The load out seemed so familiar. A baker’s dozen bike riders, clacking along the asphalt, surrounded by the “snap/hiss” of pump heads being released from tire valves, anxious and eager. Leaderless, we each rolled out when everything seemed ready. Our instructions were: “Ride along the shore until the road turns inland. We’ll re-group at the paladar [tourist restaurant] in Playa [Beach] Tortuguilla for lunch. Remember – Tortuguilla, the turtles. It’s where they come ashore to lay their eggs” Seemed simple enough.
These folks were ready. I was just about the last to leave. But in the first few minutes, I’d passed everyone on the road and found myself tete de la course. I wasn’t ready for how deserted the highway became. Soon, it was just the Caribbean Sea on my left, the misty mountain ridge on my right, a tail wind to my back, and the narrow Cuban pavement singing beneath my tires. I quickly fell into a trance of pedal strokes and sensuous enjoyment with warming air enveloping my skin in a moist blanket, cooled by my forward progress.
I was going about 26-28 kph. I had switched by bike computer to metric; it seemed the right thing to do outside the U.S., and besides, the numbers clicked by just that much quicker.
I knew from the bus ride in the day before we would hug the coast in three sections, with two intervening excursions inland, but without much in the way of climbing. The first turn away from the shore, I quickly found myself in the little town of Imias, marked by a bright blue road sign. A few small trucks were parked haphazardly near the village center, and a clot of people appeared to be waiting at a transit stop. But mainly, the road was criss-crossed by foot traffic and beater bikes. No stop signs, no traffic lights. No billboards or business signs. A few homes had open windows where folks collected, buying a drink or sandwich, but nothing indicated it was a place of business. Then, it was all over, the end marked by another blue sign, the name “Imias” appearing with a red slash through it. So you knew when you were leaving.
Down a little incline to the next seaside stretch of road, I checked my time, and decided to take a mini-break at one hour into the ride. I pulled over to a scraggly bush perched just above the water. With one deep breath, I gave a quick inner thanks for both the strength and the luck to be riding in such a foreign land, so close to my home country,
My reverie was broken within a minute, as two riders appeared. Tony, leading John by about a meter. I suspected they wouldn’t stop for me; even with a tail wind on the flats, a bit of a draft might be nice. I jumped up on my bike, and merged into their mini pace line.
Tony was hauling along, maybe 2 kph faster than I’d been going. Tucking in behind was no problem. We came up to a small rise, and John immediately moved ahead. He seemed to want to keep the same speed, without downshifting.
“I’ve been trying to tell him to take it a bit easier on these “hills”, but he seems to want to grind up them. I don’t know if he likes riding close in a group,” Tony explained.
John, while friendly, was the archetype of the stoic Down-Easter. He has a wonderful Maine accent, having lived there all his life. Loving the outdoors, he joined our crew in Baracoa, after having attempted a trek up the island’s highest peak the day before. It didn’t seem to have affected his cycling one bit.
Tony and I traded off for the next hour or so, leaving John, who, despite his prowess on the climbs, seemed to mosey a bit on the flats. We cruised along a mostly uninhabited coastline. In Maui, or California, it would have been pocked with condos or hotels, but here – just another bit of the island, far enough away from the population centers that hardly anyone visited or even lived here.
We passed a shady little beach, just a thumbnail under a pair of palm trees. A couple of motor cycles and about five young Cubans were hanging out, in the shade or testing the calm water. One km down the road, we saw the blue Tortuguilla sign.
“This is where we’re supposed to wait, right?”
“Uh, I think so.”
“Well, I’m going to go back to that little beach. Hang out there until some more folks come along. If I’m going to get lost finding the restaurant, I want to do it in a group,” I said.
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
So we headed back to the palm trees, and leaned our cycles, nose-to-tail, against each other, thus proving we were experienced cycle tourists. Soon enough, John showed up, and close behind, Jim and Geoff, two more ex-racers who could more than hold their own. Grouped up, we decided the little beer window with a concrete palapa was the place to wait. Jim, a veteran of several Cuban bike trips, who is planning to live there part time now that he’s retired, immediately loaded up with several cans of Bucaneros.
A brief word about Cuban products and branding. In the tourist hotels and restaurants, only one brand of beer is available, with two types. Bucanero, featuring a pirate scowling across the red can, pointing at the word “Fuerte” [strong] was the robust choice. Cristal, in a pale green can, was “light”. That’s it. Any color you want, as long as it’s red or green. There are a few other beer brands, which the locals mainly drink, But because of the funky two-currency economy, it’s pretty hard for foreigners to buy anything other than these two.
Once the crew had gone thru its first round of Bucanero, our tour leader Alejandro, came rolling up.
“This apparently is Alejandro’s first bike trip. I don’t think he even knew how to shift his bike when he started out today. I caught up to him spinning away and had to show him how to get into a better gear. And look at his shoes!”
Rather than the stiff soled cycling shoes we all sported, he had cheap blue running shoes. Still, he managed to ride faster than half the folks in our crew. Of course, he’s less than half our age.
Once all the riders and the bus arrived, some of us in the lead group were ready to roll out again to our final stop in the Cuban town of Guantanamo. But Alejandro seemed to be following a different script. While our tour covered only breakfast and dinner costs, as tour leader, he and the bus driver were provided vouchers for lunch at specific restaurants along our route. Since Cubans would never pass up the opportunity to eat for free, he intended to take full advantage every chance he got. Given the way Cuban food establishments operate – sometimes, it seems they are out catching the fish or killing the chicken after you give your order – lunch could easily turn into a two hour affair. Leaving us to bike not only on a very full stomach, but in the hottest part of the afternoon as well. And, we would learn later that day, risk running into afternoon downpours. To say nothing of: loading up the bikes on the bus, navigating through narrow streets with our huge extra tall tourist bus, finding that evening’s lodging, then waiting for Alejandro to check us all in, another 30 minute event involving much paperwork and examination of all our passports.
But we didn’t know any of that on this, our first day. So we just followed along with the plan as envisioned by Alejandro, leading to some rather unfortunate events that evening.
(To be cont’d)