The Ups and Downs of Riding from Berlin to Athens.
Aloys and John, Lebanon on Wheels 2018
When I went to Lebanon for the first time in 2017, I could never have expected to have had the wonderful time that I did, much less did I expect to return the following year on a bicycle. It is still strange to recall how Aloys and I sat listening to Hans Gottman talk about his trip, and how, at the end of it, half jokingly we had decided to do something similar. Thinking back on it, I wasn’t even sure myself if I was actually going to do it. A year on after endless preparation, 2,700 kilometres and another month in Lebanon, it still hasn't quite sunk in.
I met Aloys last year when we were both volunteering in Chabrouh. The very intense lifestyle meant that we bonded very quickly. I went to Lebanon for shallow reasons and never expected to have the experience that I did; my time there has had a lasting impact on me. Meeting the guests that come to the house, I appreciated the enormous potential that they have, especially the youngest boys, Toufic, Ahmad, Mikhail and Abbas. I came home with great friends and a great love for the work that is done at Chabrouh.
When the idea first occurred to us and throughout all the planning, Aloys and I imagined that the trip would be exactly like one imagines it in the after-movie. We were looking forward to spending a month in the sun, on flat open roads with fantastic views. There would be music in the background and we’d be all smiles. We would jump on our bikes in the morning, cycle for a bit and then arrive at some point in the mid-afternoon, at which point we could relax. We of course knew that there would be challenges but these would be few and far between. How very wrong we were…
Our first day gave us an idea of what we had actually committed ourselves to. It was meant to be a relatively short day along a simple route but we managed to get lost and ended up riding 30 km more than we had originally planned. Thereafter, we had to accept pretty quickly that we were going to be doing more than the planned average of 100 km per day. We had our routine of checking our trackers at the end of each day to see how far we had gone, then would come the elation as we seemed to be going further and further each day. Despite the days being very tough at times, the elation of arriving in the evening would always seem to make the tiredness and problems of the day melt away.
We had planned our route pretty simply, we were both going to be in Berlin at the beginning of summer, and the previous trips had both finished in Athens. We broke out the map and drew a line from Berlin to Athens, going through the major cities along the way. As we made our way into the Czech Republic along the Elbe, we cursed the route we were taking. However, a few weeks later while knee-deep in mud we dreamt of being back on an established cycle route. After Belgrade, our halfway point, it turns out that there are no more established cycling routes. We then relied on apps which routinely led us to push our bikes for hours through kilometres of thick mud and densely overgrown trails.
When cycling over a long distance, one definitely goes through a range of almost every emotion. There was intense anger at the Czech drivers who were zooming by us at over 100 km/h on small roads. There was frustration when yet another tyre would go flat just as we were starting to get momentum. On the other hand, what was truly special, looking back, was the great excitement we felt as we became more comfortable on the bikes and could go further and faster with less exhaustion. Most of all, the feeling of arriving in Athens was truly awesome. It was a mix of a whole spectrum of sensations ranging from disbelief to immense happiness.
Arriving in Chabrouh, I felt a huge sense of relief and happiness. Relief on the one hand because after a layover in Athens, it really drove home that we had completed our trip. Happiness on the other, to have reached the destination which I had thought about almost daily throughout the year of preparation and cycling.
What has struck me in the time since finishing the trip is how people, being kind and complimentary, often say how they couldn’t do something like the Lebanon on Wheels. Aloys will forgive me when I say that neither of us is particularly sporty, nor are we passionate cyclists. We just have a great love for the project, shared a wonderful experience during our time there and wanted to do something more for our friends in Deir el Salib. Although we doubted ourselves during the preparation, once we were on our way, there was never a moment in which we considered giving up. This goes to show that with the right mentality and a bit of time, anyone can do Lebanon on Wheels.
London, September 2018