Manar Rayes will race the U23 time trial at Flanders Worlds on Monday.

Manar Rayes, who left war-torn Syria in 2015, eyes his first U23 Worlds TT start

Manar Rayes rode for hours in the sun on a velodrome in Aleppo to make his dream of one day becoming a pro cyclist come true.

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This Monday, the under-23 men will ride their time trial at the UCI Road World Championships in Belgium. The category is made up of dreams of some day turning pro, and ultimately, many do.

Manar Rayes is among that group of riders, hoping to join the pro ranks. The 21-year-old Syrian rider has big dreams for his cycling career. Those dreams started with his father in Syria but were hampered when the war hit back in 2011, when Manar was just 11 years young.

“We lived in Aleppo and in 2011 and 2012 the war hadn’t really reached the city yet,” Manar tells CyclingTips of his beginnings on the bike. “We went to school and my father had his job. I could ride my bike in the streets safely. My family had enough to eat and it was safe. That all changed in 2013 when Aleppo was also bombed. It was like an action movie. I wasn’t living at home anymore because I had moved to Damascus as a 13-year-old to join the Syrian Cycling team there but I had to come back.”

He himself quickly rose through the ranks and became national champion on several occasions. When the war hit Aleppo, his family asked Manar to come back home to work. He was 13 years old, the oldest of three sons. His older sister helped his mother with the household chores. Because there wasn’t any school anymore and hardly anything to eat, he was asked to start working and provide for his family.

“I worked in a bakery which was a good thing because there was nothing to eat in Aleppo,” he says. “The normal people didn’t earn a lot of money and all food was so expensive. We also didn’t have electricity or water. We walked quite far with bidons to get water. My 12-year-old brother also worked with me in the bakery and that’s how we could eat something.

“I worked from 5am to midday and then slept for an hour before training for hours on a 400-meter velodrome. The streets were too dangerous.” 

Manar explains how the snipers would often getting bored and start shooting around. One day, he was crossing a busy intersection to get home after a session on the velodrome when a bomb exploded. He still sees and smells the blood in his mind.

Cycling isn’t the number one sport in Syria but Manar grew up with it. Before he was born, his father raced until a broken hip surgery went wrong and he ended up with uneven legs. 

“I didn’t even like cycling at first,” Manar jokes. “Gradually it became my dream to become professional. My father never made it that far although he wanted to go to Europe and join a team there. He couldn’t because he had the hip accident and also because he became a father and had to take care of his family. It doesn’t feel like I am fulfilling his dream though. This wish to become a pro cyclist myself comes from within me now but has been installed by my father. He is super proud.”

When the circumstances in Syria became even more dangerous, Manar’s father Amin decided to flee to Europe hoping his wife and four children could soon follow. It became a hazardous journey where he was arrested multiple times and even got stranded when one of the people smuggler’s boats broke down. Eventually, he made it to the Netherlands. 

“We arrived in the Netherlands in September of 2015,” Manar says. “For six months we stayed in a refugee camp before we got a house in Utrecht. I was already in contact with someone in the Netherlands. Theo de Rooij [former pro and manager of the Rabobank team] and I got in touch via Facebook. He helped and helps me a lot. He also advises me and encourages me. Theo introduced me to Wim Sluis at the UWTC De Volharding club team [in Utrecht]. Visiting him was one of the first things I did when moving to Utrecht. He gave me cycling kit and I started with the team in the U17 category.”

On Monday, Manar will represent Syria for the third time at a World Championships. He rode as a junior in both 2017 and 2018 but missed out on his first participation in the U23 ranks in 2019 because his visa was denied. Last year, the U23 field didn’t have a championship. Manar will also miss out on the road race in Belgium because of administrative errors within the Syrian Cycling Union. It’s just one of many hurdles he has to overcome.

“Syria used to have a very active cycling union and we even had an international stage race in Syria,” he says. “There were riders from all over the region. Now it’s becoming more difficult of course after 10 years of war. Originally Syria didn’t have a start place in the road race but the website said we should call the UCI. I did but they told me the cycling union should have entered me. They didn’t. Luckily I have another chance in the U23 category next year.” 

Manar could have joined the UCI refugee team but it would mean he can’t represent Syria anymore, and he is clearly proud of his country. Because of the fact there hasn’t been a national championship in many years, he is still the reigning champion. 

He describes himself as a climber and feels right at home on the 10-15 km long climbs, terrain on which he has already ridden in the French Alps. 

“Unfortunately, we don’t have those climbs here. I do well with long endurance efforts. It’s also what the tests show,” he says. “Although I would never ever do those five-hour sessions without food or water on the velodrome again, they did give me a real solid base. I get better in stage races for example because I really recover well. In 2019 I rode Olympia’s Tour [one of the oldest U23 stage races] and got better in the final stages. We didn’t do a lot of races this year and most of them were peloton sprints. I hope that next year we can ride more hilly stage races abroad. I only have a few races left this year and sadly it’s already over again.” 

Before the year ends, however, Manar will have his opportunity to race the U23 time trial at the World Championships. He is full of ambition and like on many occasions in his life, he is receiving great support from many people. The Trek store in Utrecht is lending him a time trial bike for the World Championships.

“I do have a time trial bike but this one I get to use now is so amazing,” he says. “A teammate of mine works in the store and said he could help me. My ambitions are a top 30 at the world championships and I also secretly dream of even better. The course is very flat and has long roads with maybe five turns or so. It should suit me.” 

Although his first name is Mohamed, he chooses to go by Manar.

“There were already five boys in my class by the name Mohamed,” he laughs. “My second name Manar comes from my grandfather. I started investigating what it means. It means ‘leads to the light’ and I found that wonderful so that’s my name now.”

It’s true. Manar radiates light and positivity. While he tells me his life story and I have to keep up with all the horrible experiences he shares with me, he himself is smiling all the time. And with Worlds approaching, he is excited about Monday, and excited about his future in cycling too.

“When we went to Europe I had two dreams,” he concludes. “I wanted to find safety and health. We have made that come true; we are safe here. And I want to become a pro cyclist. I won’t give up until I make it. That’s a promise.”

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