The Western tip of Cuba angles towards the south, pointing directly across the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico at Cancun, 250 kilometers away. Twelve days on the road, 1600 kilometers total, from Baracoa at the far Eastern end of the island. The final 12 km of our cross-country bike trip followed a deserted beach road through the Reserva de Biosfera Guanahacabibes. This extremity has the appearance on a map of a steelhead trout, with its curved over-hanging snout. We were on the upper portion of the lower jaw, so the water of the Bahia de Corrientes was to our right, or northwest, as we cruised towards Maria La Gorda, our final night’s hotel. This is not the absolute western end of Cuba. That would be Cabo de San Antonio, on the Northern peninsula (the upper snout of the steelhead). But apparently, the land there is swampy, the roads are terrible, and there is no acceptable over-night casa. So we head for “Fat Mary”, named for a large, accommodating lady of the pirate era. When the sailors she was servicing grew tired of her, so the story goes, they dropped her at this lonely spot, and named the place in her honor.
The placid, deserted waters within the large Bahia formed by the steelhead’s upper and lower jaws protect one of the region’s most extensive and best preserved coral reefs. The only activity along this otherwise vacant beach is found at the eponymous hotel, where scuba divers from Europe and Canada congregate for the low prices, uncrowded waters, and superb submarine environment. Bikers were clearly an afterthought, if the quality of the road was any indication. It seemed to have been chip sealed decades earlier, and the subsequent years of rain, wind, and waves had washed away much of the surface smoothness, leaving a pebbly, jarring tarmac, with frequent potholes. Those holes were not a real hazard, as they could be easily seen. Still, the road was rough on my shoulders, and after 75 miles of riding that day, distinctly unwelcome.
I had been covered the previous 20 miles by myself through the scrub jungle of the Reserva, equally uninhabited. The Racer Boys had sped ahead, the stragglers were being picked up by the bus, and I was left in No Man’s Land. But the day was still Cuba Perfect. A temperature in the mid-high 80s (F), a breeze at my back, unthreatening puffy cumulus clouds drifting in from the northeast, every now and then shading the sun, which was filtering through the trees hugging the road’s edge. The bus caught me at the junction separating the northern from the southern peninsula, and I learned Cheryl had gotten back on her bike, determined to ride the final beach stretch.
I slowed down, waiting for her to roll up, which she did after about five miles. We slowly pedaled the last 5 km together, feeling relief, gratitude, and a bit of sadness, marveling at what we’d done. THe road ahead curved to the left, a harbinger of the upcoming resort. We were nearly there, not one flat tire, not even a spill…
Suddenly, the bike hit an unseen bump in the road. The front wheel kicked, the back wheel skidded, but I felt I could control the beast, stop pedaling, re-orient my weight, and return to forward motion. Somehow, all the usual maneuvers wouldn’t work, and I ended up ass over tea kettle, lying on the road, cursing unintelligibly, frightening my poor wife a bit too much.
“Are you all right?” she shouted.
I held my my left elbow, which I knew had taken the brunt of the fall, and would be bleeding from the usual loss of skin on the forearm just in front the the funny bone. Yep, blood was flowing there, along with my leg, where I’d encountered the handlebar as I flew forward after the bike was jerked down.
She did a slow walk-around, and announced, “Uh, your front wheel is taco’d. Or potato-chipp’d. I don’t know what you call it. The wheel won’t turn”
This thought, that my bike might have been damaged as well as my skin, roused me out of my still blubbering oaths, into some sort of action. First, make sure I wasn’t bleeding too much. Cheryl, the nurse, assured me it would be all right.
“Yeah, what do you know,” I grumbled, having suffered way too many gouging holes in my arms in precisely that spot, including one set of stitches. I knew it would be weeks, months, maybe, before it healed over, and I was left with a jagged penny-sized white slab of scar tissue. Oh well, at least I can’ t see it easily in that location.
I turned my attention to my bike. Nope, the front wheel would not turn. But it was not bent. Something odd here…Oh, the handlebars are askew! I must have been stopped with so much force that my tight grip had torqued the bars to the left. Imagine your bike, with the wheels both pointing to the front, but the handlebars above the front twisted to the left about 30 degrees.
“How can you ride like that?” Cheryl wondered.
“Yeah, don’t worry,” I mumbled, as I faced the bike head on, gripping the front wheel between my knees. Grabbing the bars, I gave a good strong yank, and twisted the bars back to normal. The right gear shift was also turned sharply inward. Another application of brute force brought that back out, and the bike was once again rideable. I set about wondering just what had happened.
I walked back a bit to where the whole episode started, and discovered an unseen dimple in the road surface, about six inches around, and three inches deep. The afternoon sun had struck the pavement at an angle which obscured this depression from view, so I had not avoided it as I would have a more sharply demarcated pothole. Apparently, as the wheel got momentarily trapped in there, I twisted the handlebars with gruesome force attempting to regain control, and pedaled forward, thinking they were pointed in the direction of my travel. Which, of course, they were not. My poor brain did not grasp this, and so I steered myself right into a fall. Every bike crash has its own unique odd origin story; if things were normal, the fall would never have happened. So every few years, I fall down, lose some skin near my elbow, and soldier on, Luckily, I’ve never broken a collar bone; I think I must know how to fall with at least some grace.
The hotel was indeed only a half a klick away. We rolled into the open air lobby, and found both the early arriving riders, and the later arriving bus crew all there, happily enjoying their standard complimentary Cuba Libres in the thatched-rood shade. War stories were told, plans for evening swims arranged, and a final group photo choreographed.