Critical Mass in Havana – a celebration of cycling!

November 13, 2020 | by James Corporal

On the first Sunday of every month, a celebration of cycling takes place in Cuba’s capital city Havana, as groups of cyclists travel through the city promoting healthy living and an environmentally friendly way of getting around.

You may not immediately know what a "critical mass" is. If you are a software engineer or are into socio-dynamics, you may well think you have an idea. Also, depending on your beliefs, you may even think that a critical mass is an urgent form of communion you have to hurriedly take.

Bike riders in Cuatro Caminos during Critical Mass Havana - August 2020

However, it is none of the above. In the world of cycling, the actual definition of this form of critical mass is:

"A form of direct action involving large groups of bicycle riders."

Specifically, it is a spontaneous, leaderless bike ride that begins at designated times and locations in various cities all around the world. Plus, since there is no fixed leadership, there is no agenda. It is not a protest, but simply a celebration of bicycles, clean air, and having a good time on two wheels.

How did critical mass in Havana begin?

Havana’s critical mass is held on every first Sunday of the month and starts at Parque de los Martires near the famous Malecon sea wall that stretches down the coast.

The group is usually a colourful collection of cycling aficionados speaking a mixture of Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and even Scandinavian, as tourists are always welcome to join in too. The goal is to show the rest of the city that urban cycling is an ecological, healthy, enjoyable exercise, as well as being a cheaper transport option than jumping in the car.

Young people riding the streets of Centro Habana during one of the last editions of Bicicletear La Habana

Although it takes place in many cities across the globe, critical mass in Havana, or "Bicicletear La Habana" as it is commonly known here, had an interesting origin and nearly stopped before it had really begun.

Local habanero Yasser Gonzalez went on a trip to Berlin and was struck when he saw that people tended to travel around on their bikes even though they had nice cars sitting at home.

Mum and child riding in Critical Mass Havana, in the background Morro Castle Lighthouse

Upon returning to Cuba, he launched the incentive to get people out and about on their bikes, taking in the best sights that Havana had to offer. On 27th September 2015, Bicicletear La Habana was born.

A deflating experience

However, only four people turned up to the first event, and despite his best efforts over the next 20 months, very few people were getting involved. The rides were never attended by more than 40 people and the majority seemed to be foreigners looking for new ways to take in the city. Not the kind of long-term stalwarts he was looking for. Unfortunately, back at the beginning, it seemed as though the "habaneros" themselves were not very interested.

Streets of Old Havana full of cyclist celebrating Masa Critica La Habana

As a result, Yasser reluctantly decided to cancel the rides. Then, something extraordinary happened – eight weeks later in June 2017, he was asked to start them up again.

This time was different, and Yasser knew it was going to work. How? There were new faces mainly consisting of young people and the positive attitude was palpable.

Thanks to these dynamic youngsters and the innovation they brought, "Bicicletear La Habana" has gone from strength to strength, and there are now well over 1,500 members on its Facebook page.

Cycling is the best way to see Havana

Havana is a fascinating city which has enough history, architecture, music, and culture to last more than one lifetime. To know Havana is to fall in love with it, and the best way to truly get to know the city is by getting up close and personal.

Hundreds of bike riders crossing Malecon to Avenida del Puerto

Therefore, cycling is the perfect way to get in and amongst the narrow streets of the lesser-known quarters, the crumbling alleys with the colourful facades, and the hidden leafy courtyards in ancient, humble neighbourhoods.

Though the critical mass route is not specifically defined or organised beforehand, the happy group usually works its winding way through the districts of Vedado, Malecon, Old Havana, Centro Habana, El Capitolio, Plaza de la Revolucion, Prado, and Central Park.

Havana is a fairly flat city, and there are no real uphill slogs. This makes for a pleasant, enriching experience, especially when you get to interact with the smiling inhabitants and waving children, taking in the never-ending galleries of street art and graffiti murals that add so much colour and personality along the way.

Platoon of bike riders waiting at a traffic light in Centro Habana

The great thing is that each tour is different which is a reason why people keep coming back. You are seeing the city in a different light each time. It normally takes about two hours to complete a 20 – 25-kilometre ride, so it is also great exercise and a wonderful routine to get into in order to stay fit.

An original way to see an original city

To sum up, "Bicicletear La Habana" is a joyous celebration of promoting the bicycle as an ecological and healthy means of transport. It is not a protest, and it does not guilt-trip anyone into ditching their car. It is just a group of people who love cycling around a beautiful city to see things they would otherwise miss from behind a windscreen.

Habaneros enjoying Bicicletar La Habana

Though critical mass occurs in dozens of cities around the world, it is special here in Havana. Cuba’s capital thrives and flourishes when seen from the saddle and the objective to promote the use of the bicycle as a viable alternative to smoky cars and buses is a noble one in a country with a high population density and a chronic shortage of fuel available.

No, critical mass is not unique to Cuba and in each city where it takes place, the event differs in route, numbers of enthusiasts and sights seen. But there is one common theme running across each event: the importance of the message that bicycles still play a fundamental role in urban transport, contributing to our physical and mental wellbeing.

Viva la bici!

Written by

James Corporal

James Corporal - Avid cyclist and cubaphile.

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