King of the road, Havana-style

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.”1195 Havana Cuba 092215 ADD

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.”

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.1620 Havana Cuba 092115 ADD

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.”0900a Havana Cuba 092115 AD

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.