Text by Nathalie Rosa Bucher
Photos by The Bike Kitchen and Nathalie Rosa Bucher
After setting up Cycling Circle to get people to experience Beirut and Lebanon by bike and founding Deghri Bike Messengers to allow people to send deliveries by bicycle, young entrepreneur Karim Sokhn’s latest venture is a clear sign that Beirut’s bicycle culture is cooking.
Close to Tayouneh Roundabout and St Lourdes Church in Furn al Chebbek, The Bike Kitchen tends to the needs of cyclists and welcomes regular folks looking for a pleasant space to have a meeting or enjoy a coffee. It also serves as Deghri Bike Messengers’ head office and allows regular cyclists to work while having their bikes fixed, hosts specialized events, sells new and vintage bikes and rents bicycles. The Bike Kitchen offers services on how to fix bikes, how to bike in Beirut and in Lebanon generally, as well as tips on how to buy a bike – and not get ripped off.
Among the bikes for sale are hybrid, road bikes and mountain bikes (all Giant make), second hand and refurbished bikes. “We also sell local products and produce such as Taqa energy bars,” Sokhn added.
“The Bike Kitchen aims to become the first hub for cyclists,” Sokhn the ‘Chef’ behind this much-needed venture, which opened its doors in December 2016, said. Sokhn was able to realize his dream after obtaining a grant from the Fondation Diane.(see p.87)
Having started Cycling Circle in 2012 and Deghri in 2013, Sokhn maintained that a bicycle culture was emerging in Beirut. “We don’t have a bike culture on a larger scale yet: Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael and Badaro are exceptions.” The entrepreneur pointed out that more people were commuting, and there were more bike stores. “These are the indicators, something is going on – there is a community.”
Promoting cycling in Beirut
After five years of setting up bicycle-related projects, Sokhn knows the challenges and opportunities that anyone cycling Beirut’s and Lebanon’s streets offer. “Negligent drivers don’t notice cyclists, they swerve to the right, they don’t let you pass,” the son of a professional cyclist lamented.
“But it’s hard to get lost in Beirut, people help you out, you can claim it without a map, and constant traffic jams reduce the flow of traffic. The contrasts between high end neighborhoods and poorer, neglected areas are stark, there is much diversity, Beirut is full of contrasts and you can cycle pretty much all year round.”
“People need to feel safe,” Sokhn underscored and observed that once people had been on a bike they started to change their perceptions – about cycling as much as their surrounds. Cycling at night, in groups, as Cycling Circle does every week, offers a special thrill and charm.
“We need tourism, and fun activities. Cycling Circle responded to this need,” Sokhn pointed out. “In the first year (2012), 200 cyclists would join on rides in the city and outside of Beirut. By 2016 the number has increased 10 fold, many join regularly and many have become more serious about cycling.”
“Cycling Circle focuses on the fun aspect of riding, we get people on a bike, there are coaches for people who can’t ride,” he explained further. “We get them to join night tours, learn how to ride in a group. They are covered by insurance, taken care of by guides who ensure they are safe. Once they are confident to ride in town they can head out of town. People who join us often end up buying their own bike, commuting or even racing.”
“One of the big advantages of cycling is that participants get to know the country better,” Sokhn reported. “They get more connected to nature, meet locals and villages, discover monuments along the road, and connect with other people along the ride.”
As a result of these weekly outings, Sokhn has often witnessed how participants from Beirut had initially viewed a place like Jezzine as ‘the other side of Lebanon’. Once they had been there though, they decided to go back with their parents and friends. The villages have started to welcome the cyclists and enjoy the encounters as well as economic benefits of selling participants local produce.
The Bike Kitchen, the first of it’s kind in Lebanon and the region, has already become a hub for cyclists and non-motorized transport activists. The fact that it has quickly become a coffee spot for locals living nearby is the best possible endorsement it could have gained in such a short time.
The Bike Kitchen is open Tuesdays to Sundays between 8.30am and 10/10.30pm and offers free bicycle parking.
Read more : WE Magazine issue #15