The following story was written by Canadian journalist John Swart. His story is about the “Sportif” edition on this ride across Cuba. There is now a “Ciclo Temba” version of the ride and the stages are shorter, giving more time to absorb the Cities, towns and villages. You may ride as little or as much as you please and the max. per day is 100k, sometimes less. Generally we do have a prevailing trade wind at our backs, and this tour is a pleasure to ride.
As I fade toward the back, my riding partner Wille offers me a lifeline. “Take one of these. It’ll help,” he said, offering me a small white electrolyte pill. He knows my last turn at the front was short and tortuous, and that I am spent with 13 km still to pedal on Day 2.
Thirty hours and 312 km ago, our CanBiCuba tour group left Hotel El Castillo, a converted 1740 hilltop military fort in Baracoa, Cuba’s first (founded in 1511) and easternmost city. Amidst diesel fumes and belching smoke of 1950s-era trucks, our 18 bikes were off-loaded from our bus into a jammed side street. Puzzled stares and curious smiles from locals greeted our road race-style bikes, clicking cleats and red, yellow and black jerseys.
Our destination was 1,603 km and 5,800 vertical meters west, directly across the last remaining Communist country in the western hemisphere. We would end at Cuba’s western tip, Cabo de San Antonio, in 12 days. To get there, however, we would climb the lush Sierra Maestro mountains, pedal the vast flatland of Camaguey and Sancti Spiritus, skirt the rugged Sierra del Escambray via little-trafficked southern coastal roads and fly along the undulating Autopista National with glorious tailwinds.
The TransCuba, End-2-End Sportif tour was conceived by Canadian Peter Marshall, founder of CanBiCuba Bicycle Tours. Too much vino in the company of too many old friends and watch The Bucket List at his home in Havana were the seeds that germinated this incredible country-wide tour.
For many on our tour, TransCuba offered authentic Cuba, away from the uniformity of all-inclusive resorts. Hopping on and off the sag bus at their whim, they hoped touring by bicycle would reveal the true spirit of Cuba and her people: that delicious mix of indigenous Taino, African and European sensuality, art, music, and culture, forged strong by years of conquest, piracy and revolution.
Others considered the TranCuba to be a test of their physical and mental stamina – 12 straight days linked without rest. For a few of us, Marshall knew it would be as close as we would come to a lengthy stage race. Twisting and turning west from Baracoa, climbing old concrete Russian roads hanging precipitously from steep mountain flanks was a shock to our out-of-shape winter legs. Flying downhill from the summit for miles, with stretches of endless azure Caribbean coastline in the distance, made the ascent worthwhile.
Our third evening, we walked down a dusty sidewalk in Las Tunas, past concrete and tin fences, into a residential back yard. An enormous pig, skewered by a steel pipe, sizzled rotisserie-style over a galvanized pressure tank cut in half and filled with crackling red coals. A dozen smiling, fit teenagers, from the Las Tunas Bicycle Club shyly greeted us. Their vintage steel road-racing bikes, many without hand grips, properly working brakes or clipless pedals, nestled under a corrugated steel roof nearby. This high-school cycling team is assisted greatly by Marshall and CanBiCuba participants, and the pig roast celebrated our gifts of new and used parts, clothing and two bikes. The next morning, as the club escorted us from town chatting and maintaining pace effortlessly, their love of cycling clearly overshadowed their poor equipment and we were humbled by their joy.
Wille pedaled a half-kilometre ahead, slicing past endless fields of sugar cane. Livett rode 200 m behind him. I increased my pace, spinning hard, but the gap didn’t change. Damn. Too late. Seeing the historic guard towers of the Manaca-Iznaga plantation appear in the distance, I knew the undeclared finish line for today’s ride had been chosen and I’ve blown it.
Mileage on days four through eight ranged from 77 to 123 km, providing ample time to
enjoy unique history, colonial architecture, fragrances and sounds as we roll steadily, Tour de France style, through fascinating villages, towns and countryside. The city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, charmed us with its cobbled, car-free streets, centuries-old churches and mansions, a huge market of intricately woven textiles and open-air restaurants.
Playa [beach] Ancon, Playa Rancho Luna and Playa Giron gave us a taste of Caribbean beach life for three consecutive nights as Marshall accommodated us at smaller seaside hotels frequented by both Cuban and adventurous Canadian vacationers.
After the 1959 Cuban revolution, when Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others ousted American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuba became a Marxist-Leninist communist regime. Consequently, Russia spent millions of dollars developing Cuban infrastructure, health care and education systems. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Russian money stopped flowing, and Cuba’s national income fell by 90 per cent. Although Cuba is still poor, it’s recovering with the assistance of Venezuela and China and its citizens basic needs are met.
Understanding this, it’s still eerie to cycle the Autopista National, Cuba’s only thruway. Overpasses hang in the air, no roads attached at either end. Ox carts, pedestrians and local cyclists on Chinese-manufactured Flying Chickens occupy the right lane, and hitchhikers waving worn pesos entice anything with wheels to pick them up. The centre lane is home to pre-1959 American cars and trucks, modified beyond belief to keep them running and barely moving faster than we’re cycling. Scores of Russian Ladas flit between this lane and the ‘fast lane’ amidst rare new European or Chinese vehicles, depending on their vintage and the driver’s courage.
With 600 km to ride in the final three days, subtle changes pervaded our group. Many had settled into an easy rhythm of cycling partial days and then travelling on the trailing sag bus. Others committed themselves to completing the whole distance, but at a leisurely pace. Then there were a few, eating for nutritional value rather than taste, shunning beer and wine for espresso and juice and going to bed early. The race was on.
Day 10 was a butt-numbing 223 km. We rode 30 km while dodging thousands of migrating, neon-red land crabs crossing the road along the infamous Bay of Pigs. Then came 150 km pedalling peloton-style on the Autopista. Finally we rode 43 km through the hills of central Cuba to quiet San Antonio de Los Banos.
The next day, a straight 160 km run to the Autopista’s western terminus brought us to Pinar del Rio, the tobacco capital of Cuba, and 19th century Hotel Vueltabajo. A striking pink facade of arches, balconies and balustrades complemented its rich dark wood walls and deeply-polished marble floors. Three metre ceilings and wide staircases reflected the hotel’s historic elegance, and slowly revolving fans cooled the classic bar. We were surprised to find out the art gallery next door was featuring a display of student art from Nova Scotia.
Cabo de San Antonio, our final destination, was 201 km west at the end of the Peninsula de Guanacahabibes. This virtually-uninhabited UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a breathtakingly beautiful mix of coral reefs, acres of 99.8 per cent pure silica sand, 172 bird species, palm trees, aboriginal archeological sites and home to more than half of all marine turtle species known to man. It provided an incomparable conclusion to our tour of this winter cycling paradise.
With 30 km remaining to Cabo de San Antonio, the lead group shrunk to Wille, Livett, Marshall [all veteran racers] and me. The speed increased, pace lines formed and breaks were attempted and then brought back. We decided we would race for the hotel gates, though none of us know from which corner they would suddenly appear. Two white gateway pillars burst into view. Each rider sprung up, sprinting madly with their head down. With barely metres to go, someone glanced up and shouted, “Chain! Stop!” Tires squealed and, for the four of us, our TransCuba tour ended exactly as it should have – in a thrilling dead heat.
Many Canadian and European companies offer 7-15 day tours of Cuba, but a true end to end, TransCuba Sportif is exclusive to CanBiCuba Bicycle Tours. Their Cuban on-road guide Juan Alberto Pena boasts podium finishes in international track, criterium and road races, and is equally capable of pulling at a high pace or gently resting a strong hand on a slower rider’s back to push them up a hill. A cultural guide and medical doctor also accompany all tours. The $1,850 price includes internal flights, hotels, breakfast, dinners and use of the sag wagon, if necessary. Visit www.canbicuba.com for more information. The next TransCuba starts at the end of February.
Cuba is no longer off-limits to Americans, so choose one of the many carriers flying to Havana and Varadero from Miami, Tampa and New York. As travel to Cuba is getting easier and the number of departure points is rapidly expanding. Canadian airlines also serve Havana and many other airports in Cuba. All of them allow you to take your bike, but the oversize baggage fees vary. The tour is held on paved roads and most are in good condition. Road bikes with 23c or wider tires are recommended. Rental bikes are also available.
The trailing sag bus can carry 20 bikes, all luggage, riders and guides together. The CanBiCuba guides will suggest when to ride and when to take the bus for those who don’t want to ride the whole route. Riders who want to complete the entire distance should to be able to cycle for up to eight hours on some days at about 25 km-h.