Tour de Lebanon
It is often said that who we are as individuals is largely determined by the things we have experienced. But what if what we have experienced in life has also been experienced by millions of other people? Who are we then really?
Taking for granted the lower rungs of Maslow’s pyramid, for many of us the pursuit of the ever-vanishing ‘unique’ experience has begun to take the form of self-actualization.
Bike trips to Italy and France are lovely and when coupled with good friends, food and wine can be the perfect antidote to the accumulated anxieties of modern life.
But their comfort and familiarity is precisely why they fail to live up to the exacting standard of adventure. We are becoming house cats, superficially content yet intrinsically unhappy. We need to be let outside.
The uncertainty of new experience, unaided by travel guides or online apps, is where we test the boundaries of who we are. It is here that we are offered the possibility of becoming more than what we were.
Our ambition was simple. Soak in as much of Lebanon as we could from the saddles of our road bikes. In late October, Lebanon is still blessed with temperatures in the mid-20s, warm Mediterranean waters and mostly sunny skies. Tourism season has largely concluded, making the search for accommodation, good food and wine that much easier.
Arriving under the cover of darkness in Beirut at 2 AM left much to the imagination as we checked in to our Airbnb. We had read horror stories of cyclists being kidnapped, foreigners inadvertently stumbling into the ‘wrong’ neighbourhoods, and outbreaks of violence and instability in the areas close to the Syrian border.
Looking back on it now, our nervousness at being left outside our apartment at 3 AM in the Mar Mikhael neighbourhood (hipster) while we waited for our host to arrive seems comical. Reading our apprehension, the taxi driver, looking almost offended, assured us that “Lebanon is a very safe country” and then sped off into the night.
We spent the first morning in the National History Museum, orienting ourselves with the Phoenician, Greek and Roman symbols that we expected to see around the country.
Acting on tips received from Lebanese friends, we then set to familiarizing ourselves with Lebanese wine and cuisine at the Beirut Souk. In our neighbourhood we also stumbled upon a world-class speciality coffee house called Kalei, where we quickly established our de facto base of operations. At the heart of every great adventure I’m confident you’ll find caffeine.
That night, after readying our bikes and packs, we made the fateful decision to meet up with ‘friends of friends’ at Torino, a locals-only dive bar in the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, where war correspondents used to meet during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel to drown the day’s memories in whisky or gin.
As soon became apparent, the Lebanese wear many hats and our friends of friends were no exception. Rami is a graphic designer by day and club DJ by night; Leyla is an event organizer and radio host by day and bad-ass mom by day and night. Total strangers only minutes before, in Rami and Leyla we found Lebanese hospitality personified. The couple, who run the website Beirutsbrightside, saw in us an opportunity to tell a different tale about the city and country, and they went out of their way to ensure that we succeeded. Over our second beer Rami was already tapping into his extensive network of friends to ensure that key people would be aware of our route and projected time of arrival. Within the hour, we received the contacts of characters like Lord Dandash (Head of the Dandash clan) and Hussein El Outa (archaeologist and local fixer) who would help to ensure our safety if we chose to ride into the Beqaa valley (still an open question at this point).
Just knowing that local people were concerned for our safety and invested in the success of our adventure was great for our collective peace of mind. When we chose to undertake certain risks, we never felt alone.
Beirut to Batroun (70km, 950m climbing)
Our tour started in Beirut and ventured north. One of our principal anxieties about this trip—confirmed by our Lebanese friends and colleagues—was the traffic. In my experience, rarely do the risks associated with any given country live up to the hype. The traffic situation in Lebanon is the rare exception. The chaos that we witnessed on the highway was understated if anything.
On a tip from Rami and Leyla we left Beirut on Sunday morning when most of the city was still sleeping (or just getting home from the clubs). We found our plotted coastal road and stole out of the city like thieves. Once we managed to get beyond the sprawl of greater Beirut we began to relax. This was doable.
Pre-identified risks can be managed in one of three ways: avoidance, mitigation, or acceptance. We realized at the planning stage that the key to our success would lie in our ability to avoid the risks posed by the Lebanese highway death-trap. Luckily for me, my cycling companion Philippe (P. Diddy) excels in route planning and navigation. Together with the intel we received from our security analyst/ endurance cycling guru “The Clapper”, we were feeling confident that the riskiest roads could be avoided. For the most part, we were successful (for more on when we were unsuccessful, skip to the last day).
Mid-way through the day and we found ourselves at the gates of the ancient city of Byblos. Byblos maintains a credible claim on being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (est. 5,000 BC) and the city’s name, bestowed by the Ancient Greeks, is where the word “Bible” is derived from. Byblos offers the outsider a unique opportunity to marvel at the exposed layers of Lebanese history. Like exposed strata of sedimentary rock, in one square kilometre you can see ancient Phoenician, Greek and Roman ruins alongside crusader castles and Ottoman mosques.
One thing we hadn’t quite worked out is how, with our road bikes, we would be able to enjoy some of the more touristic sites along our route. As we were discussing what to do at the gates of the park surrounding the ancient ruins, a woman working at the entrance came out and told us that she would personally look after our bikes while we toured the ruins. Incredulous, we politely declined, not understanding why we should entrust our bikes to a perfect stranger. Gauging our reluctance, she continued,
“the man working with me is stupid. He doesn’t understand the specialness of these bikes. My brother was professional cyclist. He was killed while practicing on his bike in Kuwait. His name was Tony.”
Our new friend, fighting back tears, showed us the outline of a bicycle tattooed on her forearm with the name Tony inked just above. She also shared a few photos of her brother on a time-trial bike in the desert. Struck by the smallness of this world and the chances that we would encounter such a story at the gates of the ancient city of Byblos, we left our bikes at the gates, toured the ruins and decided to dedicate our first day’s ride to the memory of Tony.
From Byblos, we were only 30 km from our coastal destination of Batroun. Rather than ride as the crow flies, we decided to take a detour through the hills and stop at Ixsir Winery for lunch. The estate was elegantly appointed and situated atop acres and acres of vineyards overlooking the beautiful Mediterranean coast.
As it turned out, views like that aren’t cheap. A few helpings of hummus and baba ganoush accompanied by two glasses of wine cost us around 200 USD. Lesson learned: ask before you eat.
Descending into Batroun, we completed our first day on a high. We met our Airbnb host Jad who showed us around our quaint accommodation for the night, a converted souk in the old district that he had reworked by hand. We quickly changed into our bathing suits and made our way to the Colonel – a craft beer brewery situated right on the water. Leaving our beers in the sand, we took a little swim in the warm Mediterranean and marvelled at how lucky we were to be doing what we were doing. A rather bohemian crowd had gathered around the bar, enticed, perhaps, by the melancholic melodies of the Buena Vista Social Club echoing from the speakers. In a scene that has no doubt been repeated countless times over the millennia, we sat with our attentions fixed on the horizon as the sun slowly retired for the day.
As relaxed as the setting was, I couldn’t help but notice that the people there seemed to be treating the bar as a sort of sanctuary, a place where they could decompress from the stress of the world without.
The Hills are Alive with the Sound of …
Batroun to Bsharri (60 km, 2000m climbing)
Morale was high as we prepared for day two. Road-bike packing in Lebanon was not only possible, it was civilized! Our conversation began to turn from safety concerns to concerns over our fitness (how will the legs hold up over a 60km climb today?). We were looking at a cruisy 10 km coastal segment to start the ride followed by a sharp turn inland toward the mountains and a fairly gruelling climb through the valley of the saints. After politely turning down a cat-bowl sized cappuccino served at the local café, we set off from Batroun.
4 km later, we had our first wakeup call. As we would come to find out, things can change quickly in Lebanon.
Cruising with the beach to our left and the foothills of the Mount Lebanon range on our right, I caught sight of an inaudible plane describing circles over our heads. Indicative of our nonchalant attitude, I pointed out the plane to Phil and joked that it was our friend ‘Slow-Reece’ who must have commandeered a drone to look out for us. How nice!
Moments later, as we approached a military checkpoint, the drone opened fire. Heavy machine guns lit up the beach in front of us and shook the carbon fibres between our legs. We instinctively ducked into the drops and took cover at the checkpoint stand. The soldier who greeted us was relatively calm and instructed, with hand gestures, that the road towards Tripoli was now closed. Inexplicably, Phil tried to convince the soldier that we nevertheless needed to go forward for a few more kilometres in order to stay on our route.
Shock can play funny tricks on the brain.
Incorporating the detour, we began the day with an extra 500 metres of climbing. As we began to climb we could hear the ominous humming of the bird of prey circling over our heads, just beyond the tree cover that was blocking our visibility. We were relieved when she finally lost interest.
What followed was a rather uninspiring 60 km slog through some scarred landscapes. The road was wide and the traffic constant. Dust from a mineral quarry reduced scenic visibility and contributed to the unpleasantness of the climb.
As a welcome reprieve, we stopped in the halfway town of Amioun to have tea with Rami’s father Ibrahim. We quickly discovered that generosity and hospitality runs deep in the family. Ibrahim supplied us with all the cakes and black coffee we could stomach and delighted us with tales of Lebanon over the past 50 years. Of particular interest was how the town of Amioun, just 70 kilometres from Beirut, managed to avoid the horrors of the Lebanese civil war. “We heard stories about the war of course but life carried on more or less as usual here”. By what magic was this village spared, I wondered? A bit of research would reveal that certain villages in the north of Lebanon were under Syrian protection during the conflict and thus saved from the brunt of the fighting. I got to thinking about the other imperceptible borders, alliances and affiliations we would unknowingly stumble across over the next few days. We left Ibrahim’s house with a healthy appreciation for the complexity of the country. We’d have plenty of time to mull this over in the quiet of our minds as we dragged ourselves up the 10%-average gradient to Bsharri.
Despite the rather drab ascent, the view from Bsharri over the Kadisha gorge and the valley of the saints below was inspired. Our accommodation for the night, overlooking the monastery-laced gorge and set atop broccoli and strawberry fields, was run by a Lebanese guy with a thick Australian accent called Joe. Softly spoken by nature, when Joe finally opened up, we began plying him for local intel. Should we cross the Mount Lebanon range into the Beqaa valley? Was it safe? How can we mitigate the risk?
Joe, in a sort of casual, I’ve-lived-through-worse-shit-than-this kind of way, told us that “everyone in the Beqaa has an AK47 under the table, but don’t worry, I guarantee you will be safe, now is a time for business”. Joe was quick to add, “just make sure you stay away from Syrian refugee camps, hash plantations, opium plantations and Hezbollah neighbourhoods… Oh, and don’t take any photos!”
“everyone in the Beqaa has an AK47 under the table, but don’t worry, I guarantee you will be safe, now is a time for business”
Acting on this sensible advice, we decided that the allure of Baalbek, the ancient Phoenician city and the crown jewel of this trip, was too strong to resist. The plan was to cross the Mt. Lebanon range, descend into the Beqaa and try to stay in the foothills of the mountain range thereby avoiding going down into the Hezbollah-controlled valley and riding along the main road. Our reasoning was that this route would enable us to stay in the company of the ahl al-Jebal “mountain people” who, so far, seemed pretty hospitable. We would reach Zahle after 45 kilometres and then come back to Baalbek the next day by taxi so that we could take our time and enjoy the site. Fool-proof plan. What could go wrong?
The Hezzy Time Trial (TT)
Bsharri to Zahle (100 km, 1700m climbing)
We woke up with that nervous energy that you feel when you are about to do something that takes you out of your comfort zone. It was exciting. The decision had been made. We were doing this.
We had heard a relatively fierce mountain storm during the night but woke up to clear skies. The spirit of Adonis was with us. We could feel it.
The ride profile for the day was one for the well-rounded cyclist. 500 metres of climbing to the Cedars of God, another 800 metres of climbing to the top of the Mount Lebanon range, a 30 km descent into the Beqaa valley and a 45 km time-trial to Zahle.
What can one say about the Cedars of God? They are impressive. Standing in defiance of deforestation, global warming, war and poor civic planning, these 200 timeless souls are a symbol of everything that is great and shit about Lebanon.
The majesty of the cedars recalls the promise of a nation steeped in history and rich in culture while their reduced numbers evokes a sense of shame at the degraded state of that inheritance. What is for sure is that, at 2,000 plus years old, these survivors have witnessed the rise and fall of empires with stoic implacability. They give you the impression that they will take what comes.
Standing in the company of these giants made us feel small. Weirdly, impromptu encounters with strangers can produce a similar effect. Walking out of the park in search of pre-climb sustenance, I met a man hawking croissants who asked me where I was from. As per the plan, I said that I was from Holland (Americans are not very popular in the region right now).
“Nederlands! I have flower farm on backside of range. I send flowers to market in Amsterdam! I know Dutch people very well. Alstublieft!!”
Not sure how proficient the guy was in Dutch, and not wishing to be exposed as an imposter, I graciously thanked him for the croissant and hopped back on the bike.
As we continued our climb towards the top of the Mount Lebanon range, the giant cedars that loomed over us were quickly reduced to a lonely, stubborn grove below, huddled together against an expansive arid moonscape.
The climb from the cedars was the best of the entire trip. Wide, empty roads snaking up to barren ski fields at a leisurely 5% gradient, for roughly 8 km.
We topped out over the ridge at 2,700 metres with hazy views of the Mediterranean on one side and the anti-Lebanon mountains demarcating the border with Syria on the other.
On top of the pass, some Lebanese truckers, taking in the same views as us, remarked that we were lucky with the conditions. “It’s never like this,” remarked one of the guys. “Normally big wind, big snow.” Prophetically, two days later the very same spot would be as white as Walt Disney.
We were starting to believe that lady luck (let’s call her Artemis) was firmly on our side.
We would need her guiding hand over the next few hours.
Descending into the Beqaa was exhilarating. This was it – the main event. We had no idea what to expect but we knew for sure that after the 30 km drop down the backside of the range there was no turning back.
Despite the fact that the religious edifices spotted in Aynata, the first village that we rode through, were much the same as they had been on the other side of the range we knew that something had clearly changed. Real or imagined—it’s hard to know. There was a seriousness in the air. The kind of seriousness that you encounter wherever the storm of war has recently raged. People bore a visage of hardness. Of loss.
We stopped briefly to eat lunch before completing our descent of the valley and starting our final push to Zahle. As we were served our now familiar Pain et Za’tar, church bells across the dusty street began to ring like a Hollywood Western.
Men began filing in from the front; veiled women from the side. A casket materialized and the entire town seemed to stand at solemn attention. We stopped eating and pondered whether the funeral was in any way connected to the war raging just 20 kilometres away. Connected or not, we got back on our bikes with the impression that Lebanon had changed again, and that the place we were entering was a totally different country from the place where we had just been.
Descending down a wide and lightly trafficked road we saw the arid, red-clayed expanse of the Beqaa valley. We passed under a massive arch and hook a right-hand turn in the direction of our final destination, Zahle. Immediately we were smacked by the advance guard of the storm that would chase us for the rest of the trip: a force-five headwind.
Grinding into the wind, we began to tick off Joe’s list of best-to-be-avoided encounters.
The acronym “UNHCR” appeared immediately to our left, stamped on the iron sheet roofs of a Syrian refugee camp. Moments later, Phil noticed fields of hash on our right, neatly organized into rows like stalks of maize. This wasn’t good.
Then came the posters and flags. One after the other we rode passed poster-sized images of men in fatigues, obviously killed in action and now celebrated as martyrs. Hundreds of them. In between these posters, lining the road and tacked onto seemingly every house that we passed: Hezbollah flags. First green, then black, the flags, underscored by the sword of Allah, were flapping violently in the wind. We even passed a billboard-sized image of Ayatollah Khamenei, whose eyes seemed to follow us as we blasted through the village.
How did this happen?
As it turned out, by avoiding the main road (the public access road), we inadvertently barged in on the things that we were meant to avoid. Like walking in on your parents in the shower, the youth idling listlessly on the side of the road seemed too amazed by our presence to react. A few managed to yell out “Allah Akbar” as we passed. We had no response. We were hauling ass.
Without saying a word, Phil and I began ramping up the pace. Headwind be damned, our hearts were racing and soon thereafter, our legs.
Despite the bike bags and driving headwind, we were passing through villages at 38 km/h. Our hope was that we’d be up the road before anyone had time to consider whether we might be worth messing with. This fear was not altogether unfounded.
About midway through the Hezzy TT we felt the rumble of a Lebanese military convoy coming up behind us. Keeping our head down (but pressing on), 15 armoured personnel carriers topped with dudes on machine gun turrets with helmets and goggles barrelled past us at breakneck speed. More than one of the gunners looked at us askance as if to say, “What the fuck are you guys doing here?”
Nearly halfway through our 45 km TT, Phil uttered his first words in what seemed like hours, commenting on the size of a particular hash plantation off to our right. Attention diverted, he unwittingly smacked his front wheel against my derailleur. The chain started to skip and the pace fell off … shit.
I looked down, trying frantically to appease my temperamental mistress, when all of a sudden the front end of my bike dropped violently down a pothole in the road. The shoes tied to my rear bag flew off. I braked to a stop and circled around to retrieve the first shoe. A crowd of on-lookers gathered around the second. I looked at Phil and decided that the shoes weren’t worth it. Without hesitation I tossed the recovered shoe aside and sped back up to the relative safety of Phil’s back wheel.
Over-reaction? Almost certainly.
But like I said, my heart was pumping and the blood was concentrated in the legs, not the brain.
After nearly 45 km of seemingly hostile terrain, in which the Lebanese army (our welcome guardians up until this point) were mostly absent, we passed under a Jurassic Park-styled arch and began to see signs that Lebanon had transformed yet again. The posters had changed from martyrs to kids who had achieved their diplomas; Phil noticed the beer cans. We had made it.
I think it’s safe to say that the staff at the Grand Kadri Hotel in Zahle were unaccustomed to guests arriving by bike. The request to sleep with our bikes in the room was met at first with hostility and then begrudging acceptance. The banquet hall looked suited to host an Emirati wedding—and we had the place to ourselves! We drank like men who had just gotten away with something. Perhaps we had.
We slept in until nine and leisurely ate our breakfast in the company of an army of staff seemingly waiting on only us. The purpose of the previous day’s risk-taking was at hand. We were going to the ancient ruins of Baalbek.
If you haven’t heard of Baalbek (or what the Romans called Heliopolis – city of the sun), you can be forgiven—neither had we before researching this trip. The complex itself is situated in the heart of a city controlled by Hezbollah. Entering the town, we saw many of the same flags and banners as the day before. From the safety of a taxi, this time we found them amusing rather than disconcerting. Our minds were firmly on antiquity anyway. Considering what had happened in Palmyra, we would not be deterred.
The scale of the temple compound is hard to fathom. I can honestly say that it is one of the most impressive man-made structures I have ever seen.
Given the time of year, we nearly had the run of the place to ourselves. Hussein el Outa was waiting for us at the gate to guide us expertly through the temples’ secrets. The temple of Bacchus, excavated in the late 1800s by Kaiser Wilhelm and now almost completely intact, will make you spontaneously write a check to UNESCO, it’s that impressive.
The risks undertaken the day before were worth it. We were becoming veritable pagans. How could one not be moved by such a place?
Channeling the spirit of Bacchus, we spent the rest of the day in and out of local wineries. Sampling world-class wine in the shadow of informal refugee settlements and the mountains delineating the Syrian border is one of those surreal paradoxes that begins to feel normal after a time in Lebanon.
Back at the hotel our phones began to buzz. Torrential rain, hail stones large enough to smash windshields and tree-snapping winds were pummelling Beirut. They would be on us by mid-morning the next day! We had to figure out how to cross back over a the 2,500 metre Mount Lebanon pass before that happened.
Riders on the Storm
Zahle to Deir El Qamar (73km, 1200m climbing)
We woke up early the next morning to light rain outside our windows. Artemis, it seemed, had forsaken us. It was going to get ugly at altitude.
After a quick feed we were on the road. The clouds were menacing and the wind gusting, but somehow, the rain inside pregnant clouds was held in utero above our heads. Allah, perhaps, was still with us.
After a 15 km flat section down the west Beqaa valley, we turned right at the Kefraya vineyards and began our climb up and over the range. Unlike the gentle 5% gradient we faced on the front side, the backside was an aggressive 8% average. Nevertheless, we were charged with the adrenalin that comes with the prospect of being snowed on at altitude. We moved our asses.
At the top we were greeted by black skies, high winds and an army checkpoint manned by soldiers in arctic parkas. We changed quickly into dry clothes and started to descend. Before we had gone far, a soldier gripping an AK-47 ran over to us, yelling in Arabic. After hand gestures that (disconcertingly) involved the gun, we understood that our intended route was closed for military operations. We looked down over the darkened valley below. Phil, offended that anyone dare alter his beautifully planned route, sought further explanation from the soldier. As he did so, a massive gust of wind came in and blew over parts of the soldiers’ makeshift checkpoint stand. It was time to go.
The descent from the high Chouf into the storm below was exciting. We could see the ominous beast mustering its forces but, in open defiance, we were charging straight for it. We stopped briefly at the bottom of the descent to recalibrate our route. On the one hand, the storm was robbing us of the opportunity to really enjoy the Chouf region, one of the greenest and least scarred by unregulated development in Lebanon. On the other hand, fuck it, the race was on!
At this point, our Lebanese support crew based in Beirut, were getting anxious about our non-arrival. Reports of deaths from flash floods in the region were Whatsapped to us. We needed to get to Deir El Qamar ASAP.
We ripped the remaining 20 km as if riding a team time-trial. As we approached the town a massive cloud enveloped the cliff-side, blanketing the entire area in mist. Cars with high beams sped towards us. We broke through to the town and took cover under the nearest restaurant awning just as the skies opened up. We congratulated ourselves with a cold Almaza beer on another catastrophe averted. Nothing could stop us now.
Back to Beirut
Deir El Qamar to Beirut (79km, 1850 climbing)
Deir El Qamar, the former administrative capital of Lebanon, was turned briefly into a series of chutes and cascading rivers during the storm. The stairs scaling the heights of this town had grooves carved into them to facilitate the flow of large amounts of water. Apparently when it rains in Chouf, it pours.
Because of the storm, and in particular the reports of felled trees on the roads, we decided to forfeit Tyre and Sidon in favour of a direct route back to Beirut.
We waited until mid-day for the rain to stop and for some of the debris in and around Beirut to be cleared away. Strangely, within 20 km of leaving Deir el Qamar, we could see Beirut. We had made it! It was right there. Surely, we’ll just drop down and start the celebrations. Phil, knowing the route, knew better.
To avoid being squashed like helpless toads on the Lebanese highway, we needed to circle around the surrounding hills until we reached the north side of the city. Despite the fact that we could see the city, we still had quite a bit of work to do. 2,000 metres of climbing to be exact. On roads that make the Mortirolo look flat.
There is nothing quite as dispiriting as descending a 20% climb only to reach the foot of it and start climbing straight away… at 20%. It was like taking a nondescript hill during the Vietnam War after sustaining high causalities only to abandon it the next day. Only three more to go. We were nearly there.
At last we found ourselves on the outskirts of the city, having successfully circumnavigated it to the north. Descending past a military base, our pulses spiked at the prospect of successfully completing our mission. They would soon be raised one last time for another reason. We were on the highway.
Of all the risks that were associated with this trip, none compares to the last 10 km riding into Beirut. Even on the shoulder, cars passed within inches of us at 80 km/h. We were like bystanders who unwittingly found themselves in a bumper car arena where all the kids are trying to smash into you. It was the law of the jungle. Within minutes I begged Phil to abort. He was convinced that if we doubled back we might find the coastal road. I was convinced we would be killed trying. I considered it was better to try our luck on the side streets. At least the speed of the cars would be reduced when they hit us.
The side streets were almost as bad. Rather than be hit at speed, the risk here was to be crushed between cars competing to advance through the chaos.
It was manic. Even motorbike drivers were a rare site. The one we did see nearly crashed into the back of Phil trying to overtake him between two SUVs. Phil considered punching him, but luckily thought better of it. We had more pressing issues.
Finding ourselves two one-way streets over from our neighbourhood, we got off and, anti-climactically, completed our journey on foot. We headed straight for Kalei Café. A bunch of apathetic hipsters looked on as two spandex clad cyclists embraced and revelled in a sense of achievement at the gates. The proprietor and barista of the shop came out and congratulated us. To honour the ride, our beers, food and coffee were on the house.
That night we met up with Rami and Leyla at Torino and thanked them for their awesome support over the week-long journey. Riding the high, we thought we’d celebrate in style by hitting up Beirut’s infamous club scene. As hip as the club was, I found myself passing out in the corner before most people had even arrived for the evening. Apparently I’m not the young buck I used to be.
We capped off the trip the next day by taking in the views near Pigeon rock with our favourite Lebanese couple.
We were delighted that each time Rami met someone in the street (this happened often; the man is popular), he told them about our trip. We were also inwardly delighted each time the re-telling was met with astonishment.
At the start we never thought the trip was that ambitious. It’s true that we noticed the blank spot over Lebanon on the bikepacking.com website but we assumed that it was because cycling around Lebanon was too commonplace to report, not because it hadn’t been done. To be clear, we’re not saying it hasn’t been done. What we are saying is that in undertaking our little adventure we weren’t influenced by anyone else’s trip or experience. We planned, mapped, and executed the route ourselves. In so doing we denied the modern impulse to “pre-experience” the ride by over-planning or by obsessing over the details. There was always space for improvisation. And therein lies the rub. The uncertainty and unpredictability encountered coupled with our responses thereto unwittingly led us to the novel, unmediated experience that we were looking for. By seeking out (and finding) challenge and adversity, we were afforded the opportunity to test ourselves and our friendship. I reckon in the end we are better men and better friends because of it.
We also proved to ourselves that you don’t need a gravel bike to go on an adventure. Your road bike is more resilient than you think, and so too, are you.