“Look! It’s Granma!” I pointed at the cartoonish billboard with the word splashed in red across a white stone base, a small wooden boat rising from frothy waters in the lower left corner.

“We need to stop – up there at the bus shelter, OK?” But the billboard provided a bit more shelter from the sun, and also from the road for those who wanted a natural break. Besides, we’d been hearing so much about Granma, it was a mandatory photo op.

A week into our trip, and it seemed every day, we heard another story about Granma. The Granma province. The Granma memorial. The stealthy arrival of Granma from Mexico, into Bahia de Santiago de Cuba. Our tour guide, Alejandro, had only a glancing acquaintance with American English pronunciation and idiom – he was a lot better at German – and he kept alluding to Granma as if we already knew what it was, and its significance.

By the end of the trip, after a visit to the Museo de la Revolucion and the Granma memorial, we emerged with a clearer picture of the deep iconic hold that little launch has on patriotic Cuban Communists.

On July 26, 1953, Fidel, his brother Raul, with about 125 factory workers and farmers, staged a symbolic attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago. Easily defeated by the overwhelming force of Batista’s army, Fidel fled into the nearby Sierra Maestre mountains with his remaining troops, but was quickly captured and imprisoned. After a show trial, during which he outlined his vision for the future of Cuba in a four hour tirade – a Cuba free of influence from the imperialist United States, its puppet Batista, with dignity, land and work for all – he was imprisoned, and that should have been the end of him.

But by 1955, his ideas had sparked a large political movement, the July 26th movement, and Batista bowed to pressure, releasing the brothers, who immediately fled to Mexico. There, they met a young Argentinian doctor-in-training, Ernesto Guevara. Together, they honed their philosophy of equality for all workers and farmers, with universal education and health care, and armed revolution to achieve those goals. They attracted a few score comrades, and purchased an old American 60 foot leisure yacht, which had been named by its former owner for his grandmother.

Eventually, in late November, they set off across the Caribbean for, once again, Santiago. 82 men on a craft designed ideally for 12 almost immediately ran into foul weather and nearly foundered. Having a radio which only could only receive, they had no way of telling their loyalists waiting in Cuba they would be delayed, so the revolution started without them, and seemed ready to fizzle once again. After another disastrous encounter with a superior fighting force, only about a dozen men accompanied the Castro brothers back into the Sierra Maestres. But from that small kernel, within two years they would gather supporters across the country and overwhelm the entire Cuban army, driving Batista to the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959.

In the great Cuban foundation myth, it all started with Granma. It was their “shot heard ‘round the world.”  Today, the boat, not Castro, is entombed in glass, displayed for visitors much the same as our own Declaration of Independence. It is as sacred to the Communist Party there as any cathedral. When I visited, I was chastised not once, but twice by the guards around the site, first for wearing my small backpack which I had retrieved from the Museo next door, and another time for having the temerity to sit down  on the edge of the sidewalk. Granma is so highly thought of by the leaders of Cuba, they named their official news service after it.

At the time, though, all we wanted to do was get out of the sun, so we hid behind the funny little billboard for a few minutes. A tour of a cathedral had squandered the cooler morning hours for riding, and we still had 30 kilometers of hot, muggy, flat and boring riding ahead of us into Bayamo. I was ready to hop on the air-conditioned bus if it came along.

Which it did. But it was preceded by John and Liz on their snazzy titanium S&S coupled tandem, whizzing by at 30+ kph, immediately followed by Yoanis, our guide-on-the-road and mechanic. To a tired cyclist, a tandem on the flats is manna from heaven. With four legs instead of two powering a bike only 1.4 times the weight of a single (or “half-bike” as tandenistas like to say), their normal pace on the flats and downhill along with the draft their size creates makes for an easy ride when sucking wheel directly behind. I hopped on the train immediately.

One difficulty with following a tandem for long distances is the discrepancy between their power on the ups and the downs. Going up, they tend to fall way behind, necessitating a frustrating wait at the top of many climbs. Then, headed downhill, all that momentum, and they can sometimes pull away, even with the singles behind pedaling furiously “on the rivet”.

So we were hauling ass at the end of the day, cruising through Granma province towards Bayamo. Despite the gentle downslope for those last 30 km, occasional rises in the road would have the tandem fall behind. We’d slow at the top, and catch back on. But on the fourth rise, the tandem came screaming by about 100 meters from the crest. Were they playing games? No time to wonder, just work to get back on their wheel.

As they flew by, however, I saw Yoanis with his right hand on the stoker’s saddle, push the whole machine up past us, while climbing faster than our paceline himself. Every time he did this, we had to work that much harder just to be ready for the explosion downhill. After the fifth uphill sprint, I cried foul.

“I’m not playing that game again!” They could ride into town by themselves. Yoanis must have got the idea; after that, we just followed the pace. It almost seemed like cheating.

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