The sporting hero that Lebanon lost and forgot

BEIRUT: The shop run by Tareq Abou Zahab feels smaller than it is. There are bicycles from floor to ceiling; every spare inch of workbench is filled with 50 years’ worth of accumulated tools, and a collection of tarnished trophies sit on the shelves. The rest of the wall space is covered in history: yellowed newspaper clippings in Arabic, French, English and German speak to Abou Zahab’s past success. Black and white photographs show him as a young man, crouched low over his handlebars at the front of a bike race, with the effort clearly drawn upon his face. Others show him with a relaxed grin, surrounded by fans, or shaking hands with other competitors.

Most of these photos are from the six years he spent racing in Europe. As he explains the reason behind his self-imposed exile to France in 1960, anger that has not abated after more than half a century spills out. The Lebanese Cycling Federation refused to fund his participation in the 1960 Tour of Egypt, so he looked to race as an independent, prompting the Lebanese federation to suspend his racing license for a year.

His voice breaks as he recalls the event that drove him to leave his home country: “I wrote to [the organizers] to say that I wanted to participate in the tour of Egypt, and [the Lebanese cycling authorities] suspended me.”

Abou Zahab was born in Zarif, west Beirut, in 1939. His love for cycling began when he first rode his sister’s bike at age 9. At 15 he signed up for a time-trial (racing individually against the clock, as opposed to in a group) from Sidon to Beirut. He won the race, and his talent was spotted by Joseph Golam, the director of the Sacre Coeur Sports Club.

The young cyclist dominated the Lebanese racing scene for some years. He raced the 1958 Tour of Egypt and the 1959 Mediterranean Games, held in Beirut. The next year, as his racing gained momentum, he made his doomed request to race the 1960 Tour of Egypt. Devastated by the perceived betrayal by his home country, he moved to Paris.

In France, Abou Zahab’s cycling career flourished, where he says he was “very happy,” working in the canteen of a telecommunications company to pay his way. He competed in (and won) races around France with the “Paris 12” team, including the 1962 edition of the prestigious Tour de l’Avenir, seen by some as the amateur version of the Tour de France.

That same year Abou Zahab raced what would become the highlight of his career. The Peace Race was the Eastern Bloc’s version of the Tour de France, a race of multiple stages over several days. It was usually dominated by cyclists from the Soviet Union and East Germany, but with occasional winners from Western Europe.

Cyclists were not allowed to compete as professionals, so the race was the most competitive in the world for amateurs. “The first one was the best,” Abou Zahab recalled fondly. “The president of the organizing committee met me from the plane. ... “There were 20 nations taking part – I was the 21st.”

All the riders competed in six-man national teams; there was no way Abou Zahab would be able to find teammates from his home country, let alone get the Lebanese Cycling authorities to support him, so he once again put pen to paper and asked the organizers to let him compete as an independent. This time, they agreed.

Unlike in Egypt, the organizers of the Peace Race saw a great underdog story in Abou Zahab. He was treated like a hero. He remembers being welcomed by the president of the organizing committee at the airport and all the other competitors wanting to meet the one-man team riding alone under the Lebanese flag. His story was even published in the French newspaper L’Equipe.

While Abou Zahab’s story earned him legions of fans and the respect of fellow riders, his lack of a team was a handicap that prevented him from ever fulfilling his potential at the Peace Race. Each year, one of the stages was a team time-trial. Each of the six-man teams would work together to set the fastest time possible. Abou Zahab, riding alone, would always lose time, irretrievably damaging his position in the overall standings.

For Abou Zahab, turning professional wasn’t a viable option. It didn’t provide a sufficiently reliable source of income for him to provide for his family, and he was able to represent his country as an amateur at international events anyway.

After six seasons in France, Abou Zahab returned home in 1962, both to support his mother (his father had died when he was a child) and his old club. He opened his shop in Zarif and continued to compete internationally, including at the Olympics in 1968 and 1972, although nothing came close to the heady years of racing in Europe.

He remains realistic about cycling in Lebanon, saying “the level here isn’t like outside.” Furthermore, there simply isn’t the necessary infrastructure to produce pro-level cyclists. That’s not to say it can’t be. “It was better before ... in my day,” he said.

It’s a comment echoed by Lebanon’s current road cycling national champion, Elias Abou Rachid. Like Abou Zahab, he has also moved to France, although he says this was primarily for academic reasons. In his opinion, “the whole infrastructure has to be changed before we can talk about pro riders.”

For Abou Zahab, the onus for inspiring young riders lies with the media. “On television, they talk about football, basketball, all the other sports. What about the Tour de France? The Giro d’Italia? The Vuelta a Espana?”

At 77, his racing career is a long way behind him, but that doesn’t mean Tarek Abou Zahab no longer rides. He rides on the weekends, and spends half an hour every day on a static trainer in his shop, “to stay en forme,” he says with a smile.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 11, 2017, on page 2.




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