I am a fully signed up MAMIL (middle aged man in lycra/preference Rapha) but worse still, I am the London cyclist’s best friend, a Licensed London Taxi driver.

fat-mary-fall-2013As I get older, I enjoy my cycling more and more. Our winters, leave me with a lethargy that is hard to shake off. With this in mind, I saw an advert in a cycling magazine. “Come and cycle Cuba with Canbicuba.com”. Ah! Yes I immediately thought, I’ll be ‘aving some of that! Sun, music, and cycling!

I visited their web-site and saw pictures of lot’s of happy smiling cyclists. There were various rides to choose from, but I finally settled for a ride called “Fat Mary 2012”. This purported to offer “Cuba in the raw, beautiful beaches, mountain ranges, cities, towns and villages”. “Learn about the Cuban way of life, from guides and the people you meet, along the way”. But best of all for me, a novice cyclist, they had a sag bus following. What could be better?

I arrived a day early and Peter Marshall, who started CanBiCuba in 2002, had arranged for me to stay in a nearby ‘casa particulare’ (or bed and breakfast). The Fat Mary Tour actually started in Varadero and made its way on a tailwind ride, through Havana and onto the very western tip of Cuba, Cabo San Antonio.  So the next day, after a hearty breakfast we built up the bikes and the coach arrived with our driver, Roberto and guide Alex for the tour and Airelis Olivar, a three times Cuban track champion who accompanied us as the tours mechanic.

The benefits of choosing a small, personal company, became apparent  when we reached Varadero – only a few of the other cyclists had arrived due to an air strike and wouldn’t arrive for another 2 days. Peter juggled the itinerary arranging taxis for latecomers to meet us en-route, in Havana. The next morning, we happy few cycled form Matanzas to Playa del Este, just outside Havana.  95 Kilometers! I have never ridden 95 Kilometers, I have never ridden 75 Kilometers. ‘Well you must have ridden 60 Kilometers I hear you say rather smugly’ – well yes, but only by mistake (I got lost!).  The exhilaration of riding in a foreign country, with all its new sights and sounds, together with my Fizik Kurve saddle, got me through.  At the end of the first day, Roberto was waiting with fresh bananas and pineapples – a very welcome task he performed at the end of each day.  Before long we were sampling Cuban fruits such as the cherimoya and different types of plantains.  He also kept water in the chiller compartment of the coach, and topped us up frequently.

The first day of riding on Cuban roads, convinced me that this was a cyclists paradise.  Very little traffic away from the towns and a driving culture that is respectful to other road users – I expected the opposite. Let me explain – a vehicle is coming from behind you, you’re on your bike. About 150 meters before the vehicle reaches you the driver will give a couple of toots on the horn, as if to say ‘ Hi, I’m here,  seen you and am going to overtake you’.  As the vehicle draws level, but well away from you, another too to signal ‘Hey, I’m here, wasn’t that easy.  I saw you, moved out, overtook you safely, kept you aware of the situation, now have a nice day’.  It was that easy!

urlThe next morning we set out on a 30km ride, which included a visit to the only velodrome in Cuba and a short ferry ride across Havana harbour where Alex our coach driver and tour guide gave us a tour of old Havana.  He was very knowledgeable and as all Cubans are, very proud of his country. After a late al-fresco lunch we booked into an old mob hotel from the 1950’s, the Riviera.  In the evening we visited the ‘Club de ciclista Pena’, in an extremely poor area of south-west Havana.  The club, which has a long, once golden history, helps local children get into cycling.  Cubans are cycling mad, but cannot get spare parts.  Even if they could, few Cubans could afford the kind of bikes that we ride.  Peter had asked us to bring any spare inner tubes, tyres and unused items we had lying around at home.  We donated a big box of assorted cycling gear and three old racing bikes.  The club had laid on a banquet for us. As a London Cabby I do my fair share of charity work – trips to the seaside etc for under privileged/disabled children and Crisis for Christmas, but I have never been so humbled as I was that night.  Those children had literally nothing, and yet they were happy, polite, dignified and delighted with the goodies we had brought them.  We returned to the Riveria Hotel in a more reflective mood.

The next day’s target was the Villa Soroa, some 94 km away.  We started on an empty, wide open, level freeway – but once we turned off, who said Cuba was flat! That day I probably found the hardest, but took time out to get off the bike and walk (and I could have hopped on the bus!) and had recovered enough for a refreshing swim that night in the Villa pool.  The next morning we had a guided tour of the Jardin Botanico Orchidarium. It was beautiful – over 700 species of orchid, 250 of them native to Cuba and to think only 3 years ago it was virtually flattened in the hurricane.  We rode into the mountains, some 75km to Milcumbre Ecotourist mountain huts – tourists don’t normally get to stay there but Peters local knowledge and contacts kicked in again, and I think that most of the group would say, this was indeed the highlight of the trip.

We had the next day off and headed for a tropical Island, called Cayo Levisa – a short ferry ride, then palm trees, white sand, more palm trees, more white sand and the bluest, warmest sea I think I have ever swum in. We returned to the mountain huts for our evening meal and were treated to a sky full of stars – Jupiter and Mars were clearly visible. Sadly we had to leave Milcumbre the next morning and cycled 70 kms on great mountain roads to the resort of Aqua Claras. We stayed 2 days outside of Vinales, cycling some of the big hills and descending on even sweepier downhills to Cayo Jutias – relaxing in between in more ocean, palm trees and white sand!.  Two days later, on our way out from there, we had lunch and then a 50km ride to Maria La Gorda – I did more, I go lost.  Which turned out to be a bonus.  After discovering a wonderful graveyard, lovingly tended, with hug marble statues, listing to some wonderful guitar playing and having a the most surreal in-depth conversation I have ever had in or out of a cab, about Linux (a computer programme invented by a Finnish university professor) – remember, it was the middle of nowhere! The coach rescued me and we reached Maria La Gorda on a beautiful hot day.  As usual the group ate together and by now we had really gelled.  There was lots of banter and mickey taking.  We were a real mixed bunch, a former Olympic wrestler, a stock broker, a dairy farmer and his sister who worked in Education, a retired teacher, a retired computer engineer and another in the computer industry, to name a few.

imgresThe next day was a beach day, and then we retraced some of the road the next day until we branched off onto the coast road which was part of the Parque Nacional Peninsula De Guanahacabibes and guarded by the military. We covered 84 km’s – the road was covered by , who live in the mangroves and were crossing the road in their thousands to get to the sea to reproduce – what a sight!  Out destination was Cabo de San Antonio, the most western part of Cuba and the finish of the Cuban End to End ride (similar to our John O’Groats to Lands’ End). We stayed in Cabo de San Antonio overnight and the next morning our coach took us to Jibacoa. Next day we cycled through Matanzas, had a wonderful lunch and back to Varadero via the back roads – I have to admit, after 75kms of a 90km ride into headwinds, I had to get on the sag bus.

On the penultimate day, we cycled the 50 km’s around Varadero; stopping only to have our photo’s taken at Al Capones house. What a fantastic two weeks, I had cycled distances, that I wouldn’t have even contemplated back home, amongst breath taking scenery, with great companions with lots of camaraderie. Like many others, I’m going back for more. Cuba is a great place to ride.


Author: Paul Stanwix