Monday 8 August 2016

Cycling in Cuba

Speaking to touring cyclists in Cuba it is clear that some are unprepared for this unusual island. In 2015/16 I rode through 26 different countries. In Cuba I was faced with the steepest learning curve, this is what I found:
Note the temperature - at 7:30 on
a July morning.

1) Weather: I was there in July, it was very hot and very humid, the prevailing wind was easterly. So maybe get a coach or flight to the east of the island and cycle back to Havana with a tailwind. Carry plenty of clean water with you. There has been cholera in Cuba, the tap water generally is not safe to drink. In villages and small towns there may NOT be bottled water available, when you see it buy it. Or use your chosen method to purify the local supply.

2) Traffic: Havana is not very busy and many roads are wide. In other places traffic is generally light, most trucks, tractors and coaches are courteous. One exception was the road to Santa Clara to Remedios, other cyclists and I found trucks passing dangerously close.

Traffic in Havana - cooler than your normal stuff

3) Accomodation: (a) Casa Particular: These are the Cuban equivalent of Bed and Breakfasts. Many are in beautiful old places in great locations. For about $25 you can get a big, clean en-suite room, often with two beds, cooling fans, air conditioning and a useful fridge. Do not expect tv or wi-fi, the internet is banned in private houses. Breakfast is about $4 and four star quality. They often offer dinner at about $8, which is expensive as you can eat out at a local restaurant for one or two dollars, but if they are serving something tasty it can be a great feast. I sometimes haggled gently to get a deal for the room, breakfast and dinner.
b) Touts: When you arrive in a town touts will often offer to show you to a Casa.  They then expect to get a tip from the casa. The touts are sometimes dishonest and almost always unnecessary. Don't use them unless you are desperate. Instead download the mapsme  app onto your smartphone along with the map of Cuba. This will show you where hotels are located. Where there are hotels there will be Casa. They do NOT exist in every small town. Go to the streets around the main square or plaza, you will find Casa Particular, they have a blue I symbol (or a blue H on its side). Casas with a red symbol are for locals only. Check that the Casa is clean and well maintained on the outside, peer inside as well and you should be able to get a good place.
c) Hotels: $60 +. More than twice as expensive as a Casa and half as good. Don't bother.
d) Campsites: July is high season for Cuban holiday makers, campsites did not let me in as they were for Cubans only. In Cuban low season (around December) it could be worth checking these - many have cabins as well as pitches.
e) Wild Camping: If you speak Spanish you can ask the local police where to stay. They will probably direct you to the local baseball ground. Or you can ask at a small café which has some land. The police may check you out as wild camping is not common. The beaches may be suitable for stealth camping, but take insect repellent as sandflies are common.
With local currency, pizza cost $0.20

 3) Two Currencies: Buy your currency on arrival. Tourists mainly use convertible peso (known as CUC). Roughly $1 = 1 cuc. To take advantage of low local prices you also need "money nationale" (confusingly, also called peso). 1 cuc = 24 peso/money nationale. (The true rate is a little higher, but banks and money changers were always using this conversion.) Simply take a small amount of CUC and your passport to a bank and they will convert it to money nationale / peso. Then you buy food from street vendors and locals' restaurants at a fraction of tourist prices.

4) ATMs Most small towns have no ATM. Use the mapsme app to find what towns have them. Try and use them when the bank is open so if the machine swallows your card you can easily retrieve it.

5) Shops: A Cuban proudly told me that his countries trading partners were: Bolivia, Venezuela, China and North Korea. There is not much in the shops unless you want womens' shoes or plastic household goods. Bring essentials like sun cream, insect repellent and other toiletries with you. In most shops there are only one or two food shops and these have little appetising stock. You can use your money nationale to buy food from street vendors, 5 or 6 bananas cost $0.20.

6) Internet: This is not widely available. In the cities you can go to the telephone office (ETECSA) and buy a Wi-Fi pass for 2 cuc for 1 hour, or 10 cuc for 5 hours; take your passport as they sometimes require it. If they are closed someone normally sells passes in the main square for 3 cuc. You can then use wi fi in the main square / plaza. Even better, most of these telephone offices have an air conditioned room with terminals where you can access the 'net in comfort and probably more security.

 7) Safety:  I found Cubans very friendly and helpful. There were some towns where I didn't hang around - too many drunks, no police. Local people also told me to lock my bike or put it inside, so theft appears to be a problem.

8) Best Bits: My favourite road was from Sancti Spritus to Trinidad and onto Cienfuegos. Havana is a beautiful, fascinating city, somewhere I will return to.
When the blockade is properly lifted, Cuba will change.

Friday 5 August 2016

Surly Disc Trucker. A Road Test Around the World

Note: A Surly Disc Trucker weighs as much as a battle tank. If you are light, or travel light, a Disc Trucker might  NOT be the bike for you. Look instead at the Kona Sutra, Genesis Croix De Fer, a converted mountain bike or a titanium frame (Spa Cycles or Van Nicholls do these). 


In July 2015 I set off from the UK on a one year cycle tour. My route took me 19,000 miles to the Himalayas, Australia, New Zealand and South America before finishing in Cuba. To reach the Himalayas before winter set in I needed a fast bike. It also needed to carry all my gear including camping equipment.
Big wheels roll faster than smaller ones, also I am quite tall, so I wanted 700c wheels. I choose mechanical disc brakes to prevent rim wear, give less maintanence as minor wheel buckles could be ignored and to give better braking especially in the rain.
This narrowed my choice down to a Thorn Raven (too expensive), a Kona Sutra (great spec. but I am not sure an aluminium frame is up to this job) and a Surly Disc Trucker. Spa Cycles of Harrogate, England could make up a Surly with a CHOICE of spec. for under £1200 including racks. I did make a couple of mistakes in my choice of kit - I will mention these later.


The fully loaded bike (62cm frame) and luggage weighed 44 kg. Pulling on the handlebars when riding up steep hills did cause flex around the rear stays. Also riding quickly over smooth undulations in the road caused flex around the rear stays. This is fine on a steel bike, but I would not want to subject an aluminium frame to this continual stress.
The dropped handlebars were a god send in head winds. Also they give you a choice of three or four different hand positions. This put quite a lot of pressure through my palms and so I had to wear padded cycle mitts.
 The Surly was a great mile muncher. Handling was slow but predictable. Top speed was 84 kph when it remained rock steady. At walking pace or below the weight of the front panniers did cause the steering to have a tendency to flop left or right so you had to keep a good grip on the bars.
The 35 mm tyres rolled easily over shallow gravel, steering on deeper gravel was unpredictable. Muddy tracks were also a pain as dirt got stuck between the wheel and the  mudgaurd.  Removing the mudgaurds, fitting a Crud Catcher on the downtube and bigger tyres (it will take up to 45 mm width) may improve its off road capabilities. Later it had a 38 mm tyre fitted and this was about the limit of what could used with the mudgaurds in place.

The Surly handles hardpack well. (Alps to Ocean Trail, N.Z. ).

The longevity of components was amazing. The Shimano 9 speed set up lasted the full 19,000miles. It got a quick clean with WD40 about every three days and then a little relube. Nine speed does give you a bigger chain than ten speed so its a wise choice. The Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres were brilliant. The front lasted the full distance, the back needed replacing every 10,000km. The Avid bb7 brakes provided reliable, progressive braking in any weather. Pads lasted about 10,000km, replacing them was a little fiddly, so keep the instruction booklet. I spoke to another rider whose rim brakes had over heated the rim on a long descent, his tyre had exploded and he was thrown off at speed. Disc brakes are a good choice for a loaded tourer.
I saw many other long distance cyclists, many rode Surlys, none had any complaints. It is a great bike especially if you can get it made up with your choice of well researched spec.


1) I opted for a Spa Nidd leather saddle, this never really got comfortable. I would of been better getting a leather saddle from one of my other bikes.
2) Gearing. My biggest sprocket was 50 teeth, this was too big and I rarely used it. 48 teeth or fewer would of been more useful.
3)  Mirror and bell. I had neither. A mirror you could switch to go on either side would be useful. If you are going on cycle trails shared with pedestrians (like the Danube Cycle Way) then a bell could be handy.


Tyres: Schwalbe Marathon Plus 700c, 35mm width. Great.
Wheels: 19mm Sputnik rims made up by Spa Cycles. Very strong. I did get one broken spoke so do ask for some spare. (There is a holder on the Surly frame for these).
Gearing: 9 speed Shimano. I used shifters on the downtube to keep the changers out of trouble.
Saddle: Spa Nidd - I didn't get on with this
Racks: Tubus. Great
Luggage: Ortlieb panniers and dry bag. Vaude handlebar and waterproof map case - really good.
Garmin: Not needed, the free mapsme app for a smart phone is very useful.

In action in the Himalayas.

Friday 29 July 2016

Where is the best ....

Here are the answers to questions people frequently ask. If you have a question I don't answer here, either wait until we meet or ask it in the comments section below.
Where is the best place you have been?
The best place is south eastern Peru, the best city is Havana, the best country is New Zealand.
Would you do it again?
I would have to have a rest first! Seriously, there are so many intriguing places I haven't experienced and lots of places I would like to re-visit and explore more thoroughly that it is unlikely I will do another lap.
What did you miss the most?
Apart from friends and family I missed cooking curries, well stocked supermarkets, and BBC documentaries.
What was the best thing you took?
As well as my bike, which was unbelievably reliable, my favourite thing was an mp3 loaded with audiobooks. When I camped it was often impossible to read a book, with my mp3 I could listen to some Charles Dickens or Sherlock Holmes stories.
 Were you ever scared?
No. Occasionally I was worried I wouldn't find anywhere to sleep, but sonething always turned up
Did you get lonely?
If I spent a day or two riding with someone else, then when I rode on my own it felt a bit lonely. Also when you see wonderful things or are eating a good meal in the evening it would be good to share these things with someone else.
Hiw much did the trip cost?
The gear - bike tent etc cost about £2000 , the trip itself cost around £11,000 including flights. The taxnan will give me some money back.
Who were the most interesting people you met?
 New Zealanders, they have a different life but share the same language, and they are really kind and hospitable. In far off places I enjoyed talking to other travellers.
Has your trip changed you?
Superficially, I have lost a few kilos and gained a ton of memories, Hopefully I can emulate the kindness that is endemic through most of the world.
The world is full of kind, friendly people.

Fin done

It is great to see my family after a year and a week away. At Gatwick my first impression was that people looked glum; I suppose I was in the arrivals area where people had just returned from their holiday. I don't feel sad, there are many things for me to look forward to.
When I got to my sister's house she gave me a personalised map of the world. Once I traced my path through the twenty six countries I have ridden through it occurred to me how much of the world I have not seen yet.
Many people ask me about similar things. My last general blog will be to answer these frequently asked questions. I  will also do a quick blog to help other riders going to Cuba and also a road test on my bike.
Thank you for reading my posts. Also thank you for the encouragement, support and interest you have given me. Everyone is on a journey - either literal or metaphorical. I hope you enjoy yours, If not, get on your bike and go for a ride on a quiet road, you will feel better.
My older brother and his wife seeing me off on my last leg from Eastbourne  to Portsmouth. There is rain on the camera lens, that's why the picture is slightly blurred.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Saving the best ´til last

As I rode from the airport into Havana, the city's unique character revealed itself oddity by oddity. Enormous American cars from the 1950's cruised along the quiet dual carriageway. Red or pink Cadillac convertibles carried tourists while battered Buicks taxied the locals who sat 4 across the old leather bench seats. There were classic Fiats, Alfas, Peugeots and Mercedes too. It was like a living, working motor museum.
A tall concrete tower pierced the pure blue sky. This was revolution square. Surrounding apartment blocks were adorned with giant, iron pictues of Che Guevara  and Fidel Castro.
Heading toward the city centre the broad boulevards were lined with a mix of old buildings in various states of picturesque delapidation. My guest house was down a side street. Cycle taxi drivers rested in the shade, street vendors sold strings of garlic and onions, old folk sat and chatted, front doors open to the cooling breeze and gaze of curious passers by. Havana is a melting pot of peoples, architecture, cars and music. The only incongruity are the tourists.
I was late leaving the city as I had to wait for my laundry. Riding in fresh, clean kit is a lovely luxury on a road trip like this. But it didn't stay clean for long. The sun climbed to the vertical, my bike seemed to cast no shadow. The heat built, white fluffy clouds grew grey then black. Rain pelted onto the hot tarmac and instantly vapourised, a cloud of mist rose a metre above the road, My top half was cooled by the rain, my legs were steamed in a sauna.
The next day was dry, I thought I would camp. I stopped to buy bread, but they wouldn´t sell it to me as it was only for Cubans. I went to a campsite, they wouldn´t let me camp as it was only for Cubans. I was so hungary and thirsty that I had to go back to a hotel, they let me in, but charged me $60. Now with little cash I went to the nearest big town to get more. But it was Saturday and the banks were shut and there was no cash machine. I gave what money I had to a guest house owner, he gave me a room and dinner.
I headed along the north coast. The bumpy road pumelled my bike and body, incessant headwind slapped my sweat soaked jersey against my raw skin. I have sores and rashes where, you don´t want to know. One day I rode too far and ate and drank too little. At the last town I stop and order pizza and ice cream but a sick feeling fills my stomach and creeps up my throat, my legs go weak, my hearing fades, my eyesight dwindles into tunnel vision. Quickly I grab some water and sit down. Five minutes later I am okay, but had come close to waking up in a Cuban hospital.
Each day I ride through lush farmland, meadows and woods. Farmers use long sythes to gather grass and then load it onto horse drawn wagons. Cowboys look cool in their stepsons and chaps. Most locals give me a wave, some farmers gave me mangoes and bananas, some beekeepers gave me a section of honeycomb ozing with sweet honey. At roadside stalls you can buy fruit jiuce for 10 p and pizza for 20 p.
The centuries old Spanish cities spread out from tree lined plazas. Long narrow streets are lined with terrecota tiled houses. I often stay in one of these old places, they have great character, are clean, and the owners are kind. They are the equivalent (but better and cheaper) to British bed and breakfasts. Breakfast here starts with a big platter of fresh fruit. As food is hard to get in the shops I do rely on getting fed at these excellent lodgings.
Today I rode along the south coast, back towards Havana. The wind was behind me, I scarely needed to pedal, my big new tyre makes a whining noise on the smooth road. It is like being on an electric bike. Land crabs sprinted across the road,  a local woman offered my some weird fruit that was almost all nut.
Cuban roads and weather have drained my body. Cuban colour has filled my soul, Cuban culture has fed my mind. It is a perfect place to end my journey.

Lots of old cars, buildings and old fashioned shops, its like going Back to the Future.

Communist block. Images of Che Guevara  and Fidel Castro  adorn many buildings

Horse and carrsiges are common in many Cuban cities

Fresh baked pizza costs 20 pence

If you look beyond the shiney car you see normal Cubans living their normal lives. For me, this is the most fascinating  part of travel.

Monday 4 July 2016

The joy of having a spare nipple

Borders can bring people  together. Roads converge and migrating cyclists congregate around the few checkpoints between Peru and Ecuador or Ecuador and Columbia. Most riders were heading south, aiming to amble through Peru and Argentina to arrive in the Austral area of Southern Chile in the spring (September). We would swap road stories and useful information before riding off in opposite  directions.
I headed north across the flat coastal plains of Ecuador. Through banana plantations and cocoa tree orchards the riding was easy. Then this road ran out and I had to climb fifty miles up to Quito. This is the highest capital city in the world and sprawls over an Andean valley at 9500 feet. It was a tough slog and I arrived arrived after dark on the broken concrete streets, amongst the random traffic, traversing deprived suburbs where you wouldn't want to stop. (The next day I chatted to an english speaking local who had just had his bike robbed at gunpoint.). It took ages to find a place to stay. I had one rest day to buy a new tyre, but it was a cold, damp, drizzly city, not a place for recuperation. In the next six days after Quito there was only twelve miles of flat road. It rained, which was usefully cooling on the 10 or 15 mile long climbs, but cold on the descents. My brake pads were worn out so I had to sit bolt upright so the air resistance  could slow me down a little.
This took me into Columbia, which is full of cyclists of all types, They would often ride beside me and "chat". This was tricky as my Spanish is abysmal. If I told them I was going to ride their famous climb "La Linea" they would incline their forearm or hand at 45 degrees to indicate its steepness.It actually wasn't that bad, but on the last little climb of the day I heard a "Twang, clack, clack, clack", a spoke had broken.
I had brought spare spokes. However the old one had snapped in the nipple - where the spoke joins the outer rim. That was a problem. My flight to Cuba was in three days time, riding to the airport would take two days, getting a bike box for the flight and getting all my bags sorted out would half a day, I could do without a mechanical problem. Then I saw on each spare spoke was a spare nipple. I was saved, bike mended, back on the road the next day.
It was another long ascent up to Bogota - the second highest capital city. I was powered by caffeine, and so didn't skeep too well last night; or naybe I am excited to be flying to Cuba tomorrow.

Artwork in northern Ecuado, to see real cyclists its best to head into Columbia

Right to left: Pascal who has spent four years on the road riding 40,000 miles, Hector the Argentine, heading to Mexico, and myself.

Lots of fruit, fresh from the fields

I avoivded this rain shower

Cafe in the clouds

Climbing La Linea, Colombia

Thursday 16 June 2016

Perusing Peru

It took six, scenic days to traverse the Andes from east to west. Once all I did was a 25 mile climb and descent and stopped in the dusty, dodgy town of Abencay. Afternoons were sweatingly hot, and nights were shiveringly cold, so I stayed in little hotels that cost £6 for an en-suite room. In tiny hamlets a basic room costs half that. Meals cost one or two pounds, as does a beer.
I rode through the capital - Lima - apparently there is not much to see there. The traffic was diabolical, it was like riding through fairground dodgems for three hours. I was glad to escape to the empty desert highway again.
In the northern city of Trujillo  I stayed at a "casa de cyclist". It opened in the 'eighties, I was guest  number 2634. My stay was extended as I got food poisoning. So I listened to podcasts of Desert Island Discs and read a good book.
My final day in Peru took me beside a beautiful coast with empty resorts and busy fishing towns. When I reached the border they fined me $7 for overstaying my visa.
My first impression of Ecuador is that it is very green and very hot. When I have seen more I will give you a more detailed picture.
One of my pannier broke this morning,  now I will find someone to mend it. My back tyre is damaged, my right pedal clunks, I am not sure the bike will get to Cuba.

At the casa de cyclists with the owner - Lucho. He was a champion road racer.

The centre of Trujillo has streets of old colonial  Spanish buildings and striking wrought iron work.

The Andes are lush, green and full of life.

A mindwarping 50 mile twisty descent through barren desert gave me a dramatic  exit to the Andes.

A tiny stretch of coast in northern  Peru was picture perfect.