BATROUN/BEIRUT: It’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday, and a procession of 35 bicyclists begins a 100-km route from the Dbayyeh marina to Batroun and back.
Crazed might be the best word to describe cyclists in Lebanon as they navigate between the country’s hazardous roads and reckless drivers. Today, the safest way for bikers to face the country’s terrifying road conditions is by going out in conspicuous, pushy hordes. But as they grow in numbers and support – with more bike shops, guided tours and events – the daredevils who are planting the seeds of a cycling culture in Lebanon may just be onto something.
Aside from churchgoers, very few people are awake this early on a weekend, except for some fish merchants who proudly display their daily catches on wooden stands along the narrow coastal highway. As we make our way further north, the small-town landscape becomes more rural, with herds of goats grazing on the steep cliffs just south of Batroun.
Karim Sokhn is the founder of Cycling Circle and has been bicycling for years – usually alone or on his vacations to Europe.
Three years ago, he announced an event via Facebook consisting of a daytrip by bike. To his surprise, he received around 100 responses. With each subsequent event, the turnout grew. Last year, his organization spawned Deghri Messengers, the first bicycle courier service in the Arab world, and now Sokhn is dreaming much bigger: designated car-free streets, bike festivals, a bicycle cafe and daytrip fundraisers.
He envisions a future in which Lebanon is a bicycle-friendly country, a far cry from the way the nation is today.
“It’s the revolution. It’s going, going, going,” Sokhn says.
From Batroun, Sokhn leads the group into the green mountains of Tannourine, where local residents greet cyclers along the way with a respect likely unknown to daytrippers in cars.
After stopping several times to take pictures of the sea and the defunct railroad bridges over deep ravines, I lose the rest of the group. In a rare moment, I think only about by my surroundings and forget the rush to our destination. I stop at a shop near a farm for a snack. A woman behind the counter greets me while chopping tomatoes with a precise concentration that can mean only one thing: tabbouleh.
“Stop by on your way back for the tabbouleh,” she says. It is an invitation I surely wouldn’t have received had I arrived by car.
Indeed, a major appeal of bicycling is the chance to get close to nature. From the saddle of the bike, the fresh sea and mountain air can be tasted, and views of all the intricate details of towns and countryside somehow appear larger than life. Biking also offers the exciting and exhilarating feeling of vulnerability against nature – peddling against the wind, dodging rocks and potholes on the way and fighting to finish the ride before sunset.
Our journey ended with lots of high fives and pats on the back, followed by complaints of muscle pain, hunger and chatter about plans for the next daytrip. They may go swimming if the weather next week is pleasant, an activity that is sure to attract another big turnout.
Over the past couple of years, Lebanon’s bicycling community has grown in number, bike club organizers said. Most of the biking activity is centered around the capital’s cycle clubs Cycling Circle and Beirut by Bike. But that’s starting to change.
Tripoli, an embattled city not usually associated with grass-roots environmental movements, recently saw the creation its own bike club.
Last April, avid cyclist and racing champion Mohammad Alali opened “The Bike Shop” in Lebanon’s northern city, where the activity is far less developed than in Beirut. In fact, he says that one of his motivations in opening the shop was to promote bicycling in northern Lebanon.
“People think of bicycles as being just for poor people,” he says, specifically pointing to Tripoli, where street vendors and couriers in the Old City carry out their work on two wheels. When he first opened shop, he organized a daytrip via Facebook; only three people showed up. He is happy to report that his latest outing – he guides cyclists around Tripoli four times a week – saw a turnout of around 50 people.
Cycling ethusiasts are even trying to push the green transportation’s business potential. Deghri Messengers, the first bicycle messenger service launched in the region, is now braving the streets of Beirut and growing rapidly. Deghri has doubled its deliveries since it first started.
And to the delight of many long-time cyclists who have spent years riding alone, it is becoming increasingly common – albeit still rare – to see people bicycling for transportation, to work for example, rather than just for sport.
Deghri Messengers founder Matt Saunders says he likes to think that his company is playing a part in getting people out of their cars and onto bikes, and as the country gets ever-more congested, he predicts that bikes will become a more practical option.
Marc Geara, who founded the NGO Green Wheels in 2010 to promote bicycling and the development of bike lanes in Lebanon, was virtually a lone rider on the streets of Beirut until recently.
Now he’s pleased to see a nascent but growing community, with many of the new cyclists – including budding professional racers – on the road relatively young, mostly in their 20s.
“I used to only bicycle in the summer. Now I bicycle all year long,” Geara says on a winter afternoon after making his daily commute through Beirut. “We’re getting more serious and motivated. There’s now a group dynamic. Things are progressing.”
Indeed, the once-lonely cyclist thinks this might be the year when things change. He says that plans are underway to create bike lanes in Beirut this summer, the completed study of which is being funded by the Ile de France municipality. Beirut municipality will fund the follow-through.
The plans include the rehabilitation of streets for pedestrians and cyclists, planting trees and installing lighting from the pine forest of Horsh Beirut all the way to the corniche. It might sound like a far-fetched fantasy to some, but for Geara, it is a natural progression that has been years in the making.
“Lebanon is actually a good place for cycling. It’s not what people think,” he says. “There are areas with some gorgeous views.”
Three to four times a year, Geara brings a group on a 100-kilometer mega-ride through a scenic part of the country, such as the Cedars or the south.
With all of this newfound momentum, he sees the next step as being the training of more cyclists who could represent the country at international races.
Lebanon already has some competitive cyclists such as Hassan al-Hajj, who won the national road cycling championship and participated in the Francophone Games last year in Nice; Zaher al-Hage, who won the last year’s Mountain Bike championship; and Zaher’s wife Lina al-Hage, who placed 10th in the Asian Championship, one of the best performances ever for a Lebanese cyclist. Geara doesn’t see why there shouldn’t be a qualified Lebanese team in the Olympics or the Tour de France.
Getting to that point will require a major shift in Lebanese habits. But that might be just a matter of time.
Beirut by Bike founder Jawad Sbeity, who started the bicycle rental company in 2001, says that over the course of 13 years, he has seen a new generation grow up cycling – going from enclosed spaces to the open street – and the evolution of a small community of mavericks into a large network of civic-minded cyclists who routinely go on rides to raise money for charity. He also notes a growing awareness among drivers of the two-wheelers among them.
“People start with us and they grow up,” Sbeity says, referring to the closed-off, small network of biking lanes his company has at the waterfront where cyclists can build confidence before venturing into Beirut’s notorious traffic.
Times certainly have changed. Nearly 15 years ago, he was renting out some 60 mountain bikes because Lebanon’s war-torn streets weren’t ready for road bikes. Today he has around 2,000 bikes of all varieties available – including a few he wasn’t expecting.
For years, he resisted requests to rent out adult tricycles for fear that this would stop people from exploring two-wheeled options. But after finally succumbing to the demands last year, he acknowledges that he is now pleased to see elderly women coming for leisurely rides on three wheels. Sitting on a bench in front of rows of bicycles, he points to men and women of all ages who are passing by on their afternoon rides, a sign of the activity’s broadening demographic – and an indication his longtime community engagement is having results.
Similarly, Antoine Baraka co-owner of Bike Generation, a sporting goods shop in Furn al-Shubbak, says he consistently works to “bring people to cycling – not only bring customers to our shops.”
He spends as much time out in the field as he does in the store – working with NGOs and schools and to promote bicycling at all ages and levels. Baraka has already seen one school offer bicycling as a competitive sport – just like swimming or basketball.
He is also working to encourage people to use their bikes as a regular mode of transportation.
While Lebanon’s cycling advocates are eager to bring people to their preferred mode of transportation, they are also quick to emphasize safety, well aware that they are still living in a land of loosely enforced driving rules and poorly maintained roads. Their visits to schools always include a lesson on wearing helmets, and support vehicles accompany weekend excursions.
It is with these challenges always in the back of their minds that Lebanon’s new generation of cyclists brave the often-broken streets on two wheels, showing others it is indeed possible in Lebanon.
“This is a worldwide trend and it has reached Lebanon,” says Geara, no longer the only cyclist on the streets as he was before. “Things are changing.”