Guest Post: Ciclismo Cubano

My friend Mandy M recently returned from a great adventure in Cuba and wanted to share a bit about her experience there. This is Part One.

Ciclismo Cubano:

Cycling in Cuba

 

Cuba is a count

ry that has long piqued my interest, for many reasons, including it being one of the remaining five communist countries, its isolated and carefully crafted culture, its reputation for a “rough around the edges” Spanish, its touted organic farming methods.

At the end of June, I left my recent place of employment before my graduate program begins later this month. I intentionally set aside some time for travel before embarking upon the next step in life. So for the month of July, with no plan and nominal research, I hopped a plane from Mexico and jumped head first into Cuba. Before long, I found myself pedaling the Cuban roads on several different bicycles.

 

In Part Uno of this post, I will discuss some general observations about the cycling culture in Cuba and, in Part Dos, I will discuss my personal pedaling adventures while in Cuba.

Part Uno: General Observations

In general, I find that outside of the United States, many cultures embrace Grant Peterson’s philosophy to “Just Ride” much more than the typical American cyclist. In Cuba, every age, shape, and size person hops on a bicycle, regardless of what condition that bicycle may be in. Both pedals, one pedal, or no pedals? Just ride. No gears for that giant hill ahead? With my eyes closed! Three of us, one bike? Plenty of room. No brakes, one brake? That’s what these flip-flops are for.

Cubans are the masters of what I have deemed, “cyclobatics,” the art of performing all kinds of interesting and downright impressive feats on one’s bicycle. For example:

El Ajero, or the garlic deliveryman. Rides his bike all day long, shouting “Ajoooooooo! Ajo!” Freshly braided baby garlic delivered to your door.

The shaved ice cycling specialist. Rico en Verdad. Delicious in truth. That’s no lie.

The two-for-one special: uphill, no gears, one-brake in the dead heat of the Cuban day. But there’s always a little socialist propaganda along the way to keep you pedaling and upbeat.

The taxi bike. Most countries have some form of these. It’d be fun to do a price comparison for distance traveled and weight carried via taxi bike throughout the world.

The market bike.

And one of the most fearless cyclobats of them all, by far: the cake courier. Dodging puddles, traversing muddy roads, one-handedly riding uphill, I followed the brave bearer of this frosting-slathered delight for more than a mile! He never faltered.

Another general observation I made was in the locking of bikes, or the lack there of. Coming from San Francisco, where a bike is not necessarily safe, even if tucked away in the comfort of one’s own home or garage, the nonchalance of not locking one’s bike in Cuba was shocking, and refreshing.

Parking one’s bike either involves enacting the kickstand or resting the pedal on the nearest curb. What a truly novel and civil idea!

Havana has a thing or two to teach San Francisco.

Even with a bicycle like this number, the owner may rest assured that he will indeed come back to that rad bicycle.

 

One last observation I’d like to share about the Cuban cycling culture is my fascination with how they carry children. I don’t think I have ever paid attention to this much when traveling afar, but certainly do in the bay area. The different contraptions they’ve invented in the United States for this purpose boggles my mind: there’s behind the driver-rear or front facing, rolled behind in a trailer, seat mounted in front of the driver or what Daniel and his crew have dubbed “the baby shooter,” etc., etc.

 

But in Cuba, they’ve simplified the whole darn thing by securing a simple wooden seat on the top tube where the driver literally huddles over and seemingly protects the child, aware of every movement. Whether or not it is truly safe or just a facade, I cannot say, but it surely seemed like a great method to me.

Here’s my fishing friend, Juanito, transporting his two-year-old granddaughter, Gabriela, to go swimming in the river. She is happy as a clam!

This one has an added seat back and arm rests for comfort. Fancy! Note: the unlocked parking jobs.

Hmm…looks like a child would be transporting a child on this low rider, but its probably the bike of a full grown adult!

 

In summary, Cubans cyclists:

A) are cyclobats that “Just Ride!”

B) save a pretty peso on not having to buy locks nor replace stolen bicycles or missing bicycle accessories,

C) may have solved the age old question of how to safely transport our most precious cargo: the children!

Stay tuned for Ciclismo Cubano Part Dos! And, happy pedaling.

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14 Responses to Guest Post: Ciclismo Cubano

  1. Dan August 13, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    Great photos- especially of the cake courier. Bicycle cake carrying in an American city might actually do the impossible- slow down car traffic. I am going to share a link to this post with my biking group in Orange County. If San Francisco could learn a few things from cycling in Cuba, Newport Beach could learn a lot of things.

    • Ann Murphy August 14, 2012 at 8:33 am #

      Loved the photo essay on bikes in Cuba! I can’t believe the birthday cake arrived in one piece!

      • Mandy August 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

        Thank you! I didn’t follow him to the bitter end to witness the successful cake delivery. But, then again, it probably would have made the town gossip train if the cake hadn’t been delivered in one piece, so I am sure that it did arrive safely. Looks like the AZ Pie Club could have a new delivery method!

    • Mandy August 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

      Thanks for sharing with the OC biking group. Yes, SF and the OC could most certainly learn some things from Cuban cycling! Maybe we’ll see bike lock sales drastically start to fall. That might be very wishful thinking.

      • Dan August 20, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

        The other “wishful thinking” item I’d love to see happen is from Part Dos- the wide berths that vehicles in Cuba give to cyclists. There is a bill in progress in California to mandate a 3 foot wide pass of a bicycle. Hopefully it will become a law, but from the look of your photos, 3 foot would have been a close call in Cuba. Maybe Fidel was a bicyclist?

        • Mandy August 27, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

          Was not aware of that bill in California, that would be wonderful! If it were passed, it will be interesting to see how this goes into action. I am sure, at some point, Fidel could have been found pedaling, but I am dubious as to whether he has anything to do with Cuban’s very generous leeway given to cyclists.

  2. Camilo August 19, 2012 at 6:48 am #

    Hey, great photos. I’m looking into the idea of opening a bike workshop in Cuba. I travelled around the country for around 2 months, I love bikes and I thought I might be able to contribute something after seeing the state that some of their two wheeled machines were in! Do you think I might be able to use any of your photos for promotional purposes, or do you think you might have any advice on the subject?
    Many thanks,
    Camilo

    • Mandy August 20, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

      Hi Camilo, Thanks for reading. I’m sure that you could add some commentary from your two months there on your general observations of “Ciclismo Cubano!” I’d be happy to share some photos and I may have some advice on the subject. Are you a Cuban citizen? I believe only Cubans are able to legally work in Cuba as it is still a communist country. And I am a bit unclear about the feasibility of starting a business there, even if a Cuban citizen. But, that could be quite the adventure! Feel free to email me at mandymurphyaz at gmail dot com.

  3. kerry August 20, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    Great post! Very interesting, and can’t help but also comment on the cake courrier, what a brave soul! Thanks for sharing your adventures!

    • Mandy August 20, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      Right? And he wasn’t the only cake courier in town! What’s the craziest courier feat you’ve seen while on bicycle?

  4. Don & Shirley August 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    What a fantastic adventure! Your pictures and comments are superb! One of the best photo/blogs we have seen!

  5. Don & Shirley August 20, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    We loved this refreshing new insight to a country that many of us knew little about and that was mostly negative. They are truly an innovative & ingeneous people! Thanks for sharing, Mandy!

  6. Rachel September 22, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

    Mandy, very much looking forward to Part Dos; I love the pedal-as-kickstand trick!! Gonna start trying that one out. Fabulous pictures painting a little window for me into this culture, I hope I’m fortunate enough to get to see it firsthand someday soon, too.

    • Mandy M September 29, 2012 at 11:24 am #

      Hi Rachel! Part dos is finito! Up and ready to be read at your disposal.

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