Openwork Foundation - Cuba Cycle Challenge 2009
The last time I tried raising money for charity was probably as part of a sponsored swim at school many years ago and certainly never attempted anything like this. So it was with some trepidation that I arrived at Gatwick airport on the morning of 11th November where I met for the first time the group of 32 cyclists who would be sharing the ups and downs of Cuba with! However, as no sooner as we arrived the fire alarms went off and we were evacuated from the building, we got back inside just in time to observe the two minutes silence and barely made onto the plane to start the 10-hour flight to Havana.
On arrival in Havana gentle chaos reigned and the smell of cigar smoke lingered in the air, but fortunately, all luggage was retrieved and we arrived at our hotel early evening. I was told the hotel was fairly luxurious by Cycle Challenge standards – as it had electricity and running water!
With a band playing in the bar, we took the opportunity to sample the local mojitos, cervezas and Cuba Libres and despite the UK time being 5 am some even had the energy for salsa dancing. The hotel was delighted since profits were certainly up on normal. But general sense prevailed as tomorrow despite jet lag we would be on those bikes and out into the provinces.
Breakfast at 7 am and then bags and tired bodies onto the coach for a transfer to the infamous Bay of Pigs – the location wherein 1962 a CIA backed attempt tried unsuccessfully to topple Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. This was to be the start of the bike ride but first, we had to have a bike fitting and get used to the gears, the brakes and of course those saddles which would be our friends or foes for the next 5 days – with the help of Vaseline of course!
After lunch we very tentatively and for many nervously set off on our first 45 km. But, today was scheduled to be relatively easy and relatively flat, just a few undulations – not including the potholes and bits of unmade road. The countryside was lush and spectacular and for much of the time, we cycled beside the Caribbean Sea glimpsing the slow way of life of the Cuban people. Most transports were on horseback, horse and carts with the odd tractor or tut-tut truck chugging by.
However, too much gazing at the scenery caused the first accidents of the trip. Our inexperience showed as a group of riders collided and ended up in a heap on the floor. A melee of bikes and bodies were untangled, but fortunately, the doctor was on hand to repair bruises and grazes and the mechanic repaired the bikes. Laurence (who had managed to topple his daughter Claire) was more concerned that she would text her Mum to say that Dad had tried to wipe her out rather than his arm which was beginning to swell badly – later healed by an ice pack.
Fortunately no real harm, everyone back on bikes and in the twilight we reach our venue for the evening in Cienfuego – a massive old-style Russian hotel (originally intended to house the workers of the local nuclear power plant that was never finished)– the total opposite of last night’s resting place! Only 1 small elevator which could hold 2 people at the most worked, so most carried their cumbersome luggage up flights of stairs to the 5th floor. The rooms were basic and the showers erratic but at least the cock-roaches were happy living there. 5 were massacred in my room alone.
Another evening of typical Cuban entertainment and of course we joined in but tonight the bodies were tired, the muscles beginning to ache and the “bums” beginning to wish that tomorrow they could be anywhere but on that saddle!
Another 6 o’clock alarm call and groans all round. Bags in reception and loaded onto the bus by 7.00, quick breakfast to keep us sustained. Then outside to the bikes & further groans as we mount the bikes and feel the pain but then it is quickly off as today we have to cover 89 km before dark!
Just in case we thought yesterday was a ride in the park we are told today starts with some “undulating” road. We were in fact in the Escambray Mountains which by definition determines the terrain – hard! We stop for energy snack breaks and water refills en route, often by local homes. The homes were little more than shacks and obvious was the lack of any material possessions or “stuff” such as ornaments, books, spare shoes. Just a simple bed and chair but the Cubans do have a “make do and mend” mentality and no one is homeless (just very overcrowded), no one starves (though the diet is very basic just rice and beans) but more importantly, there is hardly any drug culture with the accompanying crime.
As we cycle past fields of sugar cane other fields are still being ploughed by oxen and a primitive wooden plough. The undergrowth by the sides of the roads is still cut by hand as machinery is scarce and it keeps people employed. The poverty of the area shows through but also the influence or is it the indoctrination of Castro. Everywhere billboards and placards praise the revolution and of course Che Guevara.
One person who was an inspiration to use all was Justin, who had quite a tough Day 1 but is flying today. Justin is cycling with just one leg having lost the other from cancer at the age of just 16. We all have nothing but awe for him. When the hills get tougher helpful hands – too many to mention – push him from behind which in itself is not an easy thing to do on such bumpy roads. With such teamwork, Justin has so far cycled every single mile of the trip. Others are beginning to tire and feel the pain but someone will always cycle alongside to help, to talk rubbish – simply to take their mind off the task in hand!
After lunch, beans and rice again, there is a further 30 km to tackle but the hills seem longer and steeper as the legs tire. But eventually, we arrive at our hotel in Trinidad which welcomes us with a Cuba Libre (Rum & Coke!) and an inviting swimming pool which most people jump into in fully clothed. In total, we have cycled over 90km today not only over difficult terrain but also in temperatures of over 80 degrees.
I should be getting used to these 6 o’clock alarm calls but last night didn’t help as we visited a jazz/salsa club in Trinidad, Cuba’s equivalent to New Orleans!
Today we are doing a circular route arriving back to Trinidad for a late lunch, so the enthusiasm is there to get a move on because the possibility of an afternoon off the bikes is very enticing. The scenery is picturesque as we pass through several villages where children play but adults seem to be just passing the time – as work is limited! Several cyclists stopped to hand out pencils and sweets to shy young kids who were incredibly well behaved, there was no begging and always thank us with a ‘gracias’ before sharing the gifts with their siblings. I wondered how often would they see a group of 32 mad cyclists in their colourful cycling shirts passing through their village?
By the way, one aspect of Cuba is that pretty much everything belongs to, or is run by the State with little or no private enterprise. This means there is no competition, no advertising and very little choice. On the plus side neither is there a MacDonald’s nor a single billboard advertising Coca Cola!
Our guide also proudly tells us that although there are 400 million illiterate women in the world, not one of them lives in Cuba. Also, there are more doctors per person in Cuba than anywhere else – the problem is that to make any money many of them give up their profession to work in the tourist industry which is the only place they can make more money through tips. The average wage is just £10 a month but a bar of soap is £1 so the vast majority of Cubans struggle to do more than survive on the bare necessities and we complain about rising costs?
Back to tackling the hills and the so-called ‘gentle undulations’ in ever-increasing temperatures. We climb a steep hill up to a viewpoint area called La Mirador from where we could look down on the plains we had started from, the view was magnificent!
So duly refreshed on next stop was to visit a typical old colonial sugar plantation to enjoy the history and the surroundings including a wood-burning steam train. However, the group I was cycling with missed the turning and were found 12km down the road. After an hour detour, we caught up with the main group just in time to grab some water and set off again!
Despite this detour, we arrived in Trinidad just after lunchtime. After a typical Cuban lunch (rice and beans!) we had time to explore Trinidad, which was set up as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Where ever you go music comes out of windows, bars or musicians simply play in the streets so, having wandered around the cobbled lanes and local market many ended up at a local bar on the steps of the Cathedral.
But it didn’t stop there because tonight was Fancy Dress Night back at the hotel. By some of the looks we got from the Cubans, I think they thought we were crazy!
Wow – well over halfway through with just 190 km left to complete. A slightly sore head this morning but it soon cleared as we were transferred in two old open-top army lorries up into the mountains to our start point at Topes de Collantes. Once reunited with our bikes we set off on what would turn out to be the hardest day of the challenge, most of which was uphill.
The first 10k was a tough uphill section on the rough road over mountainous peaks. Yes, the scenery was spectacular but for most all we could see was 10 ft in front of us as we pushed ourselves up yet another climb. I was told at this point that one of the team had to cancel last year through a heart attack! (his wife made him show her where the life insurance was before he left this year!)
After the big hill, we reassembled and were advised that the next stretch was a steep downhill which was dangerous as the roads were full of potholes and sharp hairpin bends. It was a notorious stretch for accidents. But, no worries we made it to our refreshment point safely with everyone in one piece. A great relief but not the greatest place to stop since the loos were unbelievably bad, the worst I had seen yet which was saying something!
Onwards with more downhills and potholes made worse by the dappled light caused by the sun and sudden shade and then disaster. Our most experienced cyclist (who had completed all 9 previous rides) – hit a pothole which lifted all 6ft 2″ of him off his saddle, over his handlebars and rolling over and over in the road. He later said if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet he wouldn’t be here, as it was totally cracked and broken at the back. Blood poured from a gash in his thumb and a hole in his knee, plus his back and shoulders were badly grazed but more importantly, he couldn’t move his right arm. Fortunately, others were quickly there to help and soon the Doctor was on the scene and he was moved into the support vehicle to be treated. Strangely the Doctor bandaged his thumb before taking off his cycling glove which in consequence couldn’t be removed!!
But there was more, not nasty falls but a horrible swarm of hornets that decided to attack our team with stings on their legs and one member even getting a nasty sting in the eye. Our guide was stung and had an immediate bad reaction with her hand swelling enormously meaning no more cycling today. This was turning out to be a nightmare of a day!
The hills became slightly less steep but went on and on and on and just when you thought you had reached the top of one you cycled round the bend to see another disappearing into the distance. When was the end going to come into sight? But by mid-afternoon it did and we cycled down the hill towards Santa Clara with the sea on our right. A quick refreshment stop at a small village, where kids and wandering pigs gathered round in curiosity. More pens and sweets for the kids and time for a quick kick around as a football was given out. How come the kids in their barefoot were more agile than us! Amidst huge smiles, mainly from the older boys, the football was left as a gift and we were on our way again.
Eventually, we arrive at the outskirts of Santa Clara tired and exhausted with our injured in the coach urging us on. Just one more leg to go if the legs will keep working but yes they will because there will be a beer waiting! In fact we cycled into a nice local hotel, bikes into the lock-up and deep joy porters to take our bags to our rooms which were small cabins set amongst the grounds so obviously the sensible thing to do was to sit and relax watching the sun go down, sharing the beers and the stories of the day.
Day 6 – The Final Day!
All these early starts took their toll this morning when I and my roommate woke up 5 minutes before we were due to leave! We still had, to pack, eat breakfast and checkout nothing like a nice relaxed start to a day!
So eventually we set off and are backtracking to Santa Clara where we stopped at a busy level crossing as a commuter train pulled through. The crossing did have barriers but needless to say they didn’t work and stayed firmly up despite the danger! Hey, this is Cuba! Today we aim to cover 80 km and all before lunch can it be done? The main part of the journey is on relatively flat terrain with occasional undulations and we seem to be flying along. We pass fields of sugar cane and villages with the odd lorries and horse and carts overtaking us if they can.
We stop for a break at a small hut selling drinks and I think the owner sold more fizzy drinks in 10 minutes than he would have done over the last month. One of the locals comes across to Justin and can’t believe that a man with one leg can ride a bike! He makes him get on it to demonstrate and then goes and tells all his friends in amazement!
After 33 km of cycling through the countryside, we enter the Province of Cienfuegos and we are definitely on the last leg as we cycle through the colonial heart of this Caribbean town towards the sea. We are apprehensive, tired but in some ways disappointed that the trip is nearly over. 10 km from the finishing line we re-group for the emotional last section. Apparently in traditional fashion, the ladies go first followed by the men led by Justin (who has proved inspirational to us all) and the best news is that despite only having use of one arm Big Mo (who had the nasty fall) gets back on his bike so that he can say that he has completed all 9 Cycle Challenges.
And what a finish! We ride along the Malecon which is the seafront and then turn right into the magnificent Cienfuegos Yacht Club a fabulous building which seems so incongruous compared to the buildings we have passed over the last 5 days. Flags are flying and we pass under the finishing line of Cares 4 Kids (the theme of the Foundation) balloons. Bikes are dropped, fellow riders are hugged and congratulated, many in tears are they of relief, pride or just pure happiness. A welcome celebratory cocktail, a well-deserved medal and then its drinks overlooking the sea with a warm breeze blowing and the sun shining that a magnificent venue to celebrate what has been a superb adventure.
So the cycling is over although we did have another day in Havana with Cabaret night and a trip to a fantastic Cuban dance club in the evening, a truly memorable experience.
In conclusion, what can I say? Cycling along for miles gives you opportunities to think and see the way of life in Cuba puts things in perspective. Cuban people have very little and of course, they want the things other people want a comfortable home, a decent job and money to look after the family but, they are fiercely proud of their country and put up with the frustrations of living on the island with a mix of humour and self-deprecation. But it is a tough life. Some would say they are indoctrinated but the support to Castro is still there. In comparison whatever our issues are we are very lucky and more importantly we have the opportunity to make decisions and to make a difference in a free world.
By being part of this cycle challenge I have been able to help make a difference, with the final total raised of around £120,000 for the group. The money we are raising will give hope, happiness, support and more independence to hundreds of kids both throughout the UK and of course overseas especially those the foundation is supporting in Manila.
A huge thank you on behalf of the Foundation to everyone who sponsored me, the final total including gift aid will be around £5000, which I think is around £4950 more than my sponsored swim!!!