Following the death of Fidel Castro, Steve Thomas remembers a ride through the wilds of the old Cuba.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
28 Nov 2016 - 8:17 AM  UPDATED 28 Nov 2016 - 9:13 AM

The day that Fidel Castro died finally came around last Friday, and it was a day the world reacted to with mixed emotions and an immediate dissection of his powerful legacy.

I won’t delve too deeply into the rights and wrongs of the Castro era, as having spent a great deal of time in Cuba during the mid-2000’s my opinions may be brighter than those who may not had the chance to fully immerse themselves in a unique and amazing country.

With the lifting of the decades-long US embargo by Barack Obama, Cuba has further opened up to the world, but that decision may create wedges in a society perhaps unready for a rapid change of pace and values.

The majority of Cubans were born and raised their entire lives under the state control engineered by Castro, which was both a comfort for some and restriction to others.

There is no doubt the arrival of mainstream capitalism has already changed the face and pace of Cuba forever.

Over the years I’ve ridden the croc’s share of roads and trails around this surprisingly varied Caribbean island, and when that riding is combined with its uniquely isolated society and way of life it all shakes together like a mojito without comparison.

Even now, with the opening of the floodgate to US mass tourism. much of Cuba and its amazing cycling adventures remain relatively untapped.

It’s hard to scroll for half a day through social media pages without finding yet another media outlet “discovering” Cuba, although Christopher Columbus still holds an official claim to that honour – not that he was the first, with the native indigenous people pre-dating him long before he sighted land.

Many of those newfound discoveries are confined to the vibrant streets Havana; the capital famed for its crumbling buildings and 50's era American motoring iron. Those do not even scratch the surface of the real Cuba, let alone tap into the best riding on the island.

Without broad-based personal wealth, Cuba has incredibly low traffic volume, which means that it’s a very quiet and safe place to ride a bike.

There’s a reasonable national road network in place, although a lack of funds and usage does mean road surfaces are not always pristine, but that really is not much of a deterrent to the enterprising two-wheeled tourist.

Cuba has always prided its self on athletic prowess, and you only need to look at the great roll call of boxers and track athletes for starters. 

But, it doesn’t stop there; relative poverty means cycling is also popular in Cuba, and there has always been a steady stream of high-quality road and track riders emerging from Cuba, though they have largely been restricted to riding in the Americas, which they do with some success.

Being an athlete in Cuba is something of a matter of pride. Not only does it lead to a better lifestyle and security, it also firmly upholds Communist party (the Partido Comunista de Cuba) beliefs.

There are sporting schools throughout the country, and any promising young athletes are encouraged to follow their educational path in combination with a sporting one – and Cuba does have one of the highest university graduation rates in the world.

Sadly, trading restrictions and embargos have not only held back economic progress and well-being, they have also directly impacted resources and funding for these sporting programs.

With such heavy equipment burdens involved in cycling it’s still not unusual to see young up and coming riders thrashing around on old steel bikes with brake cables and cotter pins, and living for every minute of it, which is very refreshing to see.

I rode with many of these riders, which was truly inspiring. Sadly when you pull out images for magazine features editors often shiver at the thought of running pictures of riders without helmets who look like they arrived straight out of 1972.

For many years there was a Vuelta a’ Cuba, an annual trans Cuba UCI Americas Tour stage race, which was almost always dominated by local riders. It was their big yearly opportunity to prize-fight, unranked, against the much better funded western riders. Sadly it stopped after 2010.

The sport has its own home-grown heroes and legends, with Pedro Pablo Perez being one of the greatest all-time Cuban road racers. He won the home tour five times, as well as many other major regional stage races. 

In 2000 he rode the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and was due to start the 2008 Beijing road race, but fate intervened and he was almost killed in a car crash. He would never return to cycling. His wife, Yoanka Gonzalez Perez, was the 2004 World Scratch Race Champion on the track.

Even with its re-emergence as a tourist hotspot, Cuba is a superb place for bike travel. There are superb rides and routes to be found all over the country, with many pan-flat, and others steeply mountainous, and it all come drenched and doused in a contemporary history, which is changing and adding chapters by the day.

If there is one place you really should fast track towards the top of your bucket list of great ride destinations then it should be Cuba. Mass tourism will undoubtedly impact on the experience in later years, and that shouldn't deter those looking for something very special.

A rough guide to the prize road riding in Cuba

Pinar del Rio – the whole mountainous west from Vinales and back towards Havana throws up some great road and dirt trail riding, with mind popping scenery to go.

The beautiful south – From Santiago de Cuba west along the remote and rugged coast, and then back around the super steep climbs into the Sierra Maestre Mountains of Granma Province (to La Plata, from where Fidel and Che Guevara drove the revolution) make for an epic and revolution rich tour.

La Farola – a famous trans-mountain road from Guantanamo to Baracoa, a very remote and untouched coastal town in the far east of Cuba. This is an alpine like climb with a jungle backdrop, and truly a highlight of Cuban cycling.

Sierra Escambray – Trinidad (in the middle of Cuba) is probably the most picturesque town in the country, and it’s also the gateway to the Sierra del Escambray Mountains. Tere is a really steep and long climb up to the nature reserve at Topes de Callantes, from there one of the most impressive roads in Cuba rolls out over the mountains towards Cienfuegos.