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CUBAN GOVERNMENT `PEDALS' BIKES TO COUNTER GAS CRUNCH

Bicycles, Cuba's answer to a gasoline crunch, are unnerving motorists in Havana almost as much as the fuel shortage itself.

Swarms of bicyclists have taken to the capital's streets with new, mostly Chinese-made bikes since the government launched a campaign early this year to reduce reliance on cars and public transport.It is common now to see daring youngsters zipping in front of cars in the fast lane to circumvent crowds of bicyclists in the slower lanes. Others, still unused to cycling, ignore street signs or ride in the wrong direction.

The Cuban government has exhorted citizens to switch to bicycles because of a shortage of gasoline and spare parts for cars - the result of erratic shipments from the Soviet Union, which has its own pressing economic problems.

In one of the more innovative pitches, the state-run newspaper Trabajadores (Workers) recently suggested that brides who stay fit by cycling might suffer less pain during childbirth.

By the end of the year, the government hopes to have 400,000 bicycles in circulation in Havana alone. Most of them are being imported from China, but Cuba hopes to produce 100,000 by the end of the year.

Unlike other products that are strictly rationed or have disappeared altogether from shops, bicycles are available to workers for about 130 pesos ($170 at the official exchange rate). Students can buy the bikes - which they call chivos, or goats - at half the regular price.

But as the number of cyclists has grown, so have the problems. The Communist Party newspaper Granma reported 171 accidents in Havana in the first five months of this year.

Twenty-six people were killed and 118 injured in accidents which the paper blamed on cyclists riding in the wrong direction, ignoring the right-of-way, running red lights and stop signs, braking arbitrarily, riding without reflectors at night and performing "acrobatics in the street."