Big Jim had been chuckling nervously about today’s ride for the proceeding two weeks.
“ ‘Americano. A masculine name, but a bitch of a climb.’ That’s what it says on the website itinerary.” He had mentioned this almost daily, and had built the day into something to be frightened of. By this time, we all knew each other’s proclivities and abilities as cyclists, and easily grouped ourselves into several units based on speed and ambition.
The Racer Boys scurried out of the EcoResort soon after 8 AM. Unlike most of our tour across the island, we were now in serious hill country – the Cordillera de Gunaiguanico – which makes up most of the western tip of Cuba, the part which drops down into the Gulf of Mexico like an index finger gently pointing southwest. We started on the eastern edge of this massif, in the Santo Rosario mountains. Much of the area is protected as a natural preserve (like our national forests), with true national parks hidden within. The hills are heavily forested, the roads sinuous, uncrowded and seriously steep in places.
We covered the first 15 miles in about an hour and a quarter, seeing almost no vehicles of any sort, horse drawn, pedal powered, or internally combusting. Then we hit the only real climbing we had this entire trip – 535’ in 1.3 miles. I was trailing the group at the bottom, but found myself passing everyone except our resident pro, as the others either stopped to rest, or simply got off their bikes and walked.
The final section was rutted, almost gravelly. The grade stiffened past 8% to 10, 12, 14, peaking at 15%. I paper-boy’d towards the top, panting a bit, heart pounding. Luckily, the shade and elevation combined to ease my sweat rate a bit from the typical tropical torrent of Cuba.
At the very top, the grade lessened more and more, and I knew I had reached the summit. The trip downhill was equally steep. Coming up the other side were a couple of local riders, breathing heavily, but cruising up just fine. Several bone-shaking miles later, John rolled by me, more courageous in the potholes than I was willing to risk. Near the bottom, I saw a small pullout, with a shady snack shack and a stellar black Chrysler from the mid-fifties – worth a look.
“Hey, John, look, on the right,” I pointed at the car. “I want a picture.”
Either he didn’t hear or he didn’t care; intent on making time to the flats below, he swept right on by.
Several hundred meters later, I heard shouting to my left. Similarly intent on making downhill time while I could after all those days of endless flats, I didn’t see Tony or Joany at the outdoor beer stand. I turned around, and we shared our traumas on that “bitch of a climb.”
Tony allowed as, “Man, that was steep! I had to finally get off and walk.” Tony, while a stronger cyclist than I on the flats, is from Illinois, where people say “Wanna do some hills?” “OK, which overpass?”
Joany and I exchanged a smiling high-five when it became apparent we were the only two who had stayed on our bikes the whole way up.
Strava is the cyclist’s gold standard for comparing your performance to others. Riders all over the world upload their GPS files from their bike computer, and these rides are then immortalized online for all to see. Competition is encouraged via “KOMs” (King of the Mountain) segments (there are QOMs as well). Some cyclists live and die by their performance on these little stretches of road which are used for bragging rights. I had paid no attention to all this for Cuba until I went back to check just where we rode, so I could write with some semblance for veracity. https://www.strava.com/activities/926344824/segments/22618447005
Surprisingly, because internet connectivity is so poor and spotty on the island, Strava users by the score have their Cuban rides documented, just as everywhere else on the planet. On Americano, there are several key segments. The major climb, listed as Category 3, has me 20th/109. And among 65-69 year olds, I am ranked first. I also have two other age group KOMs and a downhill KOM from that day.
At the bottom, we re-grouped in a shaded gazebo near Candelaria, dribbling in by ones and twos, each with a story of success or misery. It turned out that only three of us had actually ridden up the entire climb: Joany, our pro; myself; and Cheryl. When I told her this news, she gave the widest grin, and told me how much fun she’d had, climbing just like at home.
Then we crossed the freeway, and started a 30 mile flat and steamy ride into San Diego de Los Baños where we boarded the bus, heading towards Valle de Viñales.