The Story of The Ride


And so they came, 23 good men and true, to the Mecca that is Gatwick airport. From as far afield as Sweden,  France and Germany. From as ‘just down the road’ as Hove. And to a man they were fired up with a religious fervour both to raise money for great causes and to put bodies that are frankly past their ‘sell by’ date through nothing less than hell – on a bike. It may not have been clever to take on the pot-holes of Cuba armed with nothing more than a mankini and a tub of Vaseline. But hey, nobody claimed to have packed any brains in their hand luggage.

As last year’s Nordoff Robbins/Childline charity bike ride in Egypt had amply proved, following Rod Smallwood halfway round the world – baa! – is not for the faint-hearted. It’s for the idiotic. Wonder if that renowned philosopher Samuel Johnson ever slipped into lycra for charity? Because “the triumph of hope over experience” sums up Cuba 2011 better than I ever could. Then again, though, since when did faint hearts ever win the day?! Hence the collective decision to ‘fuel up’ pre-flight with ‘The Full Monty With All The Wherewithal’ English breakfast, aided and abetted by two or three pints of unspecified ale to wash it down. Taking on fluids is important when you’re on a bike ride, I’m told.

W Winner Stuart

Once on board our Virgin flight bound for Havana it quickly became apparent that the mantra ‘the team that plays together stays together’ would be strictly adhered to, as Tom Baigrie, Stuart Galbraith and Mark Fuller’s arses swiftly disappeared to the left and off into the Narnia that is the executive classes, leaving the majority of us sheep to turn into cattle in economy. They paid their own upgrade of course, very un-Cuban separatism, but Stuart was awarded Wanker of the Day for this unsocial activity. Tom and Mark obviously bribed their good pal Rod, whose innovation it was for a daily culprit to be decked out in a bright yellow T for the ride, unlike that of the Tour de France! With a Wanker a day, Victor Ubogu, Eric Newnham, Daryl Clark and Dan Weiner all followed as the days unfolded for various nefarious crimes of stupidity.

As soon as we blearily set foot on Cuban soil you realise that this is a place and an experience that’s not to be missed and is never to be forgotten. Everything and everywhere gets hyped up these days, that’s true. But Cuba really is the exception that proves the rule. In a world that’s ever more homogenised this is a country that truly stands – sometimes teeters – apart. It’s clearly got its problems. You notice that there are a lot of poor folk. But Cuba is hardly alone in that and as our tour guide John explained to me early doors, this is actually one of the better places to live your life if you don’t have buckets of cash. Rationing still exists, but this means everyone in the country gets something to eat rather than only the mightiest. And a fully-functioning public healthcare system means that Cubans have access to medical attention as and when they need it. Having witnessed a staggeringly casual indifference to human suffering on last year’s ride in Egypt I know where I’d rather be.

But that’s only the half of it. Because what Cuba has in abundance – besides rum, cigars and arse-imploding pot-holes, that is – is soul. Its 50-year plus stand-off with the USA may have stunted what we westerners might call ‘development’, but it has almost inadvertently created a country that has truly gone its own way. You simply don’t see billboards and neon signs advertising those same old global corporations – Nike, Coca Cola, Starbucks – clogging up the skyline. You don’t have enormous shopping malls full of dull-eyed consumers. You don’t have jumbo jets endlessly trailing enormous plumes across Cuba’s clear blue sky. For those of us who don’t feel the urge to dance to the beat of the endless strive this is exciting stuff. However l didn’t get  too dewy-eyed – and with good reason. If your average monthly wage was round the $10 mark and as a fully-qualified doctor you earned just $30 you might start to feel a wee bit of Cuban resentment. But then again, maybe our own Doc Steve Clayton, wouldn’t be worried by any of this, since he does these tours for exes only, the crazy fool! It takes all sorts...

But if the acid test of the beating heart of a country is the amount of general overall happiness lurking on the pavements, then our experiences over four days would have to see Cuba scoring seriously highly in the plus column.


Do you know where Havana is?

Even in a suburb of Havana that featured soulless ‘luxury’ hotels and hi-rise offices – as was Miramar and the first place we laid our weary heads, the Melia – I still got the sense that people here enjoy their lives, as difficult and chaotic and generally mental as they might be. A quick solo walkabout as Cuban work time came to an end taught me as much, as the locals chatted and giggled and caroused their way to the carcinogen-spewing buses that were all present and correct to take them home. If Fidel once ruled Cuba with an iron fist, as those in our party who’d visited the place a decade earlier seemed to hint, then brother Raul appears to have loosened his grip. No visible army presence and very few police on the streets seemed to suggest that nobody in government here was too worried about a general uprising.

On arrival at the Melia we were fed and watered and then sat down for a  briefing which  we get every evening to make us aware of what to expect the following day. John du Pury, our super experienced tour leader, lets us know what is in store and l have to say he is the only man ever to describe Everest as “undulating”. We also handed over our  large combined collection of toothbrushes, toothpaste and the like and pencils, crayons, pads we brought with us specially to be handed out to school kids as such items are ludicrously expensive in Cuba for what they are, things we have without even thinking about it but to some extent a luxury here . The local team got them to the right places. Alan Bennie especially take a bow for a fine collection of stationery for the kids from his toy factory! And of course with great fanfare Stuart was awarded his yellow T to much head nodding and abuse.

We of course then said hello to the barman but by then l was definitely infinitely worried about our prospects of rising for our first day of cycling the following morning, as jet lag and beer finally took its toll and hauled us off by the scruff of the neck from hotel bar to bed.


To everyone’s great credit, though, all replied present and correct the following morning when arses were matched to saddles and we were introduced to the soon-to-be-long-suffering Cuban crew that would be accompanying us. Resident cameraman Andy Matthews was quick to recognise the comedy potential of a bunch of fools on bikes and was also given a filming gift from God when that fool Baigrie started practicing Tai-chi by the side of the road in his nipple-revealing mankini. Some people, eh...

Mankini Men

And then we were finally peddling out on the road, dodging Havana’s curious mix of those famous old Cadillacs and what seemed like a never-ending herd of Russian Ladas, getting the blood pumping as we criss-crossed Havana top to bottom, left to right, up and down, moving from the tropical – with immense, droopy-branched trees the likes of which I’d never seen – to the palatial, with a short stop in Revolution Square thrown in for good measure. There was nothing there, really, which some wag suggested was a pretty good analogy for what those dear old Communists had brought to Cuba. Not true. They’d brought lunch, at least to us lot, as we headed to le Barca restaurant down by the harbour. But not before Victor Ubogu, full of chat,  had not  heard the warnings to watch out for those tricky tram tracks that could do for the unwitting cyclist. He promptly got his wheels wedged and left one more unholy crater in the Havana road system which eventually led to a yellow T for destruction of local fabric!


Nobody was going to let the sight of a brother fallen deter, however. Havana would not beat us and even if Barry Drinkwater was already showing signs of battle fatigue after a long burst back to base camp down the legendary Malecon, lactic-addled thighs still brought everyone home. Just. Day One had proved one thing. The phrase ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear is fear itself’ is total bollocks. For what scared the Beejaysus out of us was the 80 kilometres of hard riding that lay ahead on Day Two!


Lets keep together

In order to prepare for the hell ahead we all opted for a touristy dance show at the ‘legendary’ Tropicana, perhaps not the best of moves in retrospect. Especially for those who found themselves ‘tired and emotional’ and falling asleep in front of the many and varied exotic dancers in their six foot high head gear! The punishment? Pieces of ham and wotnot being stuck in Luke Burdess’ ears and nose! Ah, boys will be boys!

Day Two dawned bright and beautiful and the coach trip to our starting point was eerily quiet. Even the usually lusty roar of ‘Eeearrrgooohh, oo, oh, oh, oh’ to greet our damned decent driver, seemed just that little bit restrained through fear.


Our trepidation proved well-founded as the morning 34k ride saw us criss-crossing fields full of green stuff, with cows and horses tied to the side of the road looking like they’d been on one of those Hollywood diets. You know, the ones where your head ends up looking too big for your body! There were times when I wished I was one of those cows, skinny and Zen and chewing grass and not feeling like my bloody calves were on fire! And I wasn’t the only one, as it happened. For a former Sun editor Stuart Higgins seemed to be using some terribly industrial, one-syllable language as he came in for a pit stop of peanuts in a nattily-constructed cone. Mind you, so did Simeon Thrower, man of law and letters and cleverly-inserted big words. But it’s amazing what a certain number of miles trying to stop your testicles bouncing up into and out of your own throat can do to a man! Never was a simple ham and cheese sarny for lunch by the side of the shimmering blue Cuban so well-received.

Only 40km to go

With metaphorical – as well as very actual – helmets strapped down, the gang set out to justify the (for some - take a bow Eric , Stuart H, Mark and Rod, was it?) colossal sums they’d managed to raise in sponsorship. Our party went once more unto the breach, with the tantalising prize of a glimpse of the previously unheard of town of Matanzas and a suckling roast pig for dinner lying in wait. This seemed to have the desired galvanising effect as wheels rolled and teeth were gritted in sheer determination to get this bloody thing done!


One last push up a punishingly steep but mercifully short incline (our very own ‘Hamburger Hill’) and Day Two’s torture was at an end. A sense of victory was in the air and a not inconsiderable thirst was upon our collective lips as we freewheeled into Mantazas’ dinky little square. Whoever put the homing device in the hotel in the corner should get a whacking great tip, because what a place it was to be drawn to, all 1920s airy chic and elegance, together with bar tenders who – hugely pleasingly – were simply delighted to tend bar. Cuba’s ubiquitous Cristal beer is as lovely as it is cold and as hip hop savvy Stuart Galbraith so rightly said, “Fancy drinking only Cristal all through this trip!” After a day like that I’d say we all deserved it!

After the aforementioned and most tender pig roast in the grounds of our less-than-luxurious hotel, bed seemed like the most sensible option. For once everybody took it.

Keep going!

And so to Saturday, Day Three and the last leg of our pedal-powered assault on Cuba. John told us it would be a cinch after the gruelling-ness (yes, gruelling-ness) of the previous day. He was wrong. And the final day’s torture started early with an interesting bus journey to our departure point. Even Michael Hole, the most laid-back man ever to wear lycra, became irritated by the incompetence. I could swear he raised a quizzical eyebrow as the bus did little but go around in circles for half an hour. No matter. Once the ride was underway I for one decided that John Du P was clearly a pathological liar as my thighs once again screamed for mercy, despite rolling over relatively flat , albeit rough, Cuban terrain. Of course I should be thankful for small mercies, given that my arse had stood up well to the constant pounding – not a phrase I’ve used too often in my life thus far, to be fair!


Highway to Hell

After a quick stop and local instruction on how to make the most of the bountiful Cuban sugar cane from a machete-wielding bystander it was back in the saddle for one last push to the finish line. We had been warned about the last, long steep 5k climb to our final destination, but as we sipped on cans of lemon and lime at the final pit stop before the assault there was a palpable air of trepidation. Even our intrepid German friend Enno, who had never once flinched in the face of adversity, looked distinctly nervous. Off we went – and within seconds the group had spread out as each rider opted for his own personal strategy simply to make it home. Alan Bennie rocked to his own rhythm, as this charming Scotsman always does. Jan McGinity, usually a veritable tempest of pedal-pounding energy, had kindly made himself ill to spare the blushes of the rest of us. Gunnar Scholdberg did his best to pull Barry up the ridiculous incline, with the two Mikes, Miller and South , and out tow Chris’s, Drake and Lyons, piling on the pressure desperate for light (ale) relief.  But best of all, the truly daft Daryl Clark decided to set himself an even sterner test than the one laid out before us by unwittingly riding up the one in one gradient without realising he didn’t have to stay in one of his bike’s highest gears, the nitwit! And no-one zig zagged, honest!!

With all bar Stuart Galbraith breathing out of their bottoms, our own personal Everest was nonetheless mounted and 23 saddle-sore suckers finally made it across the line, to words of encouragement from their fellow riders and not a little swearing under their own breath. Bloody hell, we made it!

You should signal

Almost there...

At last!












The achievement in completing our ride across Cuba’s ridiculous road surfaces may never match up to Scott of the Antarctic or Eddie Izzard’s 43 marathons in 51 days. But for a bunch of none-too-fit and a bit-too-flabby chaps this was still an achievement to be proud of.

The hill top celebrations, as is befitting of this barmy place, took place over an eclectic lunch of a slice of pizza, patty-type affairs and some sort of meat-filled wrap. Eccentric but enjoyable – just like Cuba.

And so, following a short trip to learn Salsa dancing (yes really, and yes it was!)  to the farewell dinner on the impressive rooftop restaurant of Havana’s seriously luxurious Parque Centrale. Did we deserve such pampering? Of course we did.? Under strict instruction from Rod we had all been cajoled into bringing Dinner Suits with us, a bit of a change for the Arab garb fancy dress at the end of the Egypt ride. These were to be worn supposedly to go with the cigars and, apparently, the atmosphere of old Cuba ( a bit like Huddersfield then!?) , and didn’t we look a smart bunch as we were serenaded by a guitaring duo who thought nothing of whipping off a Cuban-flavoured version of ‘Hotel California’?! Heaven in Havana!

We were also rejoined for dinner by famous Artist Andrew Hewkin who had come along with us to paint a representative picture of Havana related to the ride and the very excellent result , “While My Cigar Gently Weeps”, was eventually auctioned for a fantastic £8000 to go to our Charities.

With the now traditional daily award of ‘Wanker Of The Day’ going to Daryl for his ‘gear malfunction’ (3:1 on a steep hill and never out of 3 the whole ride, for the initiated) ,  thanks given to John, Alberto and Martitia and our crew, along with a “humourous” speech from Dan Weiner ( for which he was specially awarded a yellow T) and words from others, we got down to the serious business of hiding the pain with various anaesthetic concoctions.

And so drinks were drunk, songs were sung and tales were told long and late into the Havana night as we all agreed that our bodies had taken a battering while our minds had been expanded in the best possible fashion. Watching various folk wobbling off to bed was all the proof I needed that yet again, this had been a rip-roaring, cash-for-good-causes-accumulating, all-round success.



< Return to the Top