By Shannon Boffeli — The moment my wife Jen Hanks and I learned about Titan Tropic Cuba we knew it would be an unforgettable experience. Whether in Chile, Austria, Italy, or Canada we’ve discovered mountain bike stage racing is an unparalleled way to see and experience a new country. These events will take you to places unknown to even the best tour guides. Now image having this experience on a tropical island where no Americans have legally traveled for over 50 years and that’s Titan Tropic.
Even the flight to Cuba was an experience. After more than 50 years of travel ban to the Caribbean’s largest island, boarding a commercial flight in Miami and landing in Havana, just 45 minutes later, is something few Americans have experienced since JFK was president.
Leave the high rises, glitz, and glamour of Miami and in less than an hour you’re transported to a different time. The plane flies over miles and miles of unmaintained dirt roads that slowly weave between fields full of ox and cattle before touching down at Jose Marti International airport in Havana. Travelers disembark on the runway, and catch a cab that’s most likely a 50s-era Chevy completing the sensation that you’ve been transported back in time. While just 90 miles south of the United States, Cuba feels light years away.
Just days before leaving for Cuba we heard the news that our trip would hold even greater significance, the death of longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. When we arrived, the country was in the midst of a nine-day mourning period that would impact our first two days of racing.
Sadly, the prologue stage, a 30 km bike tour through the heart of old Havana was canceled and stage 1 would have to be neutralized, as celebrations of any kind were not permitted in the time of mourning.
We made the best of the situation doing our own bike tour through the city and along the waterfront that was soaked in the purple and blue of the setting sun.
Cuba is an incredible country with surprises around every corner. We were looking forward to our week of adventure.
The island is just opening up to the world of biking. Road bike touring in Cuba is just starting to gain a foothold as some private businesses have started offering their services in recent years but mountain biking is almost unheard. Until very recently, it just hasn’t existed in Cuba but the raw materials of exceptional terrain and endless natural beauty are abundant and virtually ensure that the sport is going to quickly take off.
The route our 5-day, 271-mile stage race took us on headed southwest of the Cuban capital before circling back north and finishing on the pristine white sand beaches of Cayo Jutias, that despite being named after giant indigenous tree rats, is a protected national treasure of unmatched beauty.
Our first day of riding treated us to more of Havana as we rolled through town passing by various Ernest Hemingway hangouts and near the sprawling compound inhabited by President Raul Castro. Miles and miles of rolling hills and sugar cane fields eventually brought us to the foot of the mountains we would be racing in the next four days.
We finished the first stage in the small mountain town of Soroa, the “Rainbow of Cuba”, named so because of the vast living orchid collection that lives there numbering over 700 different breeds.
Soroa was our first night staying in a camp. A unique feature of Titan Tropic is that everyone was required to stay in the camp from the fastest rider to the slowest. We had all the members of the Cuban national team sleeping in tents right next to us.
Each rider had their own 1-person tent and race organizers would transport your luggage from camp to camp.
The shower facilities could be described as spartan at best. Like a scene from Gilligan’s Island, the showers were basically a stall, made from palm fronds, with a hose connected to a shower head above you. Cold water would pour onto you as you try and set a personal record for fastest shampoo job. On hot days the showers were surprisingly refreshing.
We also learned that Cuba lacks one major staple of international bike racing; the porta-potty. The details our porta-potty substitutes are too unpleasant to discuss but imagine a hole in the ground, a wood pallet with no center, and a nail to hang toilet paper on.
While some of life in the camp was a challenge the Titan organizers spared no expense when it came to food. Three meals a day with an assortment of food to fit every diet, and lots of desserts.
Each camp had an outdoor pool that was perfect for cooling off, recovery, and socializing. One of the best aspects of the camp-style stage races is the amazing camaraderie riders build throughout a week of shared suffering. Lifetime friendships are formed with every race.
Day two was our first day of real racing completing a challenging circuit around Soroa finishing back at camp for a second night.
Day three is when we really started to see the heart of Cuba. We left Soroa and traveled to Vinales following rock-strewn, beaten, forest tracks, cross cut by streams and muddy fords traveled over hundreds of years by nothing but horses and ox-drawn wagons. These ancient dirt tracks now provided passage for 150 lycra-clad mountain bikers.
Dropping deeper and deeper into the interior of Cuba we passed homes that rarely see visitors and must have thought the alien invasion was surely happening as gaunt beings in brightly-colored spandex, steadily streamed by. If indeed they thought the aliens were upon them, they were exceedingly nice about.
After the dirt ended, we climbed to a high ridge that traversed endless valleys. An absolutely marvelous road that feels like you’re riding the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia with forests of palms taking the place of the old growth hardwoods of North America.
Finally, we dropped into the Vinales Valley with its 1,000 foot mogotes, giant haystack shaped mountains with sheer limestone walls, standing guard. A more unique and varied landscape would be difficult to imagine as lush greenery and palm trees sit atop limestone monoliths with sheer-vertical walls on all sides. It’s no surprise Vinales is a UNESCO world heritage site.
We spent two nights in Vinales taking in all the sights that surround this amazing valley. Vinales is currently a hotspot for road cycling tours in Cuba and it’s no surprise; endless miles of roads ramble along ridgelines and wind between majestic mogotes, caves, and natural springs. Riding for hours without seeing a car. Outside the big cities, cars are scarce in Cuba. Too expensive for most citizens, cars are a luxury here as most people still travel by horse or on foot.
Sadly, our week of racing eventually had to end as we left the interior forests of Cuba for the beaches of Cayo Jutias and a well-deserved dip in the clear blue Atlantic.
After the finish we returned again to Havana. The mourning period for Fidel Castro had now passed and the rollicking nightlife Havana is known for had returned. The whole city was suddenly alive as every restaurant, club, and hotel had live music, dancing, and the best mojitos on the planet.
The Titan Tropic was like nothing we had done before. The unrivaled cultural experience of Cuba, fused with a week of bike racing and the excellent support of the Titan Tropic promoters combined to make a wicked stew of challenge, enjoyment, and unforgettable memories.