Cuba

King of the road, Cuban-style

Video: Riding High on Flying Pigeons in Havana

Welding together parts from Chinese Flying Pigeon bicycles that became ubiquitous in Cuba during the era known as the Special Period, Félix Ramón Guirola Cepero has become Cuba's king of towering bicycles. He is in the process of building a Guinne
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Welding together parts from Chinese Flying Pigeon bicycles that became ubiquitous in Cuba during the era known as the Special Period, Félix Ramón Guirola Cepero has become Cuba's king of towering bicycles. He is in the process of building a Guinne

Welding together parts from Chinese Flying Pigeon bicycles that became ubiquitous in Cuba during the gasoline-starved era known as the Special Period, Félix Ramón Guirola Cepero has become Cuba’s king of towering Frankenstein-like bikes.

Everywhere he goes on his tall bikes, the cameras or cellphones come out to snap pictures of his creations, and people do double-takes. He thinks nothing of taking his everyday bicycle, which is more than 9  1/2 feet tall and made from a stack-up of three Flying Pigeon frames, on a spin along the seaside Malecón or through the narrow streets of Old Havana — where he must dodge everything from bici-taxis to vintage cars.

“When kids see me, they ask: ‘Hey, how do you climb up and climb down?’ So I demonstrate by jumping, holding on, passing. The kids wave at me; they kiss me. I get back on the bike and pedal off again,” Guirola said. “When I reach the traffic light, I climb off, cross the street and climb back on. I’ve never had a problem with traffic, never had an accident, never fallen or had any issues.”

And he’s been riding tall bikes for 34 years. Sometimes he gives his wife a ride to work on his tall bike. Sometimes he rides it without holding on to the handlebars.

Even his everyday bike generally gets a huge reaction. But at his home on Aguacate Street in Old Havana, he is working on his pièce de résistance, a tall bike that will soar 32 feet, 9.7 inches (10 meters) above the street. “That’s the bike I want to finish and display publicly before the end of the year and set a new record here in the capital,” said Guirola, 51. “I’m going to invent the largest bicycle in the history of the world.”

But he also has been invited to take the 10-meter bike to the United States and is weighing whether to try to set a new Guinness World Record on American soil. He expects he would be permitted to go: “With the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba now opening a little, because this is a cultural activity.”

I’m going to invent the largest bicycle in the history of the world

Félix Ramón Guirola Cepero

If the new 10-meter bike is rideable and its height is certified by Guinness, it would easily eclipse the 20-foot, 2.5 inch (6.15 meters) record set in 2013 by “Stoopidtaller,” a tall bike built by Richie Trimble of Los Angeles. Given his lengthy experience with tall bikes, Guirola said he might even be able to set a record for the longest time riding “gigantic bikes.”

Guirola said he thinks he’s the only one in the world who would be able to ride a 10-meter bike. Others that he’s met on Facebook and who have seen his video on YouTube say so, as well.

One of the challenges in building the world’s tallest bike in Cuba is getting the right materials, he said. He favors thick Russian-made tires from 1981 to 1983 and says they’re very difficult to get. Bicycle chains are also hard to find, but he said GoPro Camera, which makes video cameras and mounts often used to capture extreme sports, helps him out from time to time with chains.

Guirola’s tallest completed bike stretches a shade over 19 feet, 8 inches (6 meters) and is attached to the facade of his home for easy mounting. Dressed in bicycle racing gear, he clambers up to his lofty bicycle seat like a spider.

To ride a tall bike, he said, stability and equilibrium are needed, as well as fearlessness. “I’m fascinated by height. When I go to a baseball stadium, I would prefer to see the game from the highest point, where nobody is sitting,” he said.

Guirola says he and half-brother Rolando Mergarejo Vega are the only ones in Cuba who make such tall bikes. So for camaraderie and advice, he turns to other tall-bike hobbyists in Miami, California and New York. Julian Valencia, of Miami, and two New York biking enthusiasts have been a big help, he said, and all three have come to Cuba and ridden with him along El Prado, the Malecón and near Capitolio, the capitol building that is now being restored.

The bicyclist says he’s happy to see the tall-bike clubs that have sprung up around the United States since the 1990s. “It’s extraordinary that what I’ve been doing for 34 years has spread around the world.”

Before he was a tall-bike rider, Guirola was a boxer who was runner-up champion in Cuba twice and boxed in international tournaments. But one day in 1981 when he was 17 years old, he saw the mechanic for the Cuban cycling team handling a tandem bike. It was the first time he had ever seen a tandem bike, and it gave him the urge to build his own nontraditional bicycle.

“I started soldering one bike frame atop of another bike frame, and so on. It became something of a festive occasion at every town carnival and cultural event in my native province of Ciego de Ávila,” he said. Now, Guirola, who came to Havana in 2012, still takes part in marathons and rides his bike at various cultural events around Cuba.

32 feet, 9.7 inches height of the bicycle Félix Ramón Guirola Cepero wants to build

He and his wife earn a living selling sweets and other items. As one of Cuba’s hundreds of thousands of cuentapropistas, the self-employed, he can set his own hours, leaving time to work on and ride his bicycles.

Among his side ventures is giving bicycle tours. When Swiss long-distance bicyclist and author Claude Marthaler, who has ridden all over the world, came to Cuba, he spent a week with him, Guirola said. The tires on his everyday bike are a gift from Marthaler, he said.

Marthaler wrote about his time with Guirola and his wife, Francisca, and his three-month solo bicycle tour of Cuba in the book Hasta la bicicleta siempre!, which was released in Italy, and in Confidences cubaines, released in France.

At the time — 2013 — he said Guirola was talking about building two very tall bikes: one 8 meters tall and a second 12 meters high.

Marthaler said that after he biked with Guirola in Morón, a city in Ciego de Ávila Province, the Cuban wanted to get back to Havana as soon as possible to begin work on his tall bikes. “I know Felix is foolish enough — in a good sense — to build [a 10-meter bicycle],” he said.

But he added, “Ten meters seems to be extremely high.” Such a bike also would have to be much more stable than Guirola’s previous models, said Marthaler, who lives in Geneva. And he also wondered whether it would be possible to build such a bike with just two wheels.

Even though Guirola’s passion is now tall bikes, he still has boxing in his blood and wants the world to know that he is Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao’s No. 1 fan in Cuba. In fact, he tears up as he talks about his admiration for Pacquiao. In the boxer’s recent fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr., “ I think he was the winner, not the loser, because he threw more punches, did more for the match,” Guirola said. “All Mayweather did was circle the ring and didn’t hit Pacquiao very much.”

Guirola also has a message for members of tall-bike clubs in the United States. “If they get the chance to visit Cuba, please come find me at Aguacate 405 between Teniente Rey and Muralla streets.” He says he’ll take them on any kind of bike tour they’d like.

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