To Santa Clara, Cuba
15 March 2001
Romance me arse! I am too shagged to do anything, even write. Today is the first day that I have managed to get into a pattern: as in sleep, then cycle, then sleep again.
The first stage from Trinidad had me reeling. Not enough sleep and too much beer. I hardly took in what I was seeing along the way. We set out too late in the morning, after too much f****** around (first day nerves and all that!) and ended up cycling through the blistering 35°C (95°F) mid-day heat. I have never had every sweat gland in my entire body open at the same time. The support crew are pretty good about water, and there is plenty available along the way. I don’t even bother to put the bottle in the bottle holder, but keep it in my hand all the time, sipping (no – GULPING) every 30 seconds.
Day two to Cienfuegos is really tough. Hotter than in previous years according to the locals and the veterans. At least I have had a snooze the afternoon before, so I am feeling a little more perky.
I cycle about mid-field at an easy pace. The stage is 50 kms (31 miles). Again the temperature is 35+°C), but we have started earlier. Halfway along, the wind changes direction, blowing into our faces. Murder. I slow right down and fight the indigestion I’ve been suffering since breakfast. The bike is behaving well, but I am flagging.
Some Cuban kids from a cycle club have joined us for a while. They keep the pace and push the stragglers up hills. Michael, a nice but unfit guy, is shunted up a hill by a tiny little Cuban girl. She is no more than 14-years-old and slim as a whippet. She puts one hand in the middle of his back and literally powers him along. Amazing!
The kids are astonishingly fit, and considering the bikes they are riding (some of them antique 5-speeds with plastic saddles) their performance is incredible. One kid, named Joanna, eases in beside me and matches my pace. She is beautiful and maybe 13 or so. Her English is poor, so we communicate with gestures. She seems shy and in awe of my “high-tech” bike. We come to a hill and she reaches out her arm to push me. Gently, I take her arm away. I want to do this myself. She smiles shyly and giggles something in Spanish. Probably something to the effect of “Sad, proud, auld bastardio.”
I arrive in Cienfuegos very tired and dehydrated. No energy even for a swim. Don’t want to drink either. Others are feeling the same – it has been a tough day. It will take three days or more to get into the “fitness rhythm”. There is no elation at the moment, just relief that another stage is over and that I can sleep.
Next morning we head out from Cienfuegos for Elguea (having done a lap of honour with a police escort, around the town), for Santa Clara – a distance of 74 kms (46 miles). To start with, it is partly cloudy and the wind is on our right quarter – 50% help and 50% hindrance.
At least we start early, and it is 10.30 a.m. or so before it starts to get uncomfortably hot. Unfortunately we change direction, heading more directly north, and go head-on into a stiff breeze, warm but deadly.
We are in the centre of the island on a wide, exposed road. It is the “Autopista”, the now-neglected three-lane motorway of sorts that runs the length of the country. The surface is very bad in parts, and the usually ubiquitous sugar cane plants are nowhere to be seen. Nearly every road in Cuba is just a path through cane fields, but not this one. The temperature is well up in the 30s… This… is… hard… going… I drink my 10th bottle of water and drop to 13th gear, making a very easy pace.
I cycle through a sparse village, past a group of schoolchildren lined along the playground fence. They scream and cheer in excitement. I smile and wipe the sweat out of my eyes, wave to them. “¡Areba!” I have forgotten my gloves today, and my wrists, elbows and shoulders are aching from the pounding of the front forks on shitty roads. Gotta get me a bike with suspension…
Got to Santa Clara finally after much sweat. Had a swim, a good three-hour nap in the afternoon and was ready for a good meal and a few beers.
After dinner, myself, Eric, Jacqui, Chas, Vinnie and Theresa sit around the edge of the pool with our feet in the beautifully cool water. We compare notes and chat about our day. Jacqui and Theresa go for a swim. They stand in the pool with their elbows on the edge and sip beers. It is SO tranquil – no shitty, blared salsa music – just the stars and the birds, and gentle conversation. We feel content and relaxed, finally getting into the swing of the thing.
Chas has a theory on the “hair trigger fart” that has us howling. Jacqui reckons it’s funny how we five smokers have gravitated together and all get on so well. We agree to keep in touch back home. We reluctantly leave the pool for bed. Tomorrow is the toughest day of the whole tour: Santa Clara to Elguea – 120 kms! (75 miles!) I joke that it would be terrific if we had a little cloud and some rain…
We leave on the button next morning (March 16). The answer to a prayer! It is completely cloudy and well below the 35+ degrees we have been used to. I feel a little hung-over and my right knee is giving trouble again, but I am determined.
Before setting off, I strip off all the superfluous gear from the bike. Off come the tool bag, the pump, the lights, the extra bottle holders. I guzzle Dioralite (thank you Vinnie!), energy supplements, vitamins and the last remaining Solpadene. The wind is right behind us and I make good time, averaging about 20 kms/hr.
I sweat far less because it is cooler. The terrain is flattish with gentle inclines. For about two hours, I cycle through a sparsely wooded “forest park”. It is dry as tinder and nowhere near as beautiful as Wicklow. Forty kms (25 miles) covered, and I am cycling well away from anyone else. I play games in my head. I imagine Orla, who trained with me in Ireland, cycling beside me and we are chatting as if we are pottering around Howth Head. I send her my thoughts. Then it starts to rain!
I am in a world of my own, and beginning to feel the physical burn and the elation of pushing my body hard. It’s a giddy feeling where I just thank God that I am alive and able to feel what I am feeling. I adjust my helmet so that the rain runs off the side and not into my eyes…
At 50 kms (31 miles), a lunch stop.
A quick soggy sandwich and I restock my water and am off again in less than 15 minutes. I have a flow and a rhythm, and I want to run with it.
The rain has stopped, but it is still cool (25°C, or 77°F) and cloudy. I switch my computer to trip-counter and watch the distance increase… 74.59kms… 80.22kms… more than I’ve ever done non-stop.
I set my sights on 90kms. No problem. But all of a sudden, I flag. I experiment with a new rhythm: give it plenty (maybe 25 kms/hr) for two kilometres, then reduce to 19kms/hr for 1km, repeat the pattern, coast on hills and use the coasting time to rest each part of my body: First I drop one leg free of the pedal, stretching straight, wriggling the toes. Then the other foot. (I am having increasing problems with the blood circulation in the toes of my right foot. It’s due to how I place this foot on the pedal and this is probably aggravating my knee problem too.)
Next my ass: out of the saddle with one cheek resting against the crossbar. Arms? Hang one loose, then the other. Nurse the body; I can do it. It’s a good reliable model that has never let me down before.
The techniques seem to work. I clock 100kms (62 miles). Can’t be much further.
I am still alone and am having difficulty concentrating on my body and my mind. My attention is distracted by the computer. I consider switching it off. Naimh, one of the doctors, cycles up behind me and pours water down my back, and is gone off ahead in the dust. Heaven!
At last the long straight road has come to an end, and I crest a hill. At 105 kms (65 miles) I can see the north coastline and a terrific slope downwards ahead of me. I give it plenty and reel off 2kms at 60kms/hr. Elation! But I am not home yet: I spy a sign up ahead for Elguea – another 15kms – and the cloud cover has gone. I am out of water. Feck it!
My skin starts to burn; I struggle for an eternity with the discomfort; dismount and walk for a bit, then struggle on.
At last I see the hotel, about 3kms up ahead. I put my head down and literally power myself, one last burst, using up all my reserves, and almost crash in the doors of the hotel. There are cheers at each arrival. I abandon the bike and stagger into the lobby, lie on my back on the cool marble floor, gasping. I am too drained to feel elation or anything other than the violent thumping of my heart.
Twenty minutes later, I am up on a bar stool with a beer, hugging Jacqui in congratulations because she was the first woman of the group to make it – long before me. We are all ecstatic! We all made it! It is St. Paddy’s day (in Ireland already). Boy do we celebrate. I do too. I made it. I wasn’t so sure I would…