14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 22 September 2021 — “Before there was a store called Mi Bici, that was by the train terminal. I used to buy some pieces there, when it was there,” says Elizabeth. At age 56, this woman from Havana, a resident of the Plaza municipality, has been pedaling around the city for more than three decades and considers herself an expert in cycling. The convergence of a constant energy crisis and a pandemic, in which avoiding public transportation is key, could have turned the bicycle into a lifeline for many Cubans, but that has not been the case.
Elizabeth says that since Mi Bici closed some time ago, there is no longer a state place to buy spare parts. “We have to die in the private businesses of Cuatro Caminos, and everything there is very expensive. You have to keep an eye out for any part, and they are not even original,” she explains. Of course, the area outside the shopping mall has become the main black market in Havana, where any accessory or spare part could be ’resolved’.
“Sometimes they bring the parts from outside and that makes them even more expensive,” continues Elizabeth, who sees it as impossible for many to be able to afford the prices and admits that they will have to return to the severely lacking public transport, where they are also more exposed to the coronavirus.
Pedals, racks, ball bearings, axles, tires and brake pads, among others, are parts that must be changed regularly to maintain a bike and many, like Elizabeth herself, must wait to receive help from someone they know abroad, if they are so lucky. “I’m waiting for a package that my nephew who is abroad sends me. From there he sends me some parts that I have to change, but while I wait, I will have to travel on two feet,” he concludes.
Having a “mountain” bike is a headache. A chain or sprocket can cost between 2,500 and 3,600 pesos, some pedals up to 3,000 and bearings 1,500. Most of the parts for these bikes are sold at ’millennial’ prices, so putting together a complete bike can reach more than 30,000 pesos.
As for racing bikes, the luxury is even greater, since the components are sold in dollars and a single tire costs no less than 100, almost 8,000 Cuban pesos at the exchange rate on the black market.
The expenses not only go include the parts and maintenance. In Havana, the number of bicycle parking spaces has fallen sharply. A few years ago it was common to have a place near each shopping center where, for one or two pesos, someone guarded the bike while the customer made their purchases, but as the use of cycles decreased, so did these places.
“Parking now is not less than 20 pesos and you have to walk a long way between parking the bicycle and getting to the place where you were going, it is a headache,” says Daniel, a young university student who regrets the limitations on getting many places by bike. “You come in and they tell you it’s forbidden but they don’t offer you a place to park.”
With classes suspended in recent months, Daniel has worked as a courier making home deliveries of pizza and other food through the popular Mandao service. “When a customer lives on a high floor and asks me to go up the elevator to deliver the order, I can’t, because if I leave the bicycle alone, even if I put a lock on it, it is very likely that it will be stolen and it is not easy for me to find place to park, and if I do I have to spend part of my profit on that.”
Daniel also regrets that the city “is no longer a place for bicycles.” In addition to the lack of parts and parking spaces, there is added “the removal of the cycle lanes”, previously marked on the main avenues. “Many of the tire repairers who used to work exclusively with bicycles have also gone out of business. This is going uphill, it is getting harder and harder.”
In the interior of the country, where the bicycle is used even more than in the capital, the situation worsens, since the prices exceed those of the capital. Jesús, 40 years old, resides in Sancti Spíritus and goes every day from his home to work by bicycle, a 7-kilometer journey.
“We have the Santa Clara factory close enough, which supplies us with a few spare parts. However, the quality is terrible and the variety is practically non-existent. What strikes us the most is the lack of tires, the Ring 26s are still available, more or less, because they bring them from abroad and they show up for about 4,000 or 5,000 pesos each. But for Ring 24, like mine, they simply don’t exist and, if they appear, I can’t buy them because they can ask for up to 6,000 pesos. That is to say: a single rubber tire could exceed my monthly salary,” he laments.
In spite of everything, Jesús considers that the rustic machinery which many entrepreneurs work with are helping to solve the problem. “Although the pieces are homemade, they have made our day to day a little easier,” he argues.
Last August, the State newspaper Granma announced that about a thousand students from the Marta Abreu University of Villa Clara could benefit from the purchase in installments of bicycles assembled in the state company Ángel Villareal Bravo, located in the province and better known as Ciclos Minerva.
The price of each unit was 2,900 pesos, paying in full and in cash, but if the buyer chose to postpone payment (an option available since the option was approved in July), he had to pay 20% down and had one year to pay the remainder with an interest rate of 2.5%.
The official newspaper said then that it was a great opportunity for young people, who could access a means of transport in a more flexible way. But the great advantage, as is being demonstrated, is the opportunity people have found with the resale of parts on the black market, at 12,000 or 15,000 pesos.
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