James Daley: Cyclotherapy
Thursday 08 May 2008
Whenever I set foot in a new town, I'm always quick to get to work on finding a bike to rent. If there are none to be found, I put on my running shoes instead – but I still think there's no better way to explore a city or unfamiliar rural setting than on two wheels.
But I bit off more than I could chew last month, when I hunted down bikes in Trinidad, a beautiful town on the south side of Cuba. Although the old cobbled streets of Trinidad mean that anything short of a full-suspension mountain bike make for an incredibly uncomfortable journey – our plan was to head out of town towards the hills and then the beach, on one of the routes from our Bicycling in Cuba guidebook.
Having taken the coach down from Havana, I was impressed to see that the rural roads were in decent condition. And, while the streets of the capital were rammed with mostly 1950s cars, the countryside roads were largely clear – and ideal for cycling. The problem, alas, was not the roads – but the equipment we were given to navigate them with. Like their cars, most bikes in Cuba are ancient.
Many of those on Cuba's streets today date back to the early 1990s when Fidel Castro bought a million bicycles from the Chinese, to take the pressure off his country's creaking transport infrastructure. These bikes were not exactly state of the art at the time – but today, after 15 years of hard service, it's a miracle that most of them are still going.
My hire bike had the most uncomfortable saddle I've ever sat on. By the 12th mile on our ride, I found myself wondering whether the Chinese had invented it as some kind of torture device – designed to slowly grind off the rider's skin. My wife's bike had a more cushioned seat, but no brakes – a technical omission that nearly cost her her life at one junction.
Although our Bicycling in Cuba book was excellent – easy to follow, and full of nicely chosen routes – we did far less cycling in Cuba than we'd planned to, because of the ropey bikes. Back in Havana, the roads seemed dangerous (even for a hardened London cyclist like myself), and after two days of cultivating some painful scars on my bum, we took refuge next to the rooftop pool of a luxury hotel – the NH Parque Central.
Outside Havana, however, like most other tourists, we stayed in locals' houses and paid next to nothing for great food, comfortable beds and generous hospitality every night – perfect pitstops for any touring cyclists.
I'm planning to return to Cuba to cycle round the rest of the island some time soon – it's a beautiful place, and one of the few countries in the world where the supply of cars is restricted. But next time round, I'll be bringing my own bike!
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