Renowned US cyclist Lance Armstrong came to Lebanon to lead “Bike For Beirut” on Sunday, a charity peloton ride intended to provide much-needed aid to those affected by the Beirut blast.
The three-hour ride started at Silo 12, the damaged grain store at the blast site, and cycled through the streets of Beirut, briefly visiting each of the four NGOs benefitting, before returning to the Beirut Port.
“I think it looks like we’ve got about – standing here now, at the start – about 100 people,” Armstrong told Al Arabiya English from the starting point at Silo 12. “It’s tough to get it organized.”
On August 4, 2020, a massive explosion, caused by 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, occurred at Beirut’s port, right in the heart of Lebanon’s capital. Over 200 people were killed, thousands were injured and hundreds of thousands were made homeless. The reconstruction of affected schools, hospitals, and businesses has been estimated at several billion US dollars.
Visiting Lebanon for the first time, Armstrong was struck by the scale of the destruction left in the wake of the blast.
“We toured [the city] yesterday morning for a few hours, and then obviously we’re going to do the ride through the explosion site and some of the surrounding communities,” explained Armstrong. “It’s unbelievable. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s apocalyptic.”
Organizers hope to raise both awareness and funds in support of four local NGOs currently undertaking the vital tasks of reconstruction and rehabilitation within Lebanon’s beleaguered capital, with all funds collected being split equally between the four groups.
“The impetus was Tom Barrak,” said Armstrong. “Tom and I have been friends for a long time, and he asked me to come over and do the ride; try to help as much as we can; bring some awareness; raise some money. He was the main inspiration.”
Also participating in Sunday’s ride was legendary Lebanese sportsman and explorer Maxime Chaya, one of the key organizers of the event – alongside Tom Barrak and Ziad Ghandour – and a close associate of Heartbeat, an NGO specializing in providing medical care and treatment to children born with heart disease.
“This is about helping those in need after the horrible August blast,” said Chaya. “Coming from more than halfway around the world to show solidarity in sport is amazing, and I wish other world-class athletes would do the same, no matter what the sport or what their background is.”
Beit El Baraka founder Maya Ibrahimsha hopes to improve further upon the work her group has already done, providing access to food, shelter, healthcare, and education to struggling Lebanese families.
“We have been taking homes and moving people out of their houses, and working very quickly under pressure to be able to put them back in their homes,” Ibrahimsha said. “Now we are repairing 3011 homes and 202 small businesses in the devastated areas.”
The third beneficiary group, Offre Joie, is a non-partisan NGO that has been assisting Lebanese families since 1985. After the blast, Offre Joie responded quickly by assessing the damages and setting up an emergency rehabilitation program in Karantina and Mar Mikhael, two of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
Finally, the Lebanese Red Cross, who provided many of the first responders in the immediate aftermath of the blast and offer essential emergency medical services, will continue in their mission to promote peace and alleviate human suffering.
Following today’s ride, Armstrong will be spending the next 10 days in the Middle East on various events. Chaya said the Bike For Beirut team will next travel to Dubai, where they hope to raise even more funds.
Ride With Lance will take place on August 6 at the 50km Loop Al Qudra Cycling Track, in Dubai, led again by Armstrong. However, the rest of the schedule has yet to be confirmed.
“I think that this would be an awful time for anyone, you know, to see this amount of devastation,” said Armstrong. “As I said, it’s apocalyptic, but I think its times like these are when the best people, the best communities and the best comebacks happen. I wish them the best.”