It’s not possible to keep up with 52-year-old Félix Ramón Guirola Cepero, and it’s not wise to try. On a bright winter day, he flew down Havana’s famed Malecón on his bicycle as tourists and locals alike gawked in wonderment.
Guirola Cepero isn’t just faster than everyone else, but higher, too. He’s achieved a measure of local fame as the builder of the tallest bikes in Cuba. At blinding speed, and barely breaking a sweat, he cruises the streets on a 3m-tall, custom-made bike made of three frames welded on top of each other.
“Look at this!” he shouted, again and again, racing away almost before it was possible to see what he was pointing out.
At a traffic light, he steadied himself on the roof of a bus for a brief moment, to the annoyance of the driver. A few minutes later, he paused and leaned against a wall. Almost immediately, a teenager trying to impress his friends demanded a ride.
Guirola Cepero isn’t just faster than everyone else, but higher, too.
“Hop on,” Guirola Cepero said with a grin, and the teen, not wanting to lose face, carefully climbed the frame and hung on tight. His face froze into a grin of terror as Cepero took off, giving him an unforgettable few minutes before allowing him to climb down.
Back home, Guirola Cepero leaned the bike carefully against the front of his house on Aguacate Street in Old Havana. In order to dismount, he simply jumped down (and has miraculously managed to never break an ankle in the process). He strolled inside and greeted his wife, Franci. She smiled.
“All he ever thinks about is bikes,” she said, playfully exasperated. “Bikes, bikes, bikes. It’s an obsession.”
Guirola Cepero works on his tall bicycles ‒ he has five ‒ in a workshop in his home. After more than half a century of living under a trade embargo, many Cubans have grown accustomed to shortages of basic household goods and have learned to be resourceful. Guirola Cepero is no different: his bike frames are ancient Chinese models, some of them as much as 30 years old. To add height, he uses just about anything he can find, from rebar to pieces of tin fence. The pedals are made of sections of PVC pipe that he’s cut and shaped.
All he ever thinks about is bikes.
“If I could get lighter materials, such as hard aluminium, carbon fibre, tubes with more power and less weight, I could be riding some incredible bicycles,” he said.
His reputation has allowed him to turn his love of biking into an enterprise, advertising an imported energy drink called Time Flies via a banner attached to his bike frame. He and Franci also sell sweets, chewing gum, cigarettes and cooking oil from a stand in their living room.
Guirola Cepero started building his tall bicycles 37 years ago, starting as a teenager in his native city of Ciego de Ávila in central Cuba. His fixation began when he spotted a member of the national cycling team pedalling a tandem bike through his hometown.
He was immediately attracted to the idea of creating something entirely new. “When I saw a tandem for the first time, it was horizontal,” he explained. “I said, ‘Well, I'm going to build upwards’.”
Plus, he joked, “From on top of the bike I can grab coconuts.”
But building tall bikes wasn’t Guirola Cepero’s only dream; he had other big plans, too. For a time, he hoped to flee by boat to the United States. “I tried four times,” he said, earning himself a cumulative total of 21 years in prison.
He’s uncharacteristically quiet when asked about the experience. “It was terrible,” he said, simply.
But building tall bikes wasn’t Guirola Cepero’s only dream; he had other big plans, too.
Even then, Guirola Cepero’s penchant for cycling never waned. “The warden allowed me to have my bikes inside the prison so I never stopped riding them,” he said, explaining that he and the warden had been friends. “I rode bikes every single day.”
And he still does: climbing atop one of his towering bicycles, Guirola Cepero relishes the thrill of pedalling through Havana high above the roofs of passing cars.
Over the past few years, his need for height has intensified, and his bike-building efforts have become increasingly focused on gaining recognition from Guinness Book of World Records.
He says he could have held the record 20 years ago. At that time, he was riding a 6m-high bike; only a Detroit-based tall-bike builder named Richie Trimble has ever built a larger one. “No one ever saw me, or paid any attention to the fact that I was riding bikes that high,” Guirola Cepero said, because he was in Cuba.
Recently, Trimble came to Havana to meet Guirola Cepero. They biked the city’s narrow streets together and worked on bikes side-by-side.
“For me it is an honour that the guy who holds the world record came to meet me, and that makes me a record holder in itself,” Guirola Cepero said. “This record of friendship is more important than Guinness.”
Still, achieving the world record would, Guirola Cepero said, justify the long hours he’s spent alone in his workshop cobbling together spare parts into magic.
“I'm building a 10m-tall one that I hope to finish soon,” he said.
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