When invited on a trip to Israel to ride our bikes for 10 days in the desert, Mike Hopkins and I initially didn't take time to consider our personal politics about the issues of the region, nor did we take time to fear the dangers, sensationalized by the media, of traveling to the Middle East. We agreed that the best approach to take for this trip, to somewhere we had never dreamed of visiting in our lifetimes, was to put the widespread attitudes (be they accurate or misguided) of the region aside and approach it all with an openness to learn and try to understand an area we knew very little about. This is the first instalment of two articles about our mind blowing trip to Israel in November of 2013
It wasn’t until Mike and I started planning our trip to Israel that we came to terms with the fact we were both laughably uninformed and uneducated about the politics and history of Israel, Palestine and its neighbours. We aren’t aligned with any particular political agenda – if you sat either of us down, you'd find that Hopkins and I both have strong views on human rights, equality and people’s equal right to their own religion. We don’t know much about war besides what we were taught in school and what we all try to digest from the mainstream media; we have no first-hand experiences of human adversity as a result of war. Hopkins and I certainly did not fully understand what has gone on in the Middle East for thousands of years before we went to Israel, and we accepted that as we prepared for our trip.
After an epic flight to Tel Aviv direct from Los Angeles, Mike and I were driven straight to Jerusalem. We had the night that we arrived and the better part of the following day to explore Jerusalem on our own. We had no plan, no idea where we were going and no concept of what we should see, but we made the most of our available 12 hours in the city by visiting Jerusalem’s Old City, The Western Wall and Mount Zion on foot. Jerusalem is an incredible, humbling place. While it is sacred to so many millions worldwide, the centre of the city has the feel of a polished European metropolis. Friendly but feral cats (one peed on my bag on our last day, so maybe not that friendly) are a common theme throughout Israel, but if you start your journey in Jerusalem, finding them circling your table at dinner is an interesting surprise. Overall, we felt incredibly safe and secure in our time in Jerusalem. We didn't see a heavy military presence in the areas we visited, and the tensions we expected in the area, while not totally invisible, were notable but not overwhelming in any way.
The staggering busyness of Jerusalem’s Old City during the day was then completely contrasted on our second night when we rode through the Old City on our bikes. This is totally legal and only possible at night – by day, the Old City is packed with shoppers, merchants, locals and tourists, but by night, it is empty. It was the perfect way to get a high speed (by bike), intimate look at this place as old as civilization and it felt like we had it all to ourselves. It helps to take a guide too.
Our next day had us heading out of town to ride Israel’s ancient Sugar Trail. Our friends at SabaBike
describe the trail as “an old trade route that was used to transport spices and condiments up from the Dead Sea towards Jerusalem. Today, with the help of the modern mountain bike and a shuttle to the top, we enjoy the trail in the opposite direction. The Sugar Trail ride starts in Ma’ale Adumim, adjacent to Jerusalem, and you very quickly find yourself isolated and feeling like you just landed on another planet.
The Sugar Trail took us along some of the sickest singletrack we have ever seen: it ran from Jerusalem to Jericho in about 40km of effort and loosely followed the Kidron Valley toward the Dead Sea. These trails were built by camels, we were told, as the soft pads on camels' two-toed feet requires the buffest terrain possible and they tend to prefer traveling over grades in the 4-10% range. Ideal mountain bike conditions!
We had Yoram Hen
as our guide on this trip: to describe the man as a desert ninja would be an injustice to his skill set. Yoram knew every little contour of terrain on the Sugar Trail, and it seemed as though any time we were about to really have to dig and climb straight up a road, he would peel off to the right or left onto a trail with a reasonable (read: shredding) gradient. Don't be mistaken in thinking that the Sugar Route is a mellow downhill, however. We spent a solid 20km meandering through historical sites of a hugely important region of the world. At times, we were followed at full speed by angry, barking dogs from nearby properties and past nomadic peoples, and we found ourselves in a state of full-on culture shock all day long. The 30 degrees celsius heat from Israel's hottest November in years probably added to the intensity of the day too.
"Biking is our religion
." Our guide for the entire trip, Nimi Cohen
, coined the phrase so effortlessly at the end of our ride on the Sugar Trail that it could hardly be discounted. The sport of cycling really has a magnetic tendency to unite the people we meet just about everywhere we travel. Between the smiles of arabic-speaking camel herders we met that day, the Bedouin family we were about to meet in the days to come and countless Israeli nationals who helped us on our way (and laughed at our pasty white skin, constant grins and horrible, broken hebrew and arabic), we were constantly met with genuine friendliness, curiosity and excitement to share the story of biking in Israel. We discovered that the sport of cycling united us with people who knew nothing of our background and we of theirs. Our apprehension about this place was rooted completely in misconceptions and misunderstandings from years of being immersed in stories from western media. Israel, its terrain and its people are truly to be experienced firsthand. And it was only day one.Stay tuned for part 2 of Desert Singletrack, as we explored further into Israel's southern deserts and uncovered more incredible riding...