There are plenty of mountain bike stage races to choose from if you're the kind of rider who enjoys suffering for longer than what a normal, single-day cross-country event can provide you with. Want to race for days on end in Europe? Go ahead and choose from any number of events and festivals. Looking for huge miles and to compare yourself against some of the fittest in the world? There's a little thing in South Africa called the Cape Epic that you might want to check out. Technical singletrack the priority? There's only one BC Bike Race in the world.
But what if you want to take part in a race that's truly out there, and where the culture and history are just as interesting as the trails? Israel's three-day Samarthon stage race is like no other, a true outlier of an event. And much like the swooping Israeli singletrack that's been carved into the rocky terrain with only hand tools, the Samarathon requires a hard-nosed approach and a physical toll to be paid.
If you're anything like me, I'm willing to bet that you have an imaginary short list of places that you'd love to visit with your mountain bike. Whistler is probably on it, of course, and depending on how and what you like to ride, you might have some European and North American dream destinations to check-off as well. You probably don't have Israel written down, though, not even on your long list of possible countries to bring a mountain bike to. And if I'm honest, neither did I.
You don't exactly need to be a scholar to know that the Middle East is steeped in the kind of history that makes North America look like a relative newborn child but, surprise surprise, it turns out that Israel is also home to some truly biblical singletrack. Mike Levy photo
Now, I didn't know that before I boxed up my cross-country machine and flew from Vancouver to Tel Aviv for the three-day Samarathon stage race, but I did know that the constant mix of rain and snow pounding southwestern British Columbia this winter was close to making me lose my already tenuous grip on sanity. No, I probably wouldn't have strangled an innocent if I didn't get away from the miserably gray conditions, but I also can't say that I wouldn't have. I don't own a crystal ball, after all.
The Samarathon stage race, masterminded by Nimi Cohen and Yaron Deri is in its fourth year of existence, and its Middle Eastern location makes it a prime winter event for those close by or a bit farther away in Europe. As for my teammate Wayne and I? That's sixteen-hours sitting in the steerage section of a Boeing while eating tiny bags of nuts; a relatively small price to pay for three days of racing in the warm temps and sun of the Negev and Southern Arava desert. Really, it's worth it for the hummus alone.
The three consecutive days of racing that are squeezed into the Samarathon add up to around 200km of full-tilt desert action, with the first stage being a 69km doozy with 920 meters of climbing and about 40-percent of it being on singletrack. Those numbers might not sound all that impressive, but saying that the Samarathon's ascents are kinda steep is a bit like saying that drinking chain lube is only kinda bad for your health. Shade? Ha, I don't think so, you pasty Canadian. With a complexion so pale that people have described me as translucent, I knew that the sun would be just as much of a challenge as the climbing grades.
The second day is the Queen stage, with 76km of racing and 1,230 meters of climbing, but just 30-percent of the day spent on singletrack. Stage three is a comparative walk in the park after that, at just 56km and 860 meters of up to tackle, with a singletrack ratio of 25-percent.
I bet I know what you're thinking: ''40, 30, and then just 25-percent singletrack on each of the three days? That's not enough, Levy.'' And I would have agreed with you before I took part for myself. Truth is, I did close to zero homework on the Samarathon before my partner and I landed in Tel Aviv two days before the event, but that's usually how I prefer to do things. Life is more interesting that way, isn't it?
The Negev and Southern Arava deserts are not the kind of places where one simply rakes in some new singletrack over one afternoon. No, trails here are hard-earned, possibly more so than anywhere else on earth. Any life-long desert-dweller will tell you that builders who call this type of terrain home have to fight for every inch of flow, every meter of foot-wide singletrack, and while a BC resident like myself can start to take trails for granted if we're not careful, every kilometer of singletrack is practically a national treasure to mountain bikers in the desert.
And while there may not be an overabundance of it in the Samarathon, it's all incredibly well-built and well-thought out. After all, if you're slaving away under the desert sun in triple-digit temps to move boulders, and your main weapon is a pick-ax, you don't simply head off into the blazing hot ether all willy-nilly style.
No, you only do that if you're an eager-to-burn Canadian with heavy winter legs who's just happy not to be riding on Watopia for yet another trainer session.
Mike Levy photo
The Samarathon is based out of Timna Park, in the southern Arava desert, which is about a 3.5 hour drive from the Ben Gurion Tel Aviv airport. This is where three-hundred racers (one hundred and fifty teams) call home for each night of the event, and you should think of it as a sort of desert oasis / basecamp that includes its own artificial lake (but don't swim in it), more Israeli food than you know what to do with, live music, and even a pub.
Accommodation can be two or four-person rooms, a shared Bedouin-style tent that the event provides for that authentic feel, or you can bring your own tent if you're not the sharing type and you know that hummus gives you the toots. Sorry, Wayne.
We arrived at Timna Park quite late and in a travel-induced haze, so our first views of the surrounding area, which includes the world's oldest copper mine, came early the next morning when we both woke at 4am in a jetlagged fog that could only be sorted out by an embarrassingly large amount of pre-race breakfast food and the intensity that comes with the first thirty minutes of a cross-country competition.
With the early parts of all three stages using gravel roads to sort out the day's pecking order, it was vitally important to latch onto the lead group's rear wheels when racing into the hot desert wind. And don't be mistaken: some of these guys have monster motors that dwarf my lil' 49cc lungs and legs. Contact with the top twenty was quickly lost, of course, but I let the second group drag me up towards the day's first major climb, a pitch of singletrack that's unlike anything I've been faced with before in all my travels.
While there was plenty of time spent on authentic Nakebs (camel trails), the first serious climb of the event was snaking, stepped singletrack that was somehow bench-cut into what is essentially a giant rock mesa. By hand. Hand. Local rules keep builders from using gas, or even battery-powered, machinery, so this 450-meter test of legs, lungs, and technical skill was literally built by pure manpower and handtools.
And many men didn't have the power or skills to clean it - by the time Wayne and I got there, most racers ahead and behind us were pushing their steeds up the towards the crest without shame.
It's a long day, don't forget, and those who've done any stage racing know the importance of picking their battles. I've done my share of multi-day events, but that's never stopped me from being an idiot. While I cleaned the majority of the climb (the rock steps knocked my ego down a few notches), I paid for the effort an hour on when my hamstrings decided to string me up for dead under the desert sun. Images of my bleached bones in the sand crossed my vision, but Wayne pulled my sorry ass along until I could get my shit back together.
Cramps aside, day one was eye-opening, to say the least. Not only was the first major singletrack climb technically challenging, the fast, rolling desert singletrack afterward will make a fit racer feel like they have more ponies than they actually do. You want to carry your speed up and over rises, air into blind washes (against your better judgment), and drift through cat litter-covered corners just past the edge of traction. It was a hoot, and it was everything that's good about cross-country racing.
There were some ripping descents, too, but I won't lie to you: while those not familiar with desert riding will find them fun and interesting, most are relatively short and packed full of slow-moving racers with far more fitness than finesse.
An a*shole like myself will have plenty of fun passing racers who think they're not holding anyone up, especially if you're not adverse to the odd questionable line or ten. Or twenty. Yeah, I'm that guy with his elbows out, and you probably would be as well - the singletrack is just too damn fun not to charge full steam into - so don't judge me too harshly from atop your high horse. In fact, while I was a bit frustrated at first, having to pass so many big motors on the downhills made the day one of my most memorable on a bike, and both of us were wearing foot-wide shit-eating grins by the time we rolled into the finishing corral later in the day.
If that's how you judge how well your day was, I'd say that the grit in my smile meant that ours went quite well.
Day two came with a 5:45am trip to the remote start line aboard a bus, which isn't a problem in the slightest if your brain and body are still on BC time. Unfortunately, overnight rains meant that the possibility of a flash flood (yes, I'm serious) was a very real thing, so the start was delayed by an hour or so while the organizers made sure none of us sausage suit bandits would get washed away. I'd say that's fair.
After the delay, it also started with another gravel road roll-out to spread the pack out as the three hundred racers headed into nearly 80km of racing. Caution was the name of the game for me and my crampy gams, as I long ago learned that you can't win an endurance event in the first hour, but you sure as hell can fall apart later on.
There was less singletrack on the second day, sure, but a lot of the first half of the stage felt like it was spent in a high-speed paceline on trail that was mere inches wide and lined with rocks looking for any excuse to stop your fancy carbon crankarms from spinning. A crash here wouldn't have been pretty. Equal parts scary and fun, it paid to be at the front of the group given that handling skills didn't seem to be too high on most riders' priority list.
When 76km goes by like 30, you know that it's been a hell of a good day, which it was for us. It was also the first time in my life that I had four servings of food for dinner, which probably says something in itself. I don't think they have donuts in Israel, though.
Day three was difficult. It was the shortest, yes, but that just meant that the pace was faster. With the most gravel road of all three stages and strong headwinds that had more in common with a brick wall than a breeze, the final stage of the Samarathon was all about picking a fast group to head into the long road sections with. I did my best to wreck our day, though, by taking some irresponsible chances on a rowdy, rocky descent that, as my much smarter teammate had warned me about, would only result in a flat tire.
And that's exactly what happened, with a sharp rock making short work of my rear Ikon's casing to the point that no amount of super-glue could sort out. A tube it was, which meant that I needed about 900 psi in it, because who the hell remembers how to ride with tubes? Not me, that's for sure.
A rush flat fix, mostly done by my teammate because I was too flustered and hot to use my fingers, saw us then latch onto the back of a small group just before we popped out onto a doozy of a gravel road. From there, we leap-frogged up from group to group until we ran out of steam and found ourselves barely able to hold onto the asses of a very nice party of sporty men who didn't mind us being wheel sucks for a while. So that's exactly what we did, for what seemed like ages.
You know when you can't talk because you're too shelled and anything you'd say would sound like gobbledegook anyway? Yeah, that was me. Hot gel packages tasted like perfectly cooked steak, and my warm sports drink was surely an ice cold Bud Light Lime. The desert does funny things to one's mind, doesn't it? The wind was as real as it gets, though, no doubt about that.
I overheard some moaning about the amount of gravel road we faced on the third day, but bike racing is, at least to me, all about dealing with challenges as best you can and getting on with it. My ol' roadie legs also enjoy the strategy that comes with some gravel grinding, and it's the type of setting that really punishes those who sit on the front and try to flex for the group.
Me? I'll take my pull when it's called for, of course, but I was very aware that the third day finished with a whack of desert singletrack back into Timna Park. Not as dumb as I look, eh?
My partner in crime and I jumped from the group just as we hit the singletrack, both unsure if we had the legs to stay away or not for the remaining 10km. Thankfully, the rest of the band had been eager to muscle into the wind, which didn't leave them with much gas when things got skinny. We didn't have much gas, either, but it turned out that those steak and BLL-flavored ride snacks provided just enough fuel for us to roll into Timna Park looking much faster than we actually were.
Hell of a way to finish off a hell of an event.
Okay, I'll make a sweeping statement and say that I'm well aware that the majority of Pinkbike's readers aren't the type to go stage racing, or at least not cross-country stage racing. Enduro? Sure, all damn day. But logging big miles against Lycra-clad competitors who know their FTP, own a dozen pair of bib shorts, a tube of strange cream for their taint, and routinely weigh themselves to make sure they haven't gained a quarter pound? Er, maybe not.
But you don't need to do any of those weird things to know that singletrack is what makes our little world tick; it's why we do what we do, and getting your tires on new-to-you singletrack is, for many of us, our reason for being. Okay, I know that I'm luckier than a pig in shit to call southwestern BC home and, because of where I live, I only need one hand to count how many times I've been to other places in the world and genuinely found myself blown away by the quality of the trails. I guess I'm like the kid who grew up in a candy store, only my candy is near-endless BC singletrack. But I also realize that's not representative of the rest of the world, obviously, which is why it's aways so special when my lucky ass stumbles upon the hard work of builders who've created something special.
Much of the singletrack that we raced on during the Samarathon is exactly that: something special. It's been fought for against immovable rocks and impossible grades, against a sun that's unrelenting, and many would say against the odds.
Want to know more?The Samarathon Stage RaceSamar Desert AdventureBotz Adventures Guiding Timna Park