Former cycling superstar Lance Armstrong toured Beirut on Sunday with over thirty amateur cyclists to raise funds for local NGOs working to assist victims of the August 4 blast.
The ruined port remains an arresting sight, with buildings blown to pieces in the explosion that killed at least 190 people and left 30,000 more homeless, leaving piles of rubble still being cleared by expert teams
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Mr Armstrong, as he prepared to lead the peloton from the port to the offices of the Lebanese Red Cross, and then to Lebanese NGOs Heartbeat, Beit El Baraka, and Offre Joie.
“The fact that only 200 people lost their lives, that’s a miracle,” he added.
Beirut is still reeling from the effects of the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in its port. An investigation is ongoing, but in protests and on social media, the Lebanese accuse their leaders of being responsible for the unsafe storage of the chemical for seven years. “Disaster-stricken Lebanon” was trending on Twitter on Sunday.
Mr Armstrong arrived in Beirut on Friday for a four-day visit, his first to the country, and visited the blast site the next day.
Mr Armstrong told The National that his friend, American-Lebanese property investor Thomas Barrack, convinced him to visit Lebanon.
“He asked me to come, I said absolutely,” said Mr Armstrong, who is scheduled to fly to Dubai on Monday for a four-day work trip. “Tom and I are on a longer trip in this part of the world and it just came together. Originally, we weren’t coming to Lebanon.”
Lebanese Red Cross volunteer Oudey Hamadeh, 26, said he hoped Mr Armstrong’s visit would encourage donations.
“At the start, there were a lot of funds and we hope that the funds will come back,” he said. “It’s been two months since the explosion and maybe people have lost interest in helping the Lebanese Red Cross.”
Mr Hamadeh said that Mr Armstrong remains a role-model despite the doping scandals that tarnished his reputation and stripped him of most of his titles, including his seven Tour de France wins.
“He’s a public figure that we look up to,” he said.
Amateur cyclist Antoine Massabni, 67, said he felt “privileged” to ride with Mr Armstrong on Sunday.
“It’s a once in a lifetime type of thing. I know it’s a bit controversial, and he’s had his troubles with the anti-doping agency, but I think he came out clean after that … He redeemed himself.”
“Lance is a legend,” said his friend Georges Bouez, 56.
Participation in Sunday’s ride, dubbed Bike for Beirut, cost $300 per person and funds collected will be donated to the four NGOs visited on the route.
“We believe that they are the four best managed and most transparent NGOs in the country,” said Lebanese venture capitalist, Ziad Ghandour, who heads an investment fund in the US and helped organise the event.
After the Beirut blast, international donors shied away from giving money directly to the government due to its reputation for corruption and mismanagement.
The attention garnered from Mr Armstrong’s visit to Beirut is “amazing, and well deserved,” said Milla Ghandour communications consultant at Beit El Baraka, which refurbishes homes and operates a free supermarket for the poor.
Donations to the initiative can be made on its website and via WhatsApp and will be distributed evenly between the four NGOs. The amount raised up to now has not been made public.
Lebanese sportsman Maxime Chaya also participated in organising the event.
“Maybe we can turn this into a yearly ride,” said George Hincapie, Mr Armstrong’s cycling partner who accompanied him to Beirut. “We’ll be back next year to help continue to rebuild the city. I think it’s a good idea. We should do it.”
It seems Mr Armstrong is also planning a return.
“Last night I promised somebody I’d do the Beirut Marathon” he said.
He'll probably have to wait until 2021 to fulfil the ambition. Scheduled for November, the annual event was cancelled this year due to the combined effects of Lebanon's economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.