BEIRUT: More than 30 riders gathered shortly after the sun rose Sunday to contest the Lebanese Cycling Championship time trial in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood. Contestants raced on the empty roads of what normally is one of Beirut’s busiest thoroughfares, the Emile Lahoud Highway, on a circular course from one of the bridges over Beirut River down to City Centre mall, up to Beirut Port and back to the starting line.
Shortly before 7 a.m. contestants began to arrive at the starting point. They unloaded their bicycles from the roofs of their cars and set them up on static trainers by the side of the road, where they began their warmup routine. Teams arrived from around Lebanon, and together they prepared energy drinks and discussed tactics while race officials set up a tent and distributed the riders’ race numbers.
Shortly after 8 a.m. police officers, who were working closely with race officials, mounted their motorcycles and closed the highway to traffic, allowing the riders to race in safety. The riders took their places at the starting line, where an official wearing a high-visibility tracksuit waited for each rider to begin.
Unlike a road race, in which all the competitors start together, time trial riders start separately and race against the clock. Once all the contestants were ready, the official counted down and waved each rider from the line, at an interval of one a minute.
The riders gave everything, powering down the abnormally quiet highway alongside the dry Beirut River. While they started in an aerodynamic tuck, low over the handlebars of their carbon-fiber bicycles, by the end of the race nearly all were showing signs of their efforts, as they shifted position to make themselves more comfortable and panted for air. By this time they had cycled 33 kilometers, four grueling laps of the course.
One of the last competitors to leave the start line was Roy Roukoz, one of Lebanon’s most promising young racers. Only 19 years old, he has been racing for three years and trains six days a week, leaving the house at 5:30 a.m. in an effort to avoid traffic along the highway.
Like many others, Roy feels that the lack of road safety is what prevents cycling in Lebanon from progressing. He was hit by a car in October and suffered a fractured collarbone that prevented him from riding for four months.
Despite completing the course at an impressive average speed of 39 kph, Roy was unhappy with his result Sunday, telling The Daily Star that he was “tired and not mentally ready for the race.” Abdallah Aler won the race, with Kervork Altounian in second place and Salah Rabah in third.
Lebanon’s cycling scene is small and relies heavily on the efforts of volunteers, including many ex-riders and family members, to help run races. There is a powerful community atmosphere among riders and nonriders alike, but the lack of regular racing can create problems.
The organizing committee was missing one of its most experienced members for the race, and some riders were concerned that the finishing times recorded were not totally accurate, recording different times than those given at the finish line.
Nonetheless, the racers said they enjoyed a fantastic morning and looked forward to next Sunday’s road race championships in Zaarourieh.