If you had to name half a dozen iconic cycling destinations, we'd expect the cobbles of Flanders, the climbs of the French Alps & the breathtaking roads of the Italian Dolomites to feature in most cyclist's lists. Although these famed destinations have earned their place on a cyclist's bucket list, many riders are now looking for new challenges, further afield.
Dreaming of some late season sun, keen to explore new roads & discover a completely different country, staff member Dan packed his bags, waved goodbye to the cold & grey London skyline & headed to the airport.
Now, when you hear the word 'Israel' unfortunately the connotations aren't always positive ones. A holy place for three of the world's great religions, this relatively small stretch of land in the heart of the Middle East has been fought over for in excess of one thousand years.
Still the scene of bloodshed & controversy at times, both Israelis & Palestinians live in close quarters, although both are exposed to very different cultures. The media paint a certain picture of the Middle East yet I was keen to see the real Israel, and what better way to do so than on two wheels.
The plan was to ride 700 kilometres in four days, from the north of the country in Rosh Hanikra to the south, finishing at the town of Eilat.
I was invited by Academy 500 Watt, a local, grassroots cycling club which had a wide demographic of members, from kids in their early teens to parents & seasoned road & mountain bikers. It wasn't just the age range though, this club also has both Jewish & Muslim members. Riding harmoniously with religion & political views put aside, cycling really does bring people together, allowing them to pursue a shared passion as I would later find out on the road.
Day One - Heading out from the grottoes
Training before work, I am not one to shy away from an early start but when my alarm went off at 3:30am and I trudged begrudgingly over to the coffee machine, I knew this was a new record.
The early start was warranted though, as I soon found out temperatures were going to be hitting the early 30s by mid afternoon. Unseasonably warm for this time of the year, 50 eager riders congregated at the club HQ in Kfar Yezehel, ready for the hour journey north to the start of our four day adventure to the southern-most point of Israel; the seaside town of Eilat.
The drive was dark but as we arrived at our starting point, Rosh Hanikra, home to some of the world's most stunning grottoes, we were greeted by the sun's arrival. There was definitely a chill in the air as we filled bottles, clipped in & were briefed as to what lay ahead on day one.
6:30am and we were off. 140 kilometres, finishing back at the club HQ. A natural selection occurred, as we formed two groups, a 15 rider group one & a 35 rider group two. Each group would be followed by a car, which would carry water, food & supplies for the trip. I would be riding in group one, which comprised of some of the club's most promising junior riders, including a newly signed Israel Cycling Academy Development Team rider.
The first couple of hours were on pretty big roads as Israel, being a small country, does not have a plethora of roadways. This wasn't an issue though as the riding standard was good and the sun was shining.
One thing the Israelis pride themselves on is their hospitality & food. Neither disappointed here, as a few hours in we stopped to enjoy a full spread of dips, breads, cakes and other tasty delights.
Energy stores replenished, we tackled the one and only climb of the day, an 8 kilometre 3-4% ramp around 120 kilometres into the ride. Up until this point we had been riding together but this climb was a chance to stretch our legs, and boy did we. Racing up the silky smooth road, we reached the top, panting but euphoric. A quick regrouping, a Coke consumed, & we began the 20 kilometre ride to the finish, where a very welcome cold beer & an amazing spread of food was again put on for us.
Day one done & it was safe to say, the parcours had, although not too testing, been the ideal warm up for what was to come.
Day two - Riding to the lowest place on earth
Cyclists often brag about how much climbing they have clocked up on a ride, but this was one day where we'd be doing the opposite, as on the menu today was a ride to the lowest place on earth; the Dead Sea, at 460 metres below sea level.
Another early start meant we would, hopefully, avoid riding during the hottest part of the day & it also gave us plenty of time to complete the 200 kilometre route before sunset. After yesterday's northern escapade, the scenery today would be turning a little more arid as the ride progressed.
Still a relatively flat day, with under 1000 metres of elevation gained, the fast, smooth roads meant the group was able to roll along at a good pace. Heading into the West Bank, a predominantly Palestinian inhabited area, we were greeted with friendly waves and hoots from passing motorists.
Speaking to some of the younger members of the group, their passion for the sport soon became apparent, with the guys making regular trips over to Europe to race in Belgium & Italy through the season. Whether it was the latest power meter or hottest training tip, these youngsters were eager to learn & showed a real love for cycling.
With only one climb today, we weren't going to miss the opportunity for our daily burn up. A 5 kilometre, 8% average mountain, sitting alone in a flat, desert landscape, I was told this ascent was a favourite amongst Israeli riders.
It didn't take long for me to find out why. In a word 'stunning'. Yes, there are more famous, longer & tougher climbs in the world but few boast a backdrop quite like this. With the rocky landscape contrasted by the hazy Dead Sea and expansive desert, it wasn't just the sizzling temperature or harsh gradient that left us breathless.
The road to the top of the climb offered little in the way of shade so, with temperatures in the 30s, this was one of the biggest tests of the week. Glad to reach the top, get my breath back & begin my descent, the next stop was the mystical Masada.
A fortified settlement sitting on the edge of the Dead Sea, overlooking Jordan, we arrived at the youth hostel on the slopes of the historical landmark. Another fantastic meal consumed, it was time to get our feet up, rest & admire the stunning view from our dormitory window.
Day three - One for the climbers
200 kilometres, over 3,000 metres of climbing & another scorching hot weather forecast, day three was going to be tough. It didn't disappoint. If you're going to start at the lowest point on earth, there's really only one way to begin a ride, and that's by going up!
Thankfully we were able to ease our legs in with a gentle 20 kilometre spin on the coast road. This gave us the opportunity to watch the sunrise & ready ourselves for the first climb of the day, an 8 kilometre ascent which took us into the Negev Desert.
Riding at a steady pace, this was the perfect opportunity to look down over Masada. What followed next can only be described as leg sapping. Three hours of testing drags & heavy roads meant by the time we came to the real test of the day, we were already feeling the effects.
There is a good chance that if you're a fan of bike racing, you've heard stories of some of the sport's great riders battling up unmade climbs in yesteryear. Stuff of legend, I find it now quite difficult to find a climb with such an aura surrounding it. That was until I discovered this one. Barren, exposed & rugged, this 3.9 kilometre, 8.9% climb may, on paper, not seem all that special but throw in unmade roads & sections at close to 30% and you soon have an undiscovered gem.
It hurt, a lot. 'Trying' to continue my run of attacking one climb a day, I gingerly descended the mountain, did a U-turn, shifted into the little ring and hit the bottom slopes hard. A few hundred metres in I realised, too hard!
The heat on the climb was suffocating & soon I was maxed out & praying for the top. Even the 500 metres of flat 1km from the summit didn't provide me with any respite as I fought the pedals & crawled over the finish, slumping on my bars, questioning my sanity.
About an hour of easy riding later & I was starting to feel slightly more human again. The group were feeling the effects too and the lunch stop was definitely a welcome one. Juiced up on coffee, with a little camel ride under my belt, it was time to get back on the bike.
We set off for the final 40 kilometres to Mitzpe Ramon. 20 kilometres of rolling roads later & the keen juniors in the group had the finish in sight. Soon a select group had split from the remnants of the peloton & we began racing to the finish. Even with over 7.5 hours in the legs, we decided it would be a good idea to kick chunks out of each other all the way to that night's accommodation. What a way to finish a truly epic day on the bike.
Just when I thought the view from our hostel in Masada was impressive I was soon finding it had been trumped by our accommodation at Mitzpe Ramon. Sitting over 1000 metres above sea level we arrived as the sun was setting to what is undoubtedly one of the best views I have ever seen. A crater, 40 kilometres in length stretched below us. Tired & flustered from a 200 kilometre day in the heat, my aching legs were soon a distant memory as I stood and admired the stunning landscape.
Day four - Did someone say beach?
After the events of day 3, we were all relieved to hear day 4, the final leg, would be a much more gentle affair. Starting the day descending into a crater is by far one of the most memorable moments I have ever had on the bike. Touching speeds of 80km/h, we regrouped at the bottom & settled into a steady pace. We would be riding as one group for the duration of the day & this gave me a nice opportunity to get to know more of the guys on the ride.
Regular stops to refuel & enjoy the amazing food laid on by the club meant spirits were high as Eilat got ever closer. Unlike the previous three days, the temperature was a much more bearable 25 rather than 32 degrees. Even so, I was keeping to a strict regime of staying hydrated. With lunch on the horizon, the news we would be time trialling to the lunch stop was gently broken to me!
Thankfully, it was a rather relaxed affair, with some choosing to ride the 26 kilometres solo while others took a team time trial approach.The last effort of the trip behind us & we enjoyed a plentiful lunch & readied ourselves for the final 60 kilometre ride to Eilat.
We all know the feeling. The end is in sight, the morale is lagging, the legs are tired & you're praying for downhills & a strong tailwind. Well luckily, this is exactly what we got! Fast, easy & the perfect way to finish our 700 kilometre adventure down the length of Israel, we sped along at over 40km/h to our destination, the popular beachside resort of Eilat. More food followed & before long it was time to pack up, get on the coach & head back up north.
The power of the bike
Cycling. It's about stories, and none were more powerful than that of Gil's. Diagnosed with cancer & told by doctors he had 3 months to live, he battled the odds, recovered & joined us for this 700 kilometre adventure.
Helped along the way by Adbullah & Tomer, two kids from very different cultures, one a Muslim, the other a Jew. These two young riders share a passion for cycling, which overshadows any conflict or tension that this country, unfortunately, has to live with. Three individuals, three very different lives, uniting for one common cause; it truly was an inspirational ride.
A bucket list ride
A four days I'll never forget. No, it doesn't have the sporting history Europe boasts, nor does it have the climbs, but it makes up for it with amazing roads, breathtaking scenery, an ever-changing landscape & some of the best weather you'll find in November.
Yes, Israel has its troubles & no, these are far from over, but what I'll be taking away from this four day trip is the passion, friendliness & memories I shared with my fellow riders that are sure to last a lifetime. Israel may be a relatively young nation but they are far from playing catch up when it comes to embracing the thrill of two wheels.
A big thank you to Academy 500 Watt for the hospitality, the ride, vehicle support & for making me feel like one of the team.