Words and photos: Diego Vivanco
Originally published in Issue #29
Back in the 1990s, bicycles were the favored mode of transport in Cuba. Little petrol was available in the country as a result of the collapse of the socialist bloc, and bicycles became the remedy to an acute transport crisis. At the start of the Special Period announced by Fidel Castro, Cuba received bicycle shipments from China (an estimated one million 57-lb. Phoenix, Forever and Flying Pigeon models which were then sold to Cubans at a fraction of the price), and later proceeded to open factories to continue with the manufacture, the annual production rate peaking at 100,000 in the mid-90s. Overnight, and out of the sheer necessity to combat fuel rationing, the country had adopted an uncontemplated cycling culture.
The system became highly efficient; bike-only boulevards and bridges were set up in Havana, a ciclobús was introduced to transport commuters and their bikes from the Habana del Este suburb to the city center, and large workplaces were required to have parqueos, safe bicycle storage facilities with a guard and a full-time mechanic on the premises. Bicycling parking lots, tire repair servicemen known as poncheros, and bike repair shops proliferated street corners.
By the end of the decade, approximately 700,000 Habaneros were believed to travel around the capital by bike, and almost two million people had embraced the two-wheeled solution throughout the entire island. What had originated as a national priority became, perhaps inadvertently, an integral part of their way of life.
IGOR, OR THE ALLEYWAY
Igor sits on a bucket in an alleyway in the western-most section of Havana’s Vedado district, fully engrossed in the morning’s work. He’s busily tightening the spokes of a wheel, aware that the client, patiently leaning against the wall, has also asked him to straighten the rim. Well adapted to his work environment, Igor is thorough in his job, closely examining the wheel as he spins it on an oxidized truing stand, too absorbed to appreciate the rumba music and the chirps of a caged budgie emanating from a nearby window.
A resident walks down the alley, acknowledges Igor and enters his home, blasé at the mechanic’s presence in his doorstep, who continues with the methodic wheel inspection. A few minutes later, Igor has finished fixing the wheel, and the client leaves the improvised bike maintenance shop satisfied with the mechanic’s efforts, who by now is greeting the arrival of his colleague José Humberto. “It’s been a quiet morning, but things should pick up later on,” Igor updates him on the day’s prospects before leaving. The new arrival drops his tool bag on the ground and proceeds to the passage’s narrow entrance, where he waits for more clients to arrive.
Igor and José are renowned bike mechanics in Havana, and like all in this profession, their business relies on their street presence, for hardly any bicycle mechanics own a repair shop in the city. In their case, they’ve adjusted to working life in an alleyway, yet despite the out-of-sight location, clients travel long distances for their service. Experienced roadside bike mechanics are highly sought after in Havana.
A characteristic September downpour has forced José to take shelter in a burger bar beside the alleyway, where he has little trouble finding refuge in a chocolate milkshake. “I learned to repair bikes out of necessity,” he says. “I had a bike accident, a wheel rim got damaged, I somehow fixed it and that led me to learn to repair more things. I asked other mechanics for advice and that is how I got myself here, 20 years down the line.”
Unconcerned about the day’s setback, the repairman is happy to explain the workings of Cuba’s bike mechanic culture whilst the storm subsides. “I have a license to repair bikes. There’s also a license available to sell bike parts, but I don’t have it. When a client comes with a bike that needs fixing, I specify which parts are needed, the client goes off to buy the part and when they come back I carry out the repair. General maintenance work on a bike can earn you five CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos) or 120 Cuban pesos, and different fixes range from 25 to 40 Cuban pesos. I would say on average I take care of ten to 12 clients every day, and sometimes I even repair exercise bikes at a gym at the end of Calle 13.”
Quick-fix bike mechanics such as José are survivors of a cycling revolution which has fallen off in recent years. A rise in oil imports caused by the arrival of tourists and foreign corporate investment, coupled with the introduction of strong currencies (first the dollar and now the Cuban convertible peso) prompted the return of motorized vehicles and public transportation. The state-owned bicycle factories closed down, and with it the scarcity period arrived, where neither new bikes nor spare parts were available, a situation which still takes place today. These circumstances forced many riders, especially in urban areas, to abandon bicycle use and revert back to fossil fuel driven transportation, as a considerable number could not afford to pay mechanics or invest in increasingly more expensive bicycles and spare parts.
Despite the decrease in riders and the multiple hardships for cyclists, bicycles still play a principal role for a considerable number of Cubans who still see the bicycle as a basic medium of subsistence. Bikes are still a key method to take kids to school, sell produce at a street or market, travel with the spouse or children, commute, shop, transport cargo or transform into bicitaxis, and the fact remains that the daily lives of many people are heavily dependent on the knowledge and skills of bike mechanics such as José.
The rain stops and a man arrives on an unbranded red mountain bike and asks José to check the brakes. José’s talent becomes apparent, as he skillfully installs the new brake cables the client has already brought with him. When a number of private sector occupations were legalized in the Nineties, employment in the bike industry grew substantially, and when the factories closed down this caused an upsurge in mechanics who each took their own path, but lately only the best have been able to ward off the challenge of limited resources, a lack of working space, a decreasing market and the availability of only old, poor quality parts.
“A large part of the population still relies on us for their day to day,” José explains. “Those of us who are still around play a vital role in the city. Many people depend on their bikes, and will do so indefinitely.” It’s not long before two more cyclists enter the alley, fittingly supporting José’s argument that bicycles came here to stay.
ÁNGEL, OR CUATRO CAMINOS
Cuatro Caminos is a crossroads, which regardless of being close to the tourist stronghold of historic Habana Vieja, attracts little attention from outsiders. The area’s vibrant namesake market, which takes up an entire square block, offers unique and abundant food produce — the imposing inner pillars tower above endless stalls inundated with avocados, mangos, mameys, papayas and other fruit and vegetables — yet even the presence of this bustling hub of farmer activity does little to appease the negative reputation which precedes the neighborhood. Despite Havana having one of the lowest crime rates in the world, many locals advise against venturing alone in the ramshackle, pothole-infested roads south of the 1920 building.
Here, the rows of cracked buildings and run-down facades possess little of the charm which makes other districts of Havana so special. The rubble and debris take turns on the pavement, and people stare — half vigilant, half curious — at the unfamiliar presence they can’t quite fathom.
“This is where many bike mechanics can be found, as well as bike component sellers,” explains Ángel, a lean, tall construction worker happy to introduce a number of mechanics he’s acquainted with. His bike must be at least 20 years old, and serves as his transportation, taking him and his tools wherever work requires him to be. “There were many more before, but there are still a few knocking about. They solve many issues, not everybody is able to repair a bike. I sometimes try to fix my own but I’m no mechanic; I do what I can.
“When you go to a seller for a bike part, he has had to buy it from somebody else unaware of where that person got it from. If a bike gets stolen, all those bike parts will eventually end up in bikes which are now in use. Some bikes also get sold to mechanics, and the parts will serve other bicycles,”
Ángel stresses the difficulty to maintain a bike, where hardly any new or original parts can be found. “Many people cycle daily, kilometers and kilometers, traveling from afar, bikes are essential and we keep fixing them out of necessity, not because they are any good. It’s more expensive in the long run to continually repair your bike than purchase another, but if a new one costs $50, and a repair costs $4, and all you have at that moment is $5 in your pocket, you will get it repaired and solve the problem even if it’s temporary and it means spending another four pesos in three weeks.”
A welcoming mechanic is happy to show his tire-replacing prowess in the small garage under his home. “The main difficulty for Cubans are the tires, which can cost in excess of $25, and not only are they of poor quality, they only serve Chinese and MTB models, so people buy them off the street. Where they come from I don’t ask, I just change them,” says the man, adamant not to provide his name, yet willing to describe other aspects of his work. “Inner tubes are a major issue also. Around 90 percent of bicycles do not have bike-specific inner tubes, they are made from lorry or bus tubes. There are people who earn a living making those inner tubes.
“For instance, my bike has two inner tubes made for buses,” adds Ángel, who by now is clearly intent on finding more repairmen to illustrate their importance. “We’re going to look for the Mute; he’s the best at straightening bicycle wheels in all of Havana.”
Turning into Máximo Gómez avenue (better known as Calle Monte) yields entirely different scenes. Heavy traffic, foot travellers and frantic commercial activity announce the proximity of the market. The corners teem with Guarapera stands, where sugarcane juice is extracted using a large hand-cranked press and sold as refreshing Guarapo drink to combat the heat and humidity of the day. Santería shops abound to satisfy the needs of the area residents, widely devoted to the African-originated religion. The street’s neatly aligned building porches create a covered walkway, which provides the Mute with sufficient working space. His workshop consists of a cardboard sign hanging from a rusty steel window grill:
Wheels also hang from the window, and below. The Mute rests on an old unfolded cardboard box to protect himself from the discomfort of sitting on the pavement for hours. The mechanic stands up and affably greets Ángel before resuming his job, sitting down facing the road, toolbox on one side, the latest damaged bike in front of him.
“He’s incredibly talented, and like him, there are many more who are indispensable, operating with few resources,” remarks Ángel. The Mute, by now laboriously fixing a broken chain with two hefty mallets and a pair of pliers, stops, looks up and starts communicating manually. “He’s learned the trade with his bare hands; it was the day to day that made him become a mechanic. And like him, there are many self-made repairmen that learned on the street.”
Ángel attempts to interpret the manic combination of hand movements and facial expressions. The Mute casually resumes his work, becoming totally engrossed in a matter of seconds, nodding appreciatively as if to compliment himself for the repair he’s carrying out. “It’s the need which makes you do all these things, learn all these skills; what happens is that necessity has forced us to learn to do everything,” adds Ángel. “If it wasn’t for people like the Mute there would hardly be any bikes in Havana. In Cuba, everything gets fixed.”
ALEXEI, OR THE SPARE PARTS SHOP
The small bike shop near the Almendrares River in Western Vedado is one of the few places in Havana where riders can find a substantial assortment of bike parts. The shop used to be the tiny, enclosed front garden of a block of flats, now transformed into an improvised newsstand-like space crudely adhered to the building.
An oxidized iron roof protects the booth, and an old metallic lattice covers the front side, except for a waist-up window which serves both as counter and entrance to the premises. Inside, statuettes of deities, ornaments, crosses, beads, flowers and plants adorn a large cloth-covered table, unmistakably a makeshift Santería altar paying homage to Orishas. A fully-powered fan ventilates the cramped space but the soap opera playing on the radio is still discernible. Above, corroded gear cables, brake cables, bearings, locknuts and spacers hang from the ceiling, and rims recline against the time-worn blue walls. In one corner, tires, inner tubes, wheels and helmets pile up in no particular logic. Countless nuts, bolts, spokes, handlebars, pedals and chainrings rest on a wooden table, next to some pesos and three pristine cigars.
The proprietor of the habanos is Alexei, a stocky, tank top-wearing mechanic. He sits on the pavement next to the shop, his teeth holding a puro in his mouth as he briskly greases a bike’s ball bearing. The grey haired shopkeeper observes from the counter, having just provided Alexei with the necessary tools and spare parts. Two other friends watch Alexei, leaning on the shop’s ledge, regular attendees of the daily events which that microcosm of Havana offers. Alexei has over ten years experience, and working next to a spare part shop guarantees himself a steady stream of clients, but he likes to point out that many Cubans still prefer to seek homemade solutions in order to save money and enjoy adaptations that a standard mechanic will not or cannot do.
“Bicycles have been altered for all transport uses,” Alexei says. “The need to do all sorts of modification exists. For instance, small engines have been installed on some bikes to travel faster. In some cases they are original motors but others might be from mosquito fumigation machines, bought from someone and then fitted to the bike.”
People’s inventiveness has produced inconceivable hybrids and domestic alternatives, such as the incorporation of Soviet engines to Chinese bicycles. “If there is no money, people improvise. They build seats for kids which are installed in the front part of frames; make-do wooden pedals are also common,” Alexei cites examples of original solutions for issues that a spare parts shop like the one supplying him does not stretch to. “There are also mechanics who focus on specific bike types and variations.” Without needing to mention them, it becomes apparent that a visit to a local bicitaxi mechanic is long overdue.
MIGUELITO, OR THE BICITAXIS
Miguelito lives in a flat above a bicitaxi rank in a back street off Carlos III Avenue. When somebody shouts his name, his head pops out of a window, he inspects the road below, and if he recognizes the caller, heads downstairs in a flash. “It’s great that you came today, I need to check the wheels and grease the bearings of my bicitaxi.”
Miguelito is both a bicitaxi rider and a mechanic. His colleagues hold him in high regard and turn to him when their bicitaxis breakdown and require an immediate repair. Miguelito’s black and red bicitaxi is surprisingly frugal and only slightly illustrative of Cuban inventiveness: the personal touch of the owner is limited to two battered Sankey speakers which rest under the passengers’ seat, ready to provide clients with the latest reggae, salsa or rumba tunes. It strangely doesn’t boast a Real Madrid or FC Barcelona badge sticker, for football is currently a national obsession, rapidly taking baseball’s once unrivalled popularity within Cuba’s youth, and the decoration lacks the imagination of other bicitaxis, where even the tarpaulins that protect the customers from the Havana sun show inventive and colourful art.
Regardless of the unoriginal design, the three-wheel bicycle stands out for its peculiarity. The Latin American version of the rickshaws came into being in 1992 as a solution to support a public transportation system close to collapse. Bicitaxi riders emerged with their own self-made tricycle solutions, and the service became the only source of income for many Cubans arriving from the countryside and the eastern part of the island who intended to earn a living in the capital.
Local authorities were initially inflexible to their presence, some detractors also found bicitaxis a denigrating means of earning a living, but such was the dependency by riders and clients for this mode of transport that eventually operating licences were provided with the opening of self-employments. Cuban ingenuity to obtain incomes gave life to a versatile solution, and the bicitaxis are now inherent to the city’s landscape, worn relics of the extremely difficult Período Especial.
The service survives in a semi-legal status, thriving in the touristic sector, mainly present in Old Havana but seen in other places around the city, their routes nonetheless restricted to allow for a better coexistence with cars, guaguas and cocotaxis. One of the prerequisites to obtain or maintain a license is to pass a vehicle inspection, and this is where Miguelito proves crucial.
He’s seated on a wooden stool, wearing blue overalls and flip flops, and sweats profusely as he turns a bolt with a massive adjustable wrench, fixing a three-wheel bicycle taxi is more laborious due to the sheer size of parts. Around him over ten spanners lie scattered on the asphalt, and a metal tin stores the grease that he’ll apply to the parts. Once the bike bearing has been dismounted, he uses a yellow toothbrush to remove all the accumulated debris, mud and stone granules, and then rinses it inside a half cut plastic container where other nuts and bolts have been stored.
“Bicitaxis are not as prominent now, partly due to the return of cars and also because the supply of spare parts dropped,” Miguelito explains. “You must understand that these are the same bicitaxis that have been circulating since the mid-90s,” Miguelito is now meticulously greasing the ball bearings. “I had to earn a living with a bicitaxi and learned the mechanics myself. Now I do both jobs.”
Two other bicitaxi riders rest on the passengers’ seat of their own vehicles, one napping, the other staring blankly at the infested road he hopes to traverse with a client or two. It feels like a slow day for all, but Miguelito is unconcerned. “Bicitaxis enjoyed a time of splendor, not so much now, but will still be used in the short term,” he adds.
A walk around Havana offers a myriad of bike scenes. An old man cycles down Ayestarán avenue transporting a mattress; old men wait for their turn at a barber shop in Vedado, their clapped out bikes resting at the entrance; a knife-sharpener rides by on his bike, blowing a whistle to announce his arrival in Calle Bruzón; a pastry vendor takes to the street in Calle 16 transporting his produce in a container resting on the front of his adapted cargo bike; a postman does his round on a mountain bike in Cuatro Caminos; two fishermen ride away from the Malecón carrying their rods and the day’s catch; members of the proliferating emo urban tribe of Havana show off their tweaked mountain bikes in Centro Habana.
It’s become clear that although the bicycle failed to permanently replace the automobile, cyclists and mechanics have kept a place they once gained, their importance intact. Public transport and cars returned and bikes lost their popularity, partly due to the lack of spare components, the availability of other commuting options and the risk of riding bikes in heavy traffic, but by now many have taken to the bike, some out of love, others out of convenience.
And there is still hope for the future of bikes in Cuba. The government is considering the reintroduction of bicycle use as part of their future political plans to alleviate the current problems in public transportation, which authorities have claimed “unstable, insufficient and of low quality” over the years. Vice-president Marino Murillo recently announced the intention of promoting bike use so that it once again takes center stage in population mobility. The first idea being evaluated is the tax-free sale of new spare components to allow for better bike maintenance. The availability of better resources would undoubtedly help mechanics, and although many more measures would be required, any steps taken to guarantee the future of bikes and mechanics will be welcomed.
Mechanics have played a significant part in ensuring that the bike never left Cuba, and now, more than ever, are here to stay.