Suicidal or practicing for the Tour de France? Sara Stachelhaus is sharing her stories about the underprivileged cyclist minority on their every day adventures through Beirut.
Every time I disclose my preferred means of transportation in Beirut, I get a quite coherent response in the shape of a non-verbal or vocalized awed question whether I am planning on getting myself killed. Riding a bike in Beirut? No way! Since being a bicyclist gave me a unique characteristic – and a topic to always start a conversation with – I feel like I may not stay silent. According to my friends and colleagues I am now member of an underprivileged minority, and I feel obliged to speak up and encourage more people to leave their cars at home and to grab their bikes.
More diverse than the standard question concerning my will to live are the responses I get from the car drivers that I encounter on my every day adventure through town. The most common question is – of course- where I am from. Obviously, my reflection combined with the fact that I am a girl riding a bike immediately gives me away as a foreigner. Others assume I am practicing for the Tour de France – indeed, a pink lady bike has good prospects in winning that race – and I happily joined the cheer of the car driver who pulled down his window to yell “Vive La France” across the street. It’s especially them, the people in the cars, that see the advantage of me riding my bike, every time I pass them in the traffic jam of the rush hour:
“Riding a bike is the best thing you can do in Beirut!”
Yes, I agree.
And to those, that worry about the aggressive style of driving that I might have to deal with every day: I feel like the cars are more afraid of me, than I am of them. The distance that some of them keep is almost adorable (and well-appreciated!), as if they expect me to fall of my bike any second. Everybody who has been in any well-sized European town and has accidently set foot on a bike lane knows that bicyclists in Europe are ruthless. I do not mean to advocate this reckless style of cycling, but I mean to make the following point: You may pass, because so will I.
However, I do not intend to create the illusion that I feel completely safe. Riding a bike in traffic is indeed a risk, a risk which could be contained by separating bike lanes on the most central streets of Beirut. Also, not everybody shares the fear of bicyclists as described above. A few do actually think you are going to disappear into thin air if they just pass you close enough. Wearing a helmet is a must-do in Beirut, and daydreaming while cycling an absolute no-go.
The ‘good’ thing of biking in a city where a rare minority cycles is that nobody cares. Thus, nobody has bothered yet to put up signs that forbid cyclists to lock their rides to public property such as railings, trees or street signs. On the other hand, neither has there been much care to provide decent bike racks, which would not only improve the street scene but also encourage more people to ride their bikes. A Lebanese organization that provides bicycle parking by cooperating with private businesses, neighborhood organizations and the municipality of Beirut is ‘Chain Effect’. As their car-shape bike rack (as on Abdel Aziz Street in Hamra) shows, 12 bicycles can fit into the parking space of one single car. If in a city, where parking spots are hard to find, 12 customers could start their shopping or dining tour from the same spot that would usually serve five at the most (let’s be honest, how many cars are actually full?), it should be only a matter of time that businesses and restaurants provide bike racks instead of car parking. Especially restaurants should take into account, that cyclists will arrive hungrier than their car-driving counterparts.
All in all, cycling in Beirut is a highly recommended experience. For adrenaline junkies, I recommend a ride during Rush Hour, and for newbies or the dreamier kind, rent a bike to ride down the Cornish. If you want to enjoy a biking tour in a group, there are organized bike rides such as the ‘Beirut Night Ride’. Check out ‘Beirut By Bike’ or ‘CyclingCircle’ on Facebook for their events.