Sunday Bicycle Tour

Franconia, Germany

It’s 11:00 AM on a rainless Sunday between March and November. I rush some last-minute checks on my road bicycle and gear, before starting my most extended tour of the week. My wife comes to wish me a safe ride, and to check how late I’ll be back home for lunch. Minutes before leaving, I often mention to her a peculiar detail about the challenge that awaits me, well aware that she is the least interested in my sport. She listens nevertheless and gives me a kiss before I embark on my 4-hour mini-adventure.

The plan is to cycle out of Nuremberg to the north and to make a loop in an area called Franconian Switzerland. A region that owes its descriptive name to its hilly landscape, preserved nature, and picturesque villages; an irresistible attraction to road cyclists of the surrounding flatland. What a coincidence that the country I originate from, Lebanon, used to be called the “Switzerland of the Middle East”, before foreign and domestic wars ravaged it.

The Switzerland face of Lebanon first became visible to me in the postwar years of the early 90‘s as we came out of the 15-year war-imposed enclaves. I was in my early 20’s and at the start of my career. Part of my work was to introduce Mountain Biking to a market that considered bicycles as toys, and sports in general for only the few athletic extremists. For that purpose, I promoted Mountain Biking tours and competitions in the country’s numerous mountains. This led me back then to discover the rural beauty of Lebanon, the magnificent villages perched on steep mountains and a network of trails linking an out of this world scenery. War, it seems, had stopped time in many villages, and preserved the Switzerland side of Lebanon, albeit for a while.

My marketing efforts were effective to the point that I became an ardent mountain biker myself. Later, with my improved fitness level, I started Road Cycling, reaching more distances and heights, and uncovering more hidden beauties of the Mount-Lebanon chain of mountains. In retrospect, I believe I was fleeing Beirut under construction and the stress of our modern life. Sundays, I cycled long hours to remote areas to find my inner balance away from the new Lebanon in the making. Years later, on one gloomy day preceding a departure with no return in sight, I disassembled my bicycle and packed it in a giant luggage. This time I was leaving to what turned out to be my new homeland, Germany. Sometimes, I wonder how I would have managed the hardship of resettling in a new country without that sport.

Back to my German Sunday tour that I start by pedaling slowly in order to warm up. Some road cyclists come the opposite way and we salute each other in a minimalistic manner by either raising the left-hand fingers off the handlebar or by giving the nod with a smile. That’s part of the code of conduct in Germany among race cyclists. As a Mediterranean, I often break this rule and extend a nod to whoever makes eye contact with me, be it also mere flâneurs. I also give a friendly nod to that lucky guy race-cycling together with his wife or girlfriend.

Slowly I gain on speed. A sense of freedom starts invading me. I am moving away from the routine, the life indoors, the worries, the responsibilities… I am a free man again, rediscovering the delight of traveling on my own means, the joy of balance, speed, and being in the open-air; a similar feeling I had as a child riding on the terrace of my grandparents‘ house in Lebanon.

Cycling out of any city in Germany, nature becomes preponderant. Unlike in Lebanon and many other countries, nature here hasn’t been aggressed by the fury of building and littering. It has been domesticated though with an environment friendly network of trails for hikers and cyclists, thus creating this peaceful cohabitation with humans. Whatever the season, nature preserves its awe and reassures me that I made the right choice of fleeing the concrete. My speed increases, I feel the air brushing my face, whistling in my ears; I come in a flow. I am one with my environment.

On flat roads or downhill, the trance can last a while. When I hit an ascent, reality strikes back and my ecstasy gives way to shortness of breath and muscle pain in the legs. With experience, one learns to adapt one‘s speed to a sustainable mix of heart rate and leg pressure. My mind and body focus then on one thing: reaching the top of the hill. Any extra glass of wine, indulgence in food, or lack of sleep the past days slow me down. Persevere, take it easy, the pain is temporary, is the kind of monologue I have in such arduous moments. I wish I can transfer more of this attitude to my daily life. The struggle pays off when I get to the top of the hill. The higher the peak, the stronger the sense of achievement. The most grueling but exhilarating ascents were those I achieved from coastal Beirut to various peaks exceeding 2000 meters in altitude.

Experience in managing your pace though doesn’t protect you from the sudden bursts of your ego. It happens when some cyclist overtakes me, or when I spot another one way ahead that I instinctively aim to beat. Soon I find myself pushing my physical limits that to my surprise were only in my head. Left to the ego though, one could get injured, take unnecessary risks, or in my case, break the endurance for the remainder of the trip.

Successful or not the spurts are, reason takes back its control, and I repurpose my energy and adapt it to a sustainable speed. When I am not focused on the road, my perception turns inwards. The harmonious outside world gives way to my inner, lesser peaceful, one. My forgotten woes suddenly appear. Issues at work, family problems, or wounds from the lost home start lurking. I can neither grab my phone nor check my emails to escape such thoughts. They are suddenly here asking for my attention. I must face them, and often dwell on some I have long ignored. But in a way, my negative thoughts are less annoying than what they seem. Is it the fresh air, the body produced dopamine, or the movement that makes them lighter? As I cycle further, I cycle away from being an object of my worries to become an actor in my life. I cycle to new perspectives.

Kirchensittenbach, Germany, 2020

After the forests and fields come villages. In Germany, these have preserved their idyllic character. Surrounded by luscious greenery, each of these seems like it would illustrate the ideal world in children’s books. The church is the tallest building, and all houses circle around it in protection. Traditional architectural aspects and construction restrictions have been good guards against bad taste. Each house alone has nothing distinct about it. All houses together though make a beautiful picture. They are in absolute harmony with their environment. That was the case of Lebanon before the ills of urbanization, centralization, and modernity took over. Nowadays, even in affluent areas where houses are state of the art when it comes to their individual architecture, seen together these buildings make an ugly concrete picture, alien to the environment. Fortunately, some villages are resisting the invasion of concrete and preserving their old identity. I wonder how much of my theory on buildings applies to us Lebanese individuals.

When I do a tour that I know, there are always houses, gardens, or trees that I want to make sure I check on. Perhaps unconsciously, I look for things that are stable in this ever-changing world. Old is beautiful; the millennial church, the stone street, or that house with the blue fading shutters where some grandma probably lives and welcomes her family during happy occasions or hard times. I rejoice to see a young couple going on a stroll with their children, an older man contemplating his garden or a young girl cleaning the sidewalk in front of her house. Life looks peaceful. I get a flashback from Lebanon when I reach a village after a climb; the soothing breeze, a rooster’s crow, the white stone houses, and a loud Sunday family lunch.

Chabtine, Lebanon, 2019

As the most chunk of the world’s population is crammed in mega cities, people in decentralized Germany have found a balance in being part of the world’s economy while preserving a good quality of life. Modernity was no excuse for deforestation, concrete invasion of nature, and consumption as the primary entertainment.

A breeze of positive thoughts now comes my way. Often I gain a new outlook, or get some inspiration to pursue new projects. I also feel the need to reconnect with my dispersed family, or some old forgotten friends. Mostly I feel grateful for living the moment, for connecting with this peaceful environment in the heart of Germany. This part of the world had its share in darker times. It had to pay a high price as a consequence, but was able to grow better out of it.

Meditating on the large and small challenges, I cycle on country roads from one village to the other. On Sundays, these roads serve as the playground for sports cars and motorcycles, vintage or super high tech. Years ago, I dreamt of owning one of these. I’m now glad I don’t. This would have taken time away from my therapeutic outdoors ventures.

The tour is a succession of four phases in random order: the agony of ascending, the joy of reaching the top of a mountain, the adrenaline of speeding, and the meditation in traveling distances. Somehow, it is a reflection of life with its difficulties, achievements, pleasures, and thoughts.

Almost four hours have passed and now I am only a few kilometers away from the comfort of home. My energy depletes fast and I fancy a rich meal. Later, I recount some of what I encountered to my wife. Images of the breathtaking sceneries will accompany me for the evening and the days to come before I embark on yet another reminiscing expedition…

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