Birth of a Biker Bitch

Fifteen or so years ago I was living above a taquería and across the street from one of San Francisco’s largest thrift stores. Community Thrift wasn’t the hippest or most swank, but it stocked the eclectic, second-hand zaniness that city is famous for. Living right across the street was dangerous: it made it all too easy to accumulate cool, cheap shit that ends up collecting dust.

This is how I came across an $18 vintage Harley Davidson jacket. Little did I imagine all those years ago that one day I would be flying along the coast east of Havana on a 1948 Harley wearing that jacket (see note 1).

Seeds get planted, people. Cultivate them – however long it takes – and you shall see that flora flourish, I promise. The problem is, I’ve planted seeds I cannot tend alone – that are so profligate I can’t handle their abundance. When this happens, I write (to wit: this blog!). So while I had no intention of revisiting the Harley scene here at Here is Havana, my garden runs amok…

One of the 12 bikes Ive ridden on...

One of the 12 bikes Ive ridden on…

Some of you may have read my chronicle of last year’s Varadero Harley Rally/Encuentro de Harlistas Cubanos, my first taste of the HD world (save for one long mountain ride years ago, pre-vintage jacket, with a guy who couldn’t hold my attention). Long and short of that post about the Cuban rally? These pre-1960 bikes are impressive and the folks who keep them running and enjoy riding them more impressive still. When I was invited back for the second Encuentro, I was all game.

This year’s event was even better than last – for many reasons but the fundamental one for me was what occurred in the months between rallies: I’m now collaborating with Max Cucchi on his photography book about Cuban Harley riders. Since the 2012 rally, I’ve been hearing all the stories, learning the history, and interviewing the clan. I’m also riding on the bikes; 11 of them 12 of them to be precise and I anticipate trying out more (see note 2).

David Blanco, Harlista Cubano, musician, all around nice guy, rocks out the 2nd Encuentro.

David Blanco, Harlista Cubano, musician, all around nice guy, rocks out the 2nd Encuentro.

It’s true I cringed when that foreign photographer called me a bike dyke, but I have to admit it’s a hell of a lot of run riding on these thundering, troublesome machines. The thing is, riding can’t compare with driving and I know that’s where the real thrill lies (am I doomed to now accumulate a totally cool but not-at-all cheap piece of dust-collecting shit?!). Me acquiring a Harley Davidson is entirely theoretical since I can’t imagine abandoning my beloved bicycle and don’t have the money for anything motorized beyond a rikimbili (see note 3). But while interviewing Cuba’s only female Harley rider for The Book, she offered to let me take her 45 for a spin. Another seed planted, I’m afraid.

li and tony

I’m excited about The Book, in no small measure because it has opened up a whole new world to me, populated by extraordinarily fun, creative, and collaborative Cubans. Until further notice, however, I will be referring to this project as The Book. It had a proper title, which has since been relegated to a working title. Why? Because this is Cuba: things are complicated and being immersed in a rich, rare breed subculture like that of the island’s antique Harleys means being privy to all the gossip, tussles and intrigue therein. Good manners and my desire for everyone to get along prevent me from going into it here. Plus, I’m just the writer/rider so it’s best if I wait and see how it all shakes out. Until it does (in 12 months or so when we go to print), I shall be referring to this project simply as The Book (see note 4).

Cheito Puig, 103 years old and still on a Harley (he's featured in The Book).

Cheito Puig, 103 years old and still on a Harley (he’s featured in The Book).

Besides, none of that is important. What is important is that The Book has images by Max, text by me, and the passion of generations of Harlistas Cubanos.

1. There are no pictures of me en route, wearing said jacket, since my camera mysteriously disappeared the first night of the rally.

2. As I was readying this post for print a few days ago, I mounted my 12th Cuban Harley. The occasion was a beach BBQ with the gang – fun stuff. Unfortunately, the beast coughed, sputtered, and died two blocks from my house. During curbside repairs, the carburetor caught fire. ‘Socio, you got a fire going there,’ more than one passerby noted casually while eyeballing the red and chrome, leather-accented stallion. It took about an hour to get running again (watered-down gas direct from the Cupet seems to have been the culprit), but that was just the beginning of the 15-hour adventure. A key piece flew off as we flew down the highway; we had to stop at least have a dozen times to do repairs (correction: I watched as my driver and assorted others did repairs); the ‘suicide’ clutch kept getting stuck; and we ran out of gas at 1am in Centro Habana. I guess I’ve concluded the honeymoon phase with these Cuban Harleys…

Even breakdowns are fun in Havana!

Even breakdowns are fun in Havana!

3. These are bicycles outfitted with small motors, usually powered by a liter-and-a-half bottle holding kerosene.

4. Not to be confused with my abandoned memoir. Sigh.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

14 responses to “Birth of a Biker Bitch

  1. Dan MacArthur

    Hey Conner, we missed you at the old car rally last month, it was great fun sort of like a car rally in Des Moines in 1955 with the huge voices and the cars spinning their tires and showing off as they got announced… And the bikes were there also, the Matchless the Whizzer and various others in between (at least as far as my own preferences go….). Hope to catch you next year…..

  2. Abandoned memoir? Noooooooo! Hopefully it’s just marinating 🙂

  3. Conner,
    We went to a biker bash in Jaruco a couple of years ago. There was a couple dozen Harleys and about 50 more bikes of every size and shape including a mid 80’s Honda supersport. We go to the bike rallies all the time in the great white north, but that was our first rally in Cuba. I’ll check to see if they’re going to hold another one this year and let you know. It might even be some of the same people.


    • Hey Bruce. For better or worse, Im all up in it now – if there’s a rally in Jaruco or Pinar, Las Tunas or Camaguey, I know about it! I can feel how close I am to actually driving one of these suckers….Maybe for next years Varadero rally, with dates already set. Thanks for writing in.

  4. Beansntoast

    Hey Conner,
    I had a blast one afternoon and evening at last year’s Varadero run. My 62 panhead looks pretty fresh beside all of these hogs. I had planned on checking it out this year and tracking you down to say Hola!
    Weather held us up at home and we arrived days late.
    Your collaboration on the book sounds fantastic.
    It’s a big step from the bitch seat. You’re not ready yet, but I love your ambition!

  5. Cait

    Shoutout to Community Thrift!

  6. Ben

    Hey Conner…we gotta see you get from the P-Pad (or better known as the pussy pillow) to the drivers saddle. Who is gonna give you the reins without cringing about what you might do the old iron horse

  7. My motorcycle is my main source of transport here in the Bahamas (I have a vintage Yamaha in the States as well- both are smaller bikes than Harleys). Be careful Conner, once it (driving, not riding) gets in your blood, there is no going back (and I love bicycles as well). My gal pal (also a biker bitch) and I have tried in vain to find motorcycles to rent for our upcoming trip, alas, scooters it is.

  8. Pingback: Cuban Harlistas, Mis Amores | Here is Havana

  9. Pingback: In the Summer, In the City | Here is Havana

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