Monday, 30 December 2013

Thank you and final sign off

It is fast approaching the end of 2013, and we have been back from our Cuban adventure long enough to have reflected on it, absorbed the experience, put on some of the pounds we lost, and got back into our work routines!

It was an amazing week - the best kind of challenge - hard work, but terrific fun and incredibly rewarding.  It was the culmination of almost 2 years fundraising and training, and we both wanted to close this blog with a reminder of what inspired us to do it in the first place, and to celebrate what we achieved with the help of our friends and family.

Our final fundraising figures are

£2,665 on Just Giving
£5,200 raised from the events we organised

making a grand total of


We have a small amount left in our fundraising account which we have decided to donate to Beechwood - a local cancer care charity.

A HUGE thank you to everyone who donated, supported us and helped out with our fundraising events.  We could cycle as far as you like, but if you hadn't supported us, we wouldn't have done this.

Just a few special thank yous to:

  • Anne Frampton and the team at Women v Cancer for creating such an incredible event
  • Theo and his team at Dream Challenges for supporting us on the cycle and the amazing organisation on the ground in Cuba
  • Everyone at Umbro - you have supported us in many different ways since we started this challenge
  • Our mums for worrying about us whenever we were out on the bikes!
  • Chris and Ian - for your endless patience and support throughout the last 2 years.  You had to train to do this event without actually doing it.  Still - you both got to holiday in Cuba! :D
  • To Gillian - thanks for asking me to do this challenge with you.  It was a privilege

Finally a reminder of why we signed up for this challenge back in 2011, and what kept us motivated to complete it.  Our friend and colleague Sally Jennings had been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and we wanted to do this for her to show our support.  When Sally passed away, we were just as determined to complete it in memory of her.

Since then, we have had several other friends who have been diagnosed with cancer, and they remain in our thoughts as they continue to fight it.  It has really highlighted to us the vital importance of the charities we have supported:

Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust
Breast Cancer Care
Ovarian Cancer Action

who in turn offer support and advice at a time when it is needed most.

Thank you
Karen and Gillian
Cuban Wheels

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Day 5 - Rancho Hatuey to Che Mausoleum (87km)

Cuban Wheels resplendent in pink at the start of the final day

Our last day of cycling started back on the main road.  We had to double back round a roundabout which was quite a sight - 82 women spreading out down one side of a dual carriageway, all the way round the roundabout and back up the other side - honking horns and waving as they passed girls going the other way!

The first stretch was tough as the traffic was heavy, and the vintage vehicles in Cuba give out a lot of fumes.  I am not sure at what point it started raining on this day, but rain it did, and it was rain like I have never experienced before.  We were cycling through several inches of water on the road surface which couldn't drain away fast enough.  In some parts it mixed with horse manure and mud resulting in a brown river that you just had to keep pedalling through, hoping there were no hidden potholes that would catch you out.

Gillian got quite a mouthful as a farm truck came the other way creating a wall of water as it drove past.  There was no option but to face it head on (or rather side on) and keep your mouth closed!

That top will never be white again!

After several hours of biblical rain, we were so wet our clothes just clung to us and it felt as though the rain was beating down straight on to our skin.  At the last stop, where we re-grouped to meet our final police escort, we got a bit giggly as we were so tired and it was rather ridiculous how much rain just kept falling.

We had a police escort for the last few kilometres to the Che Guevara Memorial so we could safely negotiate the road junctions.  There were 2 police cars with sirens going constantly.  I think they were enjoying it as much as we did!  Both cars were packed with 4 policemen - I think they had come along to witness the spectacle of 82 soaked women on bikes.  Must've been a quiet day on the crime front in Cuba!

We stopped briefly at the memorial for a talk, but I don't think anyone could concentrate as we were so wet and starting to get cold by this point.  We all decked out our bikes with pink balloons for the last stretch to the hotel.  This final 2km in the relentless rain were tough.  We were all glad to see the finishing line at the hotel, marked by a huge Women v Cancer banner and cheering Welcoming Committee.

It was a great welcome - with the customary cocktail handed out immediately, along with our finishers medals.  After a bedraggled group photo we all had to sort our bikes out and have the seats and pedals taken off again before heading indoors to hang everything up to dry!

A very soggy Cuban Wheels at the finish


These were brand new white socks at the beginning of the day!

We were tired but exhilarated.  Once we had washed the copious amounts of mud off ourselves in a fantastic hot shower, we headed to the bar for a celebration pina colada!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Day 4 - Trinidad City to Rancho Hatuey (82km)


When the alarm went off at 6:00 this morning, my eyes felt as though they were glued together.  Despite the air-con unit that sounded like a small jet plane, I had slept like a log and was struggling to drag myself awake.  Luckily (?) for me, there was no hot water, which I didn't realise until I was under the shower - so I was soon wide awake, showered and dressed.

Once our bags were on the coach we joined the maelstrom of female cyclists all attempting to eat as much breakfast as possible as quickly as possible, and then headed to our room for a quiet moment - this was our time to compose our thoughts, as Gillian said.  A valuable 15 minutes every morning!

Our day today began with a coach transfer into Trinidad, where we were treated to a walking tour of the city as it is the best preserved colonial city in America and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Plaza Major, Trinidad - view from inside one of the old colonial houses

We were then dropped of at the top of the Valle de los Ingenios (Vally of the Sugar Mills), which was the source of the wealth that helped build Trinidad.  The grand colonial houses were the homes of the Spanish families that made their fortunes in sugar over a golden period of about 100 years from the mid 18th century.  There are no mills there now, but it is a breathtaking part of the country, and an inspiring spot to start our cycle.

Valle de los Ingenios (above and below)

Our starting point at the top of the valley

As I sat on my bike, I was made painfully aware that this was my fourth consecutive day in the saddle.  The Rapha shorts had a lot of work to do today!  We started gently and it wasn't long before I started to wake up and get into my stride.  Gillian pressed on ahead for a bit, so I had a stretch of cycling on my own, and took everything in in silence.  I passed a farmer in a cart laden impossibly high with hay, pulled by a mule who was digging in too - he was heading up the hill with his load.  I wish I had stopped for a photo, but I was heading down at a decent speed, and didn't get chance to stop.  Certainly wasn't going to cycle back up the hill to chase my great shot.

We re-grouped at lunch time for a packed lunch, which we ate in a house which seemed to double up as a bar and restaurant.  For us it provided some welcome shade, and we were all grateful for this wonderful Cuban hospitality.

Outside our lunch spot

Gillian cooling off inside

After lunch we carried on in the heat, passing through a lot of farmland.  People were waiting in groups at the side of the road to be picked up in huge open-topped Russian trucks and driven to work, all standing in the back.  My crowded train to Manchester now seems luxurious - I promise myself that I will stop grumbling about it.

Pressing on through the valley - a watch tower can be seen on the left in the distance.  This was so the plantation owner could keep an eye on the slaves working in the sugar cane fields

This afternoon we had a refreshment break in a small cafe that sold ice-cream.  I didn't have to be asked twice - strawberry cornetto - you are all mine!  Heaven - particularly when washed down with ice-cold lemonade (at least I would burn off the inevitable sugar rush that was to follow).

Gillian with enough energy left for a joke

We had been warned that the last stretch of the day was a bit more undulating and could be into a strong headwind, which turned out to be the case.  It was pretty tough for the last few miles, but we got into a line with a group of other girls and worked at a decent pace to keep each other going, taking turns at the front.  We got our heads down and focussed on the cycling and really enjoyed it.

Beautiful cemetery we passed by in the mountains

We stopped just outside Sancti Spiritus so that the group could gather back together to cycle to the hotel as it was along a busy main road.  Our room was a pleasant surprise - a little bungalow set in park-like grounds.  It even came with a complimentary frog, that Gillian managed to catch in an ashtray while I hovered, pathetically, by the door!

Chaos caused in order to catch frog

Frog captured!

After dinner the hotel put on a show on an outside patio, which was like nothing I have ever seen.  First a salsa dancer resplendent in bustle and elaborate head-dress, followed by a singer who performed Guantanamera and My Way, amongst other songs.  Then a magician who seemed shy and awkward as he went through his routine, but then disappeared and re-appeared dressed as Michael Jackson to perform, karaoke style, to Thriller; before changing for a Stevie Wonder number; then Celine Dion and a fourth lady I couldn't identify as by then I was in tears, almost on the floor.  He had hilarious fake boobs and the white MJ socks remained on throughout the routine with his gold lame bikini for the finale.  Priceless.  We were giggling all the way back to our bungalow!

Day 3 - Hotel Rancho Luna to Playa Ancon (103km)

Day 3 started warm and sunny with clear blue skies.  We had been warned that this was going to be a tougher day with more hills, so the group was noticeably quieter this morning as everyone prepared themselves for the day ahead.  We had our bags on the coach as usual at 7:00 and were tucking into eggs by 7:20 - our morning staple.

Sadly we had to say goodbye to one of the ladies as she had fallen off her bike the day before and landed badly, breaking her arm.  She was devastated, and we all felt for her - this was not an experience any of us wanted to cut short, no matter how difficult it got.

Lining up in the shade - it was hot already at 8:00!
Proudly sporting a cycling tan!

After the morning briefing on the route from Theo, we set off from the hotel just after 8:00.  The roads were really quiet as were cycled along flanked by misty mountains on both sides.  Stunning.

It wasn't long before the hills started - nothing we hadn't trained for though.  All those slogs up Pott Shrigley were paying off now, as well as the 'heat training' in the form of spin classes!  You could feel the heat increasing as you reached the top of a hill, but how fantastic to go flying down the other side, cooling off in the breeze!  I loved this stretch of the ride - Gillian had really enjoyed powering along the flat stretch yesterday (I couldn't keep up with her in the end), but today was more my style.  I even managed to get ahead today and leave myself enough time to capture Gillian coming up the hill behind me!

Lunch today was in a restaurant tucked away in the hills.  We sat at large tables on a verandah and had congri (rice and black beans) with beef stew, salad, fresh fruit and a cold pineapple drink.  Cold pop never tasted so amazing!  During the course of our lunch the weather went from blazing sunshine to torrential downpour back to blazing sunshine - an extraordinary reminder that we were in the tropics now.

We had a flatter stretch in the afternoon where the farmers were burning the grass on the verges either side of the road.  It was pretty hot already, but we also had to cycle through the smoke and embers to get through, as there was no alternative route.  So far today, we had had floods and fire - it was feeling rather biblical!  Along this stretch we could see the sea to our right and occasionally we passed over several bridges spanning sandy bays.  The temptation to dive in was almost overwhelming, but discipline ruled and we all kept pedalling.

No swimming for us, just the hot road
Our mid afternoon drinks stop was by a small cluster of houses and a school.  Some of the children came out - curious to see what was going on with the sea of pink clad ladies and bicycles that were gathering at the side of the road.  We shared our snacks with them, but were astounded to see that what they really prized were the empty plastic 5 litre water bottles that we were rapidly emptying to slake our cycling thirst.  Virtually nothing gets thrown away in Cuba - there is a use for everything, and something can always be repaired.

The last few miles of our cycle became a bit more hilly with one steep climb up towards Trinidad.  Gillian was going strong at this point, but I was struggling - the long day and the heat were taking its toll a bit.  We had a quick stop off at the top of the hill in a pleasant shady square before setting off for the last stretch to our hotel, a final 15km towards the beach at Playa Ancon.  It was time to dig in and keep going - my backside was sore and I was tired and felt a bit sunburnt.  On the up side, it was flat cycling out on to the Ancon peninsula and the scenery was stunning - reedy marshes, where wading birds were idling, on one side; and the Escambray mountains rising up into clear blue sky on the other.

I could smell the salty tang of the sea so I knew it was close, but it seemed to take forever to get there as the road meandered in its own good time to the coast.  Eventually we arrived at our hotel and I have to say I was glad to leave my bike behind for the day and head in for another welcome cocktail - I was getting to like this part of the daily routine!

We just had enough time to check in, change into swimsuits and dive into the sea before sunset.  The water of the Caribbean sea was fantastic - warm and clear and so refreshing after a long hot day of cycling.  All soreness and tiredness was soon forgotten with the onset of a glorious sunset.  Bring on day 4!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Day 2 - Hotel Arenas Blancas to San Jose de Marcos (87km)

Getting ready for the start of day 2 - must've been stretching!
We loaded our bags on to the coach in the dark at 7am, then after quick breakfast we were ready to set off at 8am.  The sun was already hot and the sky a clear blue. The sun rises fast in Cuba!  We set out along a main road with our handsome police escort once again.

Cuban cool!

The group soon spread out as the road was long, straight and flat, so we took the chance to cycle a while on our own, taking everything in - the countryside, the glorious weather, the colours, the bemused Cubans smiling and waving as we cycled by, and the warmth of them all.  It is flying by so fast that it is hard to take in.

The route today was very flat apart from one short, sharp hill just before lunch.  Our lunch today was in a town centre - it was bustling with people watching us cycle by - school children in particular loved waving at us.  We stopped in the town square where Ennio and his team were waiting for us with hot samosas, pulled pork wraps and cold lemonade.  Sensational.

From our spot in the square we could take a moment to watch Cuban life go by - people were travelling round in carts pulled by mules, or old American cars - some of which looked as though they shouldn't be able to start, but they did.

As we left the square, they sky clouded over and it started to rain a bit, but it wasn't long before the clouds evaporated and we were in blistering sun again.  The first stretch of the afternoon was through pretty farmland.  We passed several farmers working in the fields or trotting along the road bareback on mules or in carts.

Heading to work Cuban style

Everyone was spaced out along the route by this point, so we got into a nice steady pace, chatting as we cycled along - tranquillo!

We pulled in to the rest stop to refill our water bottles and grab some nuts and fruit in a yard at the front of a small group of houses.  One of the ladies who lived there invited us into her home to use the toilet.  It was so bare and basic compared to the standards we are used to that we were quite shocked, but we were welcomed in with a smile and the lady ended up dancing with some of the girls to salsa music that was booming out of a huge 80's boom box in her lounge!

Rest stop for a quick snack and water top up

The final part of the cycle today was a 20km slog along a straight tarmac road.  We were all praying for a breeze or rain shower, but no such luck.  The sun kept shining and the shimmering heat reflected up from the road.  The countryside was flat as a pancake, with fields of oranges, bananas and sugarcane on either side.  Occasionally we would pass a school set back from the road, and we could hear the children cheering at us, and see them waving from the balcony.  That doesn't fail to make you smile and dig in.

Fruit from the farms for sale on the roadside

End of day - bikes down and on to an air-conditioned coach - yesss!
 The sight of our coaches pulled up by an enormous shady tree signalled the end of our day 2 cycle and was most welcome!  We transferred to our hotel for a much needed welcome cocktail and hot shower before heading to the bar.  The poor barman was rather overwhelmed by 82 thirsty women descending on him, so I took the only sensible option and ordered 2 beers when it was my turn.  That was about the extent of our revels though as everyone was too tired to party.  It had been a hard day despite the flatness of the route.  The combination of heat on the tarmac and jet lag kicking in had taken it out of us all, so after dinner we headed off to bed.

Day 1 - Hotel Villa Tropico to Matanzas City (62km)

Not a bad night's sleep in our little cabin that we were led to in the dark.  We have no idea what to expect this morning, but are up, as instructed, at 6 as we are in the first group to have our bikes fitted.  It is still dark as we head to reception where there is a pool of light created by the coach headlights.  There is a team of mechanics working their way through 82 bikes fitting seats, pedals and handlebars by the headlights!

We are both assigned Trek bikes with decent suspension and pretty chunky tyres compared to my road tyres in the UK (we would be glad of them later).  Once fitted we took a quick spin round the hotel grounds in the half light, and I decided straight away that this was going to be a good bike for me.

Then it was off to breakfast (no time to hang around) - freshly cooked omelette, fruit, yoghurt and bread - pretty good.

By now it was getting light and we could see the sun rising over the sea through the palm trees - a glorious caribbean sunrise.  It was going to be a hot day.  Unfortunately we could only look at the beach - a hot, sticky cycle lay ahead for us, not a cool swim in the Caribbean.  It was becoming clear that this was not a holiday!

Preparing for the off and getting a bit giddy

When everyone's bikes were ready, we gathered for a briefing in the shade of a large tree, as it was getting hotter and hotter.  We were introduced to our support team of doctors, mechanics, cyclists, drivers, and the snack and water team (my particular favourites).  Then once we had been taken through the route for the day, and where we would be stopping, we were ready to start.

Anne Frampton introduces our fantastic Cuban support team, headed up by the adorable Ennio

Gillian looking more and more worried as the briefing went on!

A hooter was sounded and we set off en masse along a winding country road at a gentle pace.  You can't rush things when you are a group of 82 cyclists.

We hadn't been going long when we were suddenly chased by a couple of dogs who were snapping at our heels as we cycled along.  We had to hit the gas for a couple of minutes to leave them behind.  Luckily no injuries, just mild panic!

After a short, sharp climb we turned into a rougher road which was riddled with potholes, so we had to pay more attention to our cycling.  We worked our way along this road, undulating through lush green forested hills on either side.  It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere - the only vehicles we saw were carts pulled by mules.

On the road - not sure what happened to the other 80 women!

After 35km we were directed off the road along a track, which we followed for about half a kilometre to arrive at a wonderful ranch in the middle of acres and acres of rolling green hills, which had a restaurant overlooking a small lake, where a buffet lunch was served along with ice cold lemonade (first really cold drink since arriving in Cuba).

Lunch at Rancho Gaviota

The afternoon's cycle was pretty straightforward up until the toughest climb of the day, which was (of course) at the end.  We worked our way up at a steady pace, thinking of Sally when we had to dig in, and ended up at the top of a beautiful valley.  We could see vast flocks of black turkey vultures soaring on the thermals in the valley.

At the top of the climb, overlooking the Yumuri Valley

Once everyone was at the top, we were joined by 2 rather dashing Cuban policemen on motor bikes who were join to escort us down through the town.  Marvellous!

Rain clouds had been gathering over the course of the afternoon, and the heavens opened as we descended into the town - it was so refreshing!  We were near the back of the group so could see the line of cyclists snaking down in a colourful procession - mostly pink - which looked fantastic.  We really felt like part of something bigger then - not just a team of 2.

As we passed through the town people waved from their doorsteps or shouted 'Hola' (amongst other unintelligible things in Spanish!).  We must have been quite a sight to the Cuban residents.

Our first day of cycling finished at a school in Matanzas, where we were welcomed by a group of children who had prepared a short performance for us.  We left our gifts which were received with huge smiles all round, and then it was on to the bus to transfer to our hotel.

Cuban Wheels hot and sweaty but still smiling after day 1

Getting there

My first glimpse of land after a long flight over the Atlantic is stunning - a crescent shaped island with white sand beaches.  The sea is really blue and the sand creates swirling patterns of lighter and darker shades of blue in the water.  The clouds are delicate white puff balls - not like the solid grey mass we left behind in Manchester!

Walking off the plane though a glass tunnel felt as though I was being hit with heaters from all sides - first hint that this was going to be a very different experience to cycling in the north of England.

Gillian was at the airport to meet me and we hung around to wait for the rest of the group who were arriving on a flight from London.  It took ages to get the whole group through customs and it was dark by the time we were all on the coaches and on our way.  We had just over an hours drive to our first hotel, so everyone was tired and hungry by the time we got there.  We were delighted to be met by a huge hot buffet dinner and tucked in straight away.  After all, we had to fuel up for a good few miles of cycling the next day!