Our little peloton cruises along, covering ground at a smooth, efficient pace. Two days into the ride and our band of strangers has meshed together on the road, pacing effectively and working as a team. The strange rewards of suffering out the kilometres
The Trans Israel is a four-day ride starting in Rosh Hanrika, the far northwest corner of the country, and ending 562 kilometres later on the shores of the Red Sea in the resort town of Eilat. It's a ride dreamed up by Harel Nahmani, an Israeli rider and event organizer responsible for a number of gran fondos in the north and south of the country and group rides in the Alps every year. Nahmani is excited to send us off on Day One in Rosh Hanrika, but maintains a serious air as he goes over some of the dangers of the ride with our group. Most of his worry lies with things such as road etiquette and conditions, and peloton riding with a mixed group of riders, concerns similar to most cycling events anywhere in the world. Judging by the heavily armed United Nations soldiers loitering near our group and the closed (and thickly razor-wired) border to Lebanon, a stone's throw from our start area, some concerns lie in the chosen route for the ride, and it's already been determined that we'll jump in a bus and shuttle through the most touchy area in the Jordan River Valley.
Any other concerns melt away as we hit the road, quickly turning off the busier thoroughfares on to the first climb of the trip, an 800-metre ascent into a forested nature reserve running along the border of Lebanon. The stiff climb spreads the group apart, and I take in the scenery, pumping up the steep grade, trees casting a much-needed shade onto the road. It's slightly warmer here than the damp, cold October weather I left in my home of Squamish, B.C., and my body is having a hard time adjusting to the heat. Later on in the day, we're rewarded with a cooling wind from our high-speed descent toward the Sea of Galilee. A low afternoon sun bathes the cliffs above the sea in a golden light, and it's hard not to ponder stories of the many miracles Jesus is said to have performed right here on these shores. While we're not walking on water, the smooth road and organized pace line have us feeling that we're flying as we wind down the day's ride and head to the Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov, our lodging for the night.
The kibbutz experience is unique to traveling in Israel. Established in the early 1900's, there are more than 200 kibbutzim all across Israel. Initially formed as communal settlements focused on agriculture and an egalitarian way of life, the kibbutzim have evolved with the times, and while still maintaining a farming focus, they've branched out into more modern sources of revenue. Kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov, where we're staying tonight, generates most of its income from a plastics plant, and supplements that with quaint country-lodge rentals, some of which our group are occupying for the night. Kibbutz meals consist of hearty communal buffets of delicious local fare, perfect after a day toiling in the fields or riding long distance on a road bike.
Over the next two days, I sink into the perfect rhythm of the road. Our group has meshed together well, and the kilometres tick by as desert vistas expand in front us. Two distinct groups have formed, one keener on hammering than the other. Our group is as diverse as the country we're riding through. Some have lived on kibbutzim for 30 years and more. There's a group of Americans, riding for the Jewish Agency for Israel. My cousin J.J., who's lived in Tel Aviv for the past decade, is on the ride. In fact, J.J. is the reason I'm here, this whole trip stemming from a casual invite from him a year ago at a Montreal wedding. J.J. and I ride in the front group with visitors from England and Belgium, expats
working and living all around Israel, and Israeli riders too. Udi, from near Tel Aviv, perpetually looks like he's out for a casual spin, because he probably is; his normal ride schedule includes training sessions with Peter Sagan's Israeli Pro Continental team, the only Pro team in the country. The trailing group is made up of folks out for a more casual pace and some more senior riders who offer some great inspiration to some of us “younger” bucks out on the ride.
There are a few opportunities to get off the saddle and appreciate our surroundings, even if that means stopping on the side of the highway to check out the camels that sometimes appear as if out of nowhere, camouflaged by their arid surroundings. I spend an evening floating in the Dead Sea, which, at 418 metres below sea level, is the lowest place on earth. The intensely salty water creates ”a cork in a bathtub” buoyancy I was not fully prepared for, and is a stinging reminder of any small nick or cut I currently possess. We visit Masada, a mountaintop fortress built by Herod, King of Judea, more than 2,000 years ago. Masada marks the middle of our ride on Day Three, and, bikes in hand, we take the cable car up onto the high plateau to look around. We descend (on foot) off the western side, down the Roman siege ramp used to penetrate the fortress where hundreds of Jewish freedom fighters were encamped, 960 rebels who killed themselves rather than be taken by the Romans. Thousands of years of history whirling around in my thoughts, we get back on the bikes below and carry on with our ride.
Our last day dawns early, starting on the cliffside town of Mitzpe Ramon. We're all re-energized from a delicious dinner and restful sleep at the Hotel Ibex, the nicest accommodations of the trip. We pedal out of town as the sun barely crests the far rim of the Ramon Crater – the town sits precariously on the edge of this large erosion-formed basin. The cold wind of the descent to the crater floor works better than any second cup of coffee, and as the rising sun warms the desert, the pace picks up and we pedal toward the Red Sea.
The last three days of riding are beginning to take their toll on my legs. With the end of the ride nearing, and after three days of keeping the leash tight on us, our gruff ride leader Nitzan Hendler relinquishes control on our lead group. Like horses to the barn, the pace picks up and we lean into the final 40 kilometres. This last stretch of road feels oppressive. The sun, now at its apex, beats down on the barren Negev desert. The route is rolling, the dips offering brief respites from the heat, but quickly turning to steady ascents that seem to go on much longer than they should. I find myself in a breakaway pack of four and hold their wheels for a good distance until my legs give up, and all of a sudden, I'm by myself. This road travels south down the Sinai Peninsula and along the Egyptian border. I ride in silence next to an imposing six-metre-tall wall of razor wire marking the boundary line, guard outposts sporadically breaking the chaotic patterns formed by the fence.
The final crest eventually appears, and the long descent into the resort city of Eilat begins. Eilat is the southernmost outpost in the country, and also marks the end of the Trans Israel. Leaving the razor-wire fences behind, I tuck toward the Red Sea, its water shimmering below. It's been a different ride experience than I'm used to. Most of my adventures don't involve F16's, razor wire and “Tank Crossing” signs on the highway.
While jarring to my North American senses, these things don't define this trip, just as much as they don't define Israel. This trip has been about new vistas, new friends and new experiences. These are standards by which every great bike ride is measured, and this Trans Israel experience has delivered them all.
(left top) Joe Schwartz stops in at a checkpoint close to the Israel/Egypt border. (left middle) The beginning of the Trans Israel adventure, from the most northwestern tip of the country (left bottom) Dead Sea: Salt ponds seen from Mount...
The wooded, rolling hills of the Upper Galilee, near the border with Lebanon.