ON YER BIKE, AMIGO! The comical contradictions of cycling in Cuba
What the Brits have to say about their love of bikes – which is often quite a lot – says much about their culture, tradition, and history. But in Cuba, most of these lyrical waxings about the noble two-wheeler don’t much impress. Start schmoozing about your cherished cycle and many islanders will roll their eyes heavenward, give you a stern look (or, more likely, laugh out loud) and declare you as mad as a box of frogs.
This palpable disparagement might strike you bike aficionados as very strange. Isn’t it just the most delightful thing ever to cycle on almost empty roads, through lush countryside, sun out, the wind blowing through your hair, or at least around your ears? What could be better? And isn’t Cuba one of those very sporty nations, with its baseball trophies, Olympic boxers and long jumpers galore? Don’t they see it as you do – as the healthiest, most environmentally correct and sound transport option in existence?
Be prepared for locals to snort, snigger or look bemused
You probably resonate wholeheartedly with novelist Iris Murdoch who considered the bicycle to be ‘’…the most civilized conveyance known to man (sic). Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish’’, she declared, ‘’only the bicycle remains pure in heart’’. Or with good old Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, nostalgically advising: ‘’When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without a thought on anything but the ride you are taking’’. Even Hemingway – so dearly beloved in Cuba – threw in his lot, affirming that it was only ‘’… by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them’’ .However, whilst our (mainly upwardly mobile) northern culture embraces this ‘’pure in heart’’ transport many of their southern (Cuban) counterparts would simply rather be seen dead than be perched on one.
At home you’re most likely applauded and admired as you pedal your push, mountain or racing bicycle here, there, and everywhere. I am certainly one of the admirers. But, here, be more prepared for locals to snort, snigger or look bemusedly, pityingly on as you proudly sweat up the hills and coast down them. ‘’Why on earth do they do this?’’, asked a baffled friend of mine. What she meant was: why spend all that money to come all this way to ride – and sweat (another Cuban aversion) – in the hot, Cuban sun!
The fall of the Soviet Bloc – an overnight crisis
Apart from the obvious climatic factors the Cuban distain and dislike for the bike, most keenly felt in Havana, goes back to 1991. The fall of the Soviet Bloc resulted in an almost overnight crisis on the island. From the early 1960s the Soviet Union had been Cuba’s main supplier of food, oil, spare parts, machinery and other vital materials – accounting for 80% of the islands international trade. This three-decade-long subsidy – mainly through the Soviet supply of low-cost oil, plus its inflated-price purchase of Cuban sugar – has been estimated at a staggering 4-5 billion US dollars a year. When it all abruptly stopped Cuba fell on its knees. And the resulting lack provoked a traumatic crisis which impacted harshly on almost every Cuban life. Not only was there an acute shortage of foodstuff and goods there was an acute shortage of fuel, parts and transport. Blackouts were a part of everyday life – mainly 12 hours on/12 hours off for each area (if you were lucky) – and most services ground to a deadening halt. Cubans were suddenly forced to walk everywhere – to work and back, to search for food, to resolve every problem, to visit family etc. – and in every weather. This might sound a fine thing but not when you only have one pair of shoes, it’s tipping down, or it’s as hot as the Underworld itself. Not either when you’re both very hungry and tired: food won’t keep in an unconnected fridge, and it’s hard to sleep without a fan in 34-plus degrees. Thus began the need for alternatives to many things and, thus, millions of Cubans who had formerly enjoyed plenitude and good transport set forth – out of necessity – on their bikes.
Phoenix and Flying Pigeons swarm the island
Seeing the crisis coming Cuba had already ordered over one million cycles from China (in 1990) and even started producing a few of their own. The Chinese models (winningly named Forever, Phoenix and the Flying Pigeon) were the majority makes but none were for sale – all were given out to students or through the workplace. Many Cubans sold on their bikes for much-needed food and others bought them for the equivalent of $20. Some added on a small 2-stroke motor to help them along. These were the days when your state salary was between 200-300 pesos (now equivalent to between approximately 6-9 gbp) and almost everything you had was changed or sold for food; when inflation was such that a packet of Woodbine-like cigarettes sold for 100 pesos, when a bag of 20 lbs of malanga (think potatoes) from the countryside cost 250 pesos. And when your bike was so highly prized you had to watch your back.
‘’I rode a bicycle for over two years and I swear to you I’ll never get on one again’’, a close friend told me. ‘’To me they represent a terrible time, poverty, pure necessity, nothing more. Oh, and the fear of it being stolen. My God, that was almost paralysing’’. The noble bike, then, became forever associated with need, lack, sacrifice, stress and suffering; a thing forced rather than chosen.
When I arrived, as late as 1997, I remember writing to a UK friend and telling him how few cars were on the road here and how difficult it was to buy even the most worn out and shabby old bike. I bought a Forever but it didn’t last forever; someone stole it! I eventually brought my own pre-loved Brit model over by plane (complete with its lovely wicker basket) and can’t count the numerous times I was stopped in the street, or visited at the house, to check, then re-check, if I wanted to sell. It was the kiss of death to leave it unlocked or unattended.
The bike’s demise – of that period – coincided with the late 1990’s trade agreement made between Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, and President Fidel Castro. Once Cuba began receiving the regular, millions of barrels of oil it needed – in exchange for Cuban specialists (doctors, dentists, engineers etc) – transport systems improved, and cycles lost their charm and value. What also started to disappear – and still to this day – were the numerous, local, bike repair garages and mechanics which existed all over the city.
Right now we’re in a further economic and transport crisis and I’ve noticed that some younger friends are out looking for cycles, and very happily prepared to ‘’sweat up hills and coast down them’’. Some of the old Chinese bikes are, improbably, being prized anew by youth in various barrios in the capital; although apparently this is a new, almost fashion, trend. I’m told that the famous Flying Pigeon is presently the number one choice: valued by young men for its robust structure and its hardy back rack (small luggage carrier) – used here for carrying around your mother, partner, produce or child. The going price for a newly painted and maintained model can be as high as 240 cucs.
A dream place to cycle, carry half a pig or ferry your mum to the doctors
For the visitor, though, Cuba remains a dream place to cycle especially once you’re out of the capital. Mainly empty roads, few fast cars and you’re away into gorgeous countryside. And in the provinces you’ll not be alone: swarms of women, men and kids – of all ages – are all still cycling around, and from dusk till dawn. Smaller places, fewer cars and poor transport have meant that the bike is still viewed as a normal and practical form of local transport. No sniggering here, then, although you might see rather wistful eyes gazing at your more quality, foreign racers.
From local to national and international rides
If you fancy upping your game, there are a few – not many – cycling clubs that hold regular events and competitions. The most famous is La Presa de la Guayaba – held between Havana and the westerly tobacco-growing area of Pinar del Rio. Aficionados there meet weekly to train and talk bikes and are often joined by veteran cyclists – even by members of Cuba’s national team (the national women’s team has some internationally known riders). There’s also some hope that the country will revive the very popular multi-day race, Vuela a Cuba (Tour of Cuba), which ran annually between 1964 and 2010. More locally, I’ve also heard of various once-a-month Sunday cycle rides (winter only!) organized by young Cubans (and others by foreign residents) in Havana.
Ready to take your bike to bed?
Maybe as things ease and develop more here our two cultures might come to some biking consensus and even go for a spin down the road together. Maybe. I personally, though, don’t think that my compatriots here will understand (or want to!) the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer who claimed that her way to relax was by ‘’…taking my bicycle apart and putting it back together again’’. Or, to much resonate with the great John Lennon (beloved here) who so treasured his bike as a child that he not only refused to leave it outside, as other kids did, but ‘’…the first night I even kept it in my bed’’.
Que va!, Cubans would say. (What?!)