and sunning and swims at Cuba’s abundant and beautiful (and free) beaches.

 

CanBiCuba 2007 was a unique blend of cultural, history, and cycling. In fact, it was a great way to see a part of Cuba for a period that was all too brief.

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