From war in Aleppo to Worlds in Bergen: Syrian riders reunited

Nazir Jaser, Ahmad Badreddin and Mohamed Rayes riding with message of hope

Nazir Jaser pulls to a standstill outside the registration building at the World Championships in Bergen, Norway. He rests his time trial bike against a nearby wall and delicately checks over his Syrian national skinsuit, gently ironing out any creases with his hands before making his way into the auditorium where he must register.

It's unusual for a rider to arrive like this. Most athletes here at the World Championships won't see the city centre until they're either competing or on a reconnaissance ride but Jaser is here to pick up his own race number. There are no WorldTour buses, carers, nor a plethora of support staff here. Not for Jaser, anyway.

Jaser, 28, is one of three Syrians racing in the World Championships, and on Wednesday he and compatriot Ahmad Badreddin will roll down the start ramp and pit their strength and wits against the Chris Froomes and Tom Dumoulins of this world. Twenty-four hours earlier a young 17-year-old, Mohamed Rayes lines up in the junior equivalent.

The triumvirate of athletes are in Bergen with the national coach, and Mohamed's father, Amin, but their extraordinary story does not begin here in Norway. It starts with a cycling federation fighting to survive through a bloody civil war; it continues with Jaser and his fellow cyclists fleeing for their lives and scattering through western Europe; and it carries through with the three of them arriving in Norway to compete in one of cycling's showcase events.

***

A day before picking up his race number, Jaser is standing outside the hotel in Bergen that he has called home for the last few days. He scans the crowds, searching for a face he should recognise but can't quite draw on.

Finally, Badreddin appears. It's a reunion the pair never thought possible. The pair grew up together in war-torn Aleppo, and raced as part of the Syrian national team, but the once-teammates were forced to flee their homes when the war escalated and, until their meeting outside their hotel in Bergen, they had not seen each other for almost four years.

"I've known him since we lived in Aleppo. In 2015 he moved because the city was just broken and he couldn't stay there any more and he moved to Berlin. It's been four years and yesterday we saw each other for the first time since," a jubilant Badreddin tells us as he stands with Jaser outside the race registration building.

"I was in Syria then and we were on the same team then. We were in the same club and we had a lot of races together back then as part of the national team. We went to lots of races together," he says, smiling at Naser, who is still checking over his skinsuit to make sure it remains immaculate.



When the war broke out in Syria cycling was one of the last things on people's minds. The federation infrastructure suffered, the outdoor track that riders had used for training was repeatedly bombed, and survival became the only necessity.

Jaser fled to Berlin, Badreddin to Switzerland, and the pair remained apart. They kept in contact via email, and Badreddin found a cycling club and even raced in Spain in 2016. Jaser, who has picked up German but doesn't have the best English, settled in Berlin and made use of an excellent support system there that helps to look after Syrian riders. Both riders still have family in Syria – in Aleppo in fact – but over the last two years both have been able to rebuild their lives. In a period of great uncertainty, risks, loss and upheaval, it's cycling that has kept them together.

"In 2012 I thought that cycling was finished for me," Badreddin says. "The war at home made it really hard to carry on. I was just looking to my future but after being in Switzerland for eight months I met some people who were into riding and I started to slowly train and get back into it. Two years after that I came back.

"After about a year of being in Switzerland he wrote to me and said we should meet again but yesterday was the first time it was possible. It's great to see him again. Cycling has brought us together. It was a fantastic time when we were able to try and race together and now he's 28 and I'm 26 and we're again together.

"We arranged to meet up at the hotel where we are staying and when I turned up he was waiting for me in the street. It was fantastic. I couldn't believe it."

Badreddin turns to Jaser, helping to translate as Jaser tells us about the family he still has in Aleppo, about his last outing at the Worlds in 2013, and how this skinsuit has accompanied him from Florence, to Syria, to Berlin and now to Norway.

"I asked where he got the skinsuit," Badreddin says. "He was in the Worlds in Toscana and he's kept the kit for a long time. It reminded him that he was once in the World Championships and he's kept this this whole time."

***

Inside the registration building Syria's cycling manager, Amin Rayes, arrives for the pre-race meeting that all managers and coaches must attend.

He is accompanied by Abdo Nader, the general secretary of the Lebanese Cycling Federation. Rayes is softly spoken and somewhat shy. He explains how the national federation survived the war in Syria but he's at his most animated when he takes out his phone and shows us photos of his young boy who races in Holland alongside the Dutch national champion.

Nader helps translate, and explains how the head of the Syrian Federation had his visa application denied, and that his role here is to step in and help.

"The Syrian federation is still active, even with the hard conditions and the war in Syria," Nader explains.

"That's why they still support their riders in Europe. There are four or five in Germany, some in the Netherlands, and Ahmad in Switzerland. They have a Russian coach and a training camp in Russia. 


"The president of the federation couldn't get a visa to come here but because he's a friend he called me and today I've brought all the accessories the riders need, the national jerseys, and I've just come in from Lebanon. We want to support all cyclists and for us cycling is a big family. We should stand together."



The Syrian Federation is recognised by the UCI and, although the national body is funded by its heavily criticized government, over the last few years it has organised several 'Cycling For All' initiatives in which children and adults are encouraged to take up cycling. Funding is difficult, resourses hard to come by, but, as Rayes explains, he and the riders who fled Aleppo have come through tough times.

"It's a very good federation and one that even in war they still work for the sport and are doing good things," he says.

"The federation keeps in contact. They try and support the riders by phoning them, and giving them emotional support," Nader says as he translates Rayes' words for us.

"They follow their results in Europe. They still have selection criteria so the riders racing here are selected because they're the best, not just because they are in Europe. There are many tests.

"I was a coach in Syria and now I'm in the Netherlands," he adds.

"I look after my riders' needs and try and give them the best condition but I know that they need more.

"The war in Aleppo was very hard. Riders were training under bombs and it was atrocious conditions. In the end we couldn't train. None of the roads were available because of the barriers everywhere. Then the track was bombed. Reaching Europe wasn't easy."


Nader adds: "It was expensive for them and they were risking their own lives. For them it was a question of life or death."

***

Back outside, it's almost time for Badreddin and Jaser to say their goodbyes and head back to their team hotels.

"This has all made me think that it's possible to have a new life," Badreddin says as he clips into his pedals.

"It made me realise that it's important never to give up and that if you work hard then you'll get everything. Now that we're here I just want to show people that you can do something special, even if you're hit by war. If you never give up you will succeed."

Over the next two days the medals will be awarded for the individual time trials. The Syrian team will not trouble the favourites but, as they have shown just by getting to Bergen, there's more to cycling than medals. There's hope.

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