I went to Cuba with Rod Smallwood and some friends. 
Tom's tale


I met Dan W at Clapham J, we trained to Gatwick and met all checking in in red T-shirts with the Cuban flag (thanks Bazza), I was premium e’ thanks be, for Virgin are no longer less cramped than a BA cattle truck, but we all stayed in the airport bar rather than 1st class lounge it, bar Stuart from Sonisphere who won Wankeroftheday for that!  We boarded fine and I sat in the space of the 747 bump with Mark Fuller and bonded or rather I coped just, as we dozed and watched crap movies and compared Brickbreaker records and tried to prize more wine from the grasp of the friendly trolley dollies.  Down below war raged as the alcohol-appetite of the 18 or so in economy exceeded the pitiful free supply and someone, who knows who, raided the stores. All were accused of stealing (can you steal that which is complimentary?) and threatened with arrest on arrival. Bad blood, but more of that later.

We arrived and waited at the bus forever as some bureaucracy or other was sorted and then whizzed off to the hotel Melia Havana in Miramar, the Western coastal suburb with modern office blocks behind the sea-fronting slightly tired 5* hotels. The coach (Iago’s coach, Eeeaaaago-o-o-o-o’s coach actually) was joy with reclining seats and the trip a shock of crumbling suburban villas and impoverished slum lives lived in open view as we trundled past.  The hotel was way better than I expected, and joy of joys I was sharing with Mike Salt-of-the-Earth Hole, a quiet and tidy soul, rather than one of the many more exotic personalities on tour! Supper was OK just, but the beers kept flowing in the cavernous lobby bar until jet lag kicked me into bed.

Up the next morning for the bicycle fitting by the beach and a little Tai Chi while we waited for the stragglers and the disorganised, John the tour organiser showing the first traces of the patience and tolerance and collegiate leadership that are his forte, even if some of his decisions proved imperfect over time (again more of that anon) and then off through the suburbs and tropical glades with huge trees swathed entirely in equally huge curtain like creepers and topped off by more flocking vultures and birds of prey than seen in a lifetime in England. Up the much feared hill and onto Revolution Square, that can hold a million revolutionary celebrators, but hasn’t since 1989 I bet. All the 60’s ministry buildings looking empty and in deep decline (“I wonder”, said Stuart, looking at the ministry of defence, “How many poor sods died in the basement of that one?”  That’ll make you think.). 

And then on to Old Havana to tour the squares and railway tracks – one of which trapped Victor and tipped him over (“Small earthquake in Havana, not many dead”) and then a pot hole swallowed wee Dan (both would get Wankeroftheday for those) and on to lunch at restaurant La Barca by the harbour.  The buildings all shabbily fascinating and often entirely hollow behind their belle époque facades, the old steam loco’s all lying discarded seemingly as they stopped perhaps 20 years ago or more; and the cars just on the turn now from the legendary dominance of the 1950’s cruisers to the comparatively tiny, newly imported, French and Japanese – a bit like a gentle waning of an age of dinosaurs. Soon only tourists and wedding couples will pose in the old-timers’ skin-deep luxury.

Lunch, and old friendships renewed and new ones explored. Mike H the King of the Mountains (or at least the shorter hills) and proving the best room-mate I ever had; Jan, the hot bodied rugby agent with his cut off tee and his lightning smile, Howard Johnson, private investigator, happy to lead the search for the killer one-liner; and elite-pelotonnier Gunnar the Swede, dragging Bazza with him as a chain does a ball, and never losing patience, all perfect English and generous wallet, Svenskahandelsbanken indeed. 

And then the Napoleonic Old Guard, Fuller the Loud, Rod the Powerful, Bazza the Barking, Stuart the Wanker (not really, just too good a cyclist and fit a man to resist nipping up and down the hills to pick up the stragglers, which teamwork fits ill with any English sports tour-party I’ve ever been on), Simeon the Storyteller and winner of prizes sought by men 1/3 his age and of course the caring Doc and Victor the vast, the booming magnificent, and Gunner Mike with the all gear and some idea, though sadly not a knee.

And the new boys, the newly mega-rich Flipper, Eric (Darryl and I flanking him like bookends throughout, fine IFA’s that we are), Stuart the reformed Sun-editor (we hope!) with a headline for every occasion and who was sober no matter how much he drank.  And Luke the Richie Rich Barbadian who handed out the cigars in a steady stream (Siglo 6’s you know, best in the world) like they were made of banana leaves (they were), and proved the best connected of us by the end, ands to be connected in Cuba is quite an achievement is seems to me.  And Chris the wonderfully wide West End property mogul, complete with sealskin DJ and commensurate cash handouts whenever needed; and Chris the pinkly bald and just bloody delighted to be here perma-smile; and Dan the classy cyclist stills camera man, whose first pot hole above was not to be his last (but more of that anon).  Then the gentler men, Alan the unlugubrious Scot and Mike S his professorial mate, both laughing endlessly at the intentional stupidities of good tourists and becoming dab hands at same; Enno, the Deutsche internet dater who found the English hilarious, but in a good way you understand. What a tour to happen across.  Well done Enno! And lastly the great recorder: Andy-behind-the-lens, laughing at us all and wisely using the bus to get to the top of the hill for his trademark fly-by-when-knackered shot;  And then Andrew the artistic, John the patient and Martita the bright-as-a-button, our loyal Cuban guide and interpreter, as proud of her odd wee land as any Brit might be of theirs.

And after Lunch a happy cruise along the Malecon and home through the Embassy villas to the OK shower or a freezing pool for Simeon and then the splendid exotica of Club Tropicana, where Luke and Mike H and Bazza dozed even before the show started, and though they were gently decorated with slices of ham and similar, proved the wisest of us, for we took no fancy to the dancing girls and boys in 6ft headgear prancing around like a top-drawer 1975 Miss World pageant and sloped off long before the end to a proper bar and long chat and another bar and then another and then bed. 

And up the next day at dawn to coach out to the countryside for the big one, 70k’s plus on roads last surfaced by Batista, starting with an easy morning’s 34k from the old Hershey’s sugar plantation electric railway station, still functioning, and still the subject of a law suit in the US. Give us our fields back please. Then undulating mostly downhill to the sea and lunch; mankini’s in the waves, though only triathlon Stuart actually swimming as the rest were scared of the dreaded chafe; and a snooze before John’s promised easy first afternoon leg of 16k of ‘undulations’ which were this time mostly up and mostly quite big for ‘undulations’;  up past the young communist’s holiday camps to the main road and a wee bit further on the long haul to Matanzas.   Except the front-van forgot the check the mileage and Alberto our pro-cyclist leader decided it was time to teach Stuart a thing or two and he forgot to count too, stopping only when Stuart was left in his wake.  But that was maybe 25 km’s of dirt track hell and what broke Stuart shattered the rest of us.  I moaned along with Gunnar near the front of the most spread peleton any tour ever saw – surely a 10k line of occasional and angry cyclists traipsing past the subsistence farmers.  As we arrived at the catch up stop from hell, I said that it would be an hour or more before we saw brave Bazza and the tailgunners, and went to sleep on the verge, listening to the sugar steam train puff up the valley… until something made me open an eye to see two vultures circling over my head, high up, but coming closer.  They were not far wrong in their surmising, but Simeon’s arrival and bellow of disgust with every organiser of everything, everywhere, got me lumbering out of the pecking zone and back into the firing line, dreading the next half day of pain. 

Except we had broken the back of it, the next 16k stretch turned out to have just 9 or so left as we understood Alberto’s error; and on decent roads that took us gliding to a gathering just before the big, long hill that marked the end of our longest day. 

“There”, was wherever the bus was and it was there at the top of the hill tonight to save us the suburban creep into town in the evening traffic of exotic vehicles.  We saved Mark Fuller’s life, or rather a truck driver’s bumper, with a well timed cry and, wondering whether we had done the right thing for mankind generally, we headed to the beautiful town square, all fresh paint and stunningly restored Wild West style hotel.  Beers and cigars and a mutinous refusal to move followed.  The Doc told them to board the bus, then Iago had a go; then I barked the orders John had given, but Rod and Mark and Stuart and Victor are not camp followers, they have bossed so many tours between them that a deadline is exactly when they decide it should be and it need be no other time.  They were quite right of course, for we headed off to the only disappointment of the tour, and even then not a serious one.  John had done his work preparing us mentally for the Cuban Butlin’s we were to spend the night in, and so we found the creaking plumbing and inoperable locks and 1970’s rooms OK just, for the sheets and towels were clean and the water got hot, eventually.  The Roast Pig saved the evening, the pit dug out back and adjoined by a cocktail bar of the trestle table variety, where Pablo and Paulo ground out 100 black market mohito’s and thus topped up their life’s savings nicely, while we all got quietly pissed until the pig was perfect. Then into the dining hall for a Cuban feast.  Mantioc root is as good as potato any day, the perfectly ripe tropical fruit filled any gaps and rice and beans came second only to the pig itself.  We demolished it and made each other laugh all the way to the dance hall disco, where we found ourselves the only attendees and after a dozen cold beers each sloped off to bed.  Just like rugby tours to Wales in 1984 really.


Awoken by a sunbeam and alarm call at John’s beloved 7am and down to breakfast – great omelette’s and decent coffee and as much fruit as you like, not 3rd world at all – and  then into the coach for the short ride to the cycles and our start.  Well it would have been short except for a bit of Latino navigation having us touch all 4 points of the compass first, but we were happy for the snooze before the assault on 5k hill.  But first a wonderful 35k flat ride through the sugar cane and the almost posh little towns, eating up the miles in the peleton-train lead through the breeze by Alberto’s thighs followed by The Wall of Tom and then Stuart drifting along in the vacuum like a sprinter timing his burst, and Mike and Gunnar and Howard and back on to the Doc and the happy chatting crowd at the back.  A catch up stop saw us fed sugar cane by the deft and smiling machete wielding worker waiting for his bus – a tipper truck proved to be the bus this morning, and then I drifted the last 10 km’s before the hill with Victor, chatting about why he we are not as rich as Eric, when we SO should be!   Maybe one day hey Vic!  And then the gathering at the foot of the climb to the look out restaurant at the top of the mountain, the rising tension as we prepared for the final push, and then off. 

If you don’t start at the front up a hill you never get to it, I reckon, so I set off medium hard, and saw Enno, the disciplined 200km a week dark horse from Keil (“Poland?  My family have been going there for years.”) chase Alberto, and Stuart too, until Mike Hole erupted up the slope as is his want, leaving me in his wake, before pulling up half way up the steepest 500m climb. 1:3 I promise you it was, and too much for his old back.  “POH” Mike I said sympathetically as I crawled by in 1:1 gear.  Passed on Hill.  Hard man hey?  And then just the grind ever upwards, inch by pedalling inch, knackered lactic legs screaming until a brief respite and then the next climb, of which their were many, but none like that first one; until Jan arrives alongside me just as it gets easy (“Bloody Hell the gym-bunny must have been following me all the time”). I was in my own little world of pain, and rather than fight his fit young body for 3rd or 4th place, I got him to hold hands as we passed the camera so as to give Andy the shot of teamwork we deserved.  Jan still nipped ahead on the inside at the last when I growled out my South African challenge to him on the final curve when past the camera line.  Perfidious Albion; Schalk would have had his eye out, but I’ve been in London too long.

And then egging the others on, light Mike slipping up the hill gently, Stuart and Alberto nipping back to encourage the rest, Gunnar wondering why his mates had just left him behind because in Svenska that would never happen, and several of the heavy brigade essaying little zig zags so as to make the slope easier; which tactic had Alberto in stitches, never having been utterly knackered in his smoothbrownskinnedsuperfit life.  Until all were there and the final cavalcade could sail over the bannered line to lunch and beer and a doze in the afternoon sun, before another in the coach into Havana Old town and the 1st World 5* perfect Parque Centrale, with its pool and Jacuzzi on the roof and icy Cristal beers.

And after that chillax, a last minute change into bow tie and black tie, or exotic versions thereof, with Chris in that sealskin tux, and Victor channelling the Dali Lama, and on to drinks and dinner back on a roof top, where Tuna steaks and Chilean red did us well and Dan blasted out a rip-roarer of a speech, listing all the many who could have won Wankeroftheday (my mountain top Tai Chi failing to win the nod, along with Luke’s many stabs at glory), before deciding that the Virgin Steward too was ineligible as “he is not a Wanker he is a ****”.  All true, all true, but said steward nonetheless found it hard to take, sitting as he was, at the table across the way, with all the straight girls. All hell broke lose dahling, but just as I was wishing mighty Goran was with us, Mark patched it up with free Embassy memberships and promises of free welcome cocktails. Phew. A salesman diplomat of the highest order.  So they served us on the way home, just, though Dan sat tucked in next to me in the bubble taking nil by mouth!

Our last Havana night was long, for Stuart H it ended watching his client lose the Australian open at 5am Cuban time, With Eric marching Bazza to bed in an Morecambe two step and Luke deploying expletives like Patton did tanks, I left the PR supremo deciding whether to text Mrs Murray or not. Not. A good decision for an old not-so-drunk, Stuart!

And then slowly vertical by 10 to breakfast and pack and check out eventually with those just coming down from the poolside; and meander across to the legendary Floridita (“Cradle of the daiquiri”) with Howard and Stuart H to see who else might turn up.  Most did eventually.  It might have been a tourist trap packed with not a Cuban in sight, but my bloody mary was the best of my life.  The trick is 4 parts Vodka to 2 of tomato juice and don’t hold the jalapeno.  The second and third were just as good.  So we stayed on and on, and when several confessed they had no cash, Eric laughed at the bill and paid it all.  Top man we cried and headed off the lunch with Luke’s local mate, whoever he might be. 

Into a rambling colonial pile, up in the ancient lift, past a church service on the second floor, and then out onto the perfectly colonial roof terrace with the BBQ smoking and a long table in the shade.  Smiling Cubans with fresh baked bread and cold wine arrive immediately and the dozen of us order the crayfish and prawn starter (fresh and sweet) and the BBQ’d leg of lamb and as much Rose as we could drink, all thoughts of staying sober for the Virgin steward’s inspection banished by Victor’s imperious ordering and close friendship with the Virgin Atlantic CEO. Hurrah! 

The legs of lamb came slow-braaied as an African might say, one whole leg each, for they were the skinny Cuban sort, but truly different and delicious.  And then Luke’s ‘mate’ arrived and I knew him from somewhere, and when we worked it out he turned out to be my own wife’s ex-boyfriend from her Fulham days.  I always liked the handsome bugger, but I loved him now, as he forced his free Cohiba’s upon us, bailed out our desperate whip round to pay the bill for 20 bottles of Chile’s best and told us all about the real Cuba, which he loves, being 1 of only 100 English resident in it.  So deadlines came and went, with all agreeing that check in need not be hurried, until, after Eric provided the Tour’s funniest moment with his Dolphin story and sound effects and then sober Alan came as emissary from John and Rod and the responsible group, and drew us back to the 21st century, the coach, the airport and home.

Not too destructive really, apart from that 2nd day of severe pain, and as with last year in Egypt, an absolute joy to be a middle aged bloke in the company of 20 or more others similar, some loud, some gentle, but all in the best of humour, keen to bond and all out for the craic and all happy to be raising £170,000 plus for kids who need it more than we now ever will, please God. 

See you next next year, this thing really is unmissable.        

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