Trans Is­rael

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

Pedal Magazine - - Contents - by Joe Schwartz

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.

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