Sunday, 12 June 2011

Segmented Orange in Scotland

This is a very short Blog from Scotland for the reason it was very short tour.

The instant I heard the crack, then the tyre rubbing against the frame, I instinctively knew my tour was over, on the very first day. The sinking response of the bike was soon duplicated in the pit of my stomach and as I got off to inspect the cause, it was apparent I had suffered a major structural failure. The lower stay of the rear suspension triangle was split as if some malevelent creature had sawn right through it.

As I don't usually carry a blow-torch for welding as part of my repair kit, nor do I have spare frame in my backpack, there was no choice but to abandon my trip, and get the bike back to the manufacturer, Orange, in Halifax, England.

It has since been repaired , with a new improved rear end, but too late for me to resume my coast to coast route in Scotland. The company gave me excellent service, as might be expected, when such a design fault has the potential to cause serious injury or worse. If Orange were Toyota, the bike would have been called back long ago !

As regards riding the Scottish Borders , what I saw for the few hours I was there, will ensure I get back in the near future, this time, with an unsegmented Orange !

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Haifa to Tel Aviv

What could be more appropriate than writing this while listening to a Bob Dylan tribute on the BBC? The man is reaching his 70th year, and I've been listening to him since since my 16th, and Freewheelin, the title of his second album, is my adopted Blog Name - combining two of my passions - and perhaps something of an outlook to life too.

So maybe it was in that spirit one evening last week on the spur of the moment, I decided that the next day, I would get up early, pack a few sandwiches, fill up the water bottles, and ride my bike to Tel Aviv.

I concluded that my route would have to be as off-road as possible, and definitely avoiding any major highways. That was the challenge, I always need a challenge ! My revolutions would not be motorized, only I would allow myself the indulgence of getting down to the starting point by car, and after coming back by bus from TA, using the car again to climb Mount Carmel to my home. I calculated that after pedaling for around 100k, I wouldn't feel guilty about doing that familiar ascent home with the aid of fossil fuel.

The next day dawned grey. The weather, as forecast, was to be dry, dusty and overcast; that could be regarded as optimum conditions for the task ahead and as I pushed off from Hof HaCarmel, at around 06.15, the express train to Tel Aviv was also pulling out of the station on its 50 minute commute. I wondered how long my parallel journey would take. The train apparently averages 85kph to achieve this. I set myself the target of averaging 15kph to be able to complete the comparatively longer cycling route, in time to catch a bus back north at 14.45

The route I chose worked out pretty well. The riding was a mixture of trails, paths, side-roads, beach promenades, and urban thoroughfares. There were a few places that required a little bike carrying , such as a drainage ditch in the Ma'agan Michael fish ponds, the Nahal Hadera stream, or the sand dunes around Or Akiva, but no major obstacles to speak of. A detour was necessary when my front wheel became stuck in a swamp of raw sewage in a field next to the main coastal highway at Jisr El Zarka. This all added to the unique atmosphere of my journey

Travelling this alternative way along a major axis of communication in the country, enables one to feel, see, touch, (and smell !) much that is lost in the blur of speed when travelling by road or rail. The slower pace generates encounters with people and places normally pushed to the fringes of one's reality: Thai workers singing in the banana plantations, fishermen in deep and silent contemlpation of the Poleg Lake, tourists sun-catching on the Netanya promenade, Phillapina maids in Kfar Shmariyahu pushing babies while talking on their cell-phones (probably very long distance).

And yes, there were a few other cyclists to wave to and even have a word with; some incredulous at the scope of my journey, many just going about life on errands, carrying fishing rods, building materials, or even collecting waste tin cans. The wonderful ubiquitous uses for a bike, sometimes as beast of burden.

Seven hours after leaving the Hof HaCarmel promenade I was rolling on to the Tel Aviv promenade at Reading Power Station. My GPS gave me a distance of 104kms completed, which included the sewage and other diversions, around 10% more than I had calculated.

I managed to catch that bus back with enough time to have had a self-congratulatory beer at Tel Aviv port, I called it my '100k 1/2 litre', never had Goldstar tasted better ! The bus was crowded, standing room only, and after pushing my bike into the baggage hold, I managed to squeeze on before the driver closed the door behind my back. A girl soldier proffered me her seat, I wasn't quite sure if the gesture was for a senior citizen (ok, I admit it) or for a senior citizen cyclist who has just broken 100k (which she couldn't have known). Either way, it was a hard reality check !

The bus journey on the coastal highway, took 70 minutes, it was like playing a film in reverse at double speed

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Israel Bike Trail Inaugural Ride

The first two sections of the Israel Bike Trail, from Shacharut to Eilat, are now ride-ready. I was invited to be one of the first select band of riders to experience the national trail. This was quite a proud moment for me personally, as I was one of the originators of the idea of a national bike trail in Israel, and to now see it becoming a reality, is a tremendous feeling.

Day 1: Shacharut to Be'er Ora

On Wednesday evening 30st March I 'checked in' to base camp at Shacharut for my first night of this 'desert experience'. The camp was set among the dunes near Shacharut and as we sat next to a camp fire we sipped coffee and sweet tea, we received our commemorative shirts and an explanation of next day's ride - 55kms from Shacharut to Be'er Ora. The actual section on the map finishes at Park Timna.

After a fitful night on a rubber mattress beneath the stars we were woken at 05.00 by the resident donkeys, had a good breakfast, and got ready for the opening photos next to the trail sign, and then pedalled off into the rising sun. The opening single track set the tone for the whole day's ride. It wove between the hills that overlook the Arava with some great vantage points, then it went down Wadi Zugan to Bekaat Ouvda. A film crew was covering the ride for Channel 2, so I had to take care not to appear to have difficulties on the singles - not good for my image !

We had refreshments from the support vehicle then continued next to the fence of the Ouvda airbase on wide 4x4 tracks eventually entering the Metek Valley. Here the trail went over rocks of gypsum with their strange crystalline formations. It was getting hot now, so the riders took a break underneath the rocks. The big climb of the day was at Har Berech up a specially built single track. The reward for the effort was an amazing view down to Timna Park, here we took a lunch break, with sandwiches and fruit supplied by the support team.Then came the best part of the day, a long graceful single along the plateau above Timna. This could match any mountain bike trail in the world, and it deserves to be recognised as such, by the cycle-tourists of the future.

We were fortunate to be riding with the actual IBT trail-builders and we got full explanations of the thought, care and engineering principles that went into the construction. One steep section down a cliff face took two weeks to construct, but there is still a warning sign and stone 'filters' at the top, discouraging riders to attempt the whole descent. I wasn't foolish enough to ignore it !

The rest of the route is basically a furious descent to the Arava via Nahal Etek and Nahal Raham, with a single track here and there, on the way. The riding on the bed of these valleys was in loose soft gravel ('dashdash') which was energy sapping and made very slow going. We were to discover that this would be the state of the terrain on much of the next day's ride, and how we would suffer in it.

The riders were met by a bus at Be'er Ora and taken to the Ye'elim camp site at Yotvata: more matresses on the ground in a tent, but at least some good showers and working toilets. The evening was spent at the Arava Hai Bar with a festive meal and a tour of the nocturnal animals (and other bike riders!).

Day2: Timna to Eilat

This was supposed to be an easier day, only 35Kms over mainly 4x4 tracks, less climbing, and much less single track. The only problem was that in reality, the day was a extremely hot sharav, many of the trails were unrideable, added to the fact that we set off too late in the day for the conditions. There were more riders on this section than the previous day, mainly invited guests from local communities. I counted around 30 at the start at Park Timna, under half actually completed the ride at Hof Hashmal in Eilat. It was a pity, because it could be a fitting and dramatic finale to the 950km trail, that starts on the snowy slopes of Mount Hermon and then winds down the length of the country..

After another opening ceremony we started riding in Park Timna below the copper-red hills, then down to Beit Ora, where there is a derelict Gadna camp (where they filmed Rambo3 !),and after a long break for refreshments we continued on the long straight pipeline track in the Arava. In the hot conditions (I recorded 45C at one stage, not in the shade, nor was there any shade to be had!) I am sure many riders were hoping Rambo would come to the rescue !

It only got worse as we started climbing into the Eilat mountains as it got even hotter, and the trails became softer and softer as the gravel sucked the wheels to a stop. Most were reduced to pushing the bikes, many gave up, and sheltered under rocks, to be picked up later by the support vehicles. Those remaining on the ride struggled up to the final single of the IBT which culminates on a rock ledge overlooking Eilat and the Red Sea, a great view and a fitting reward to any cyclist who has made it this far.

The rest of the ride was a descent into Eilat, Hof Hashmal, where a sign has been erected to mark the end of the trail. It was fortunate for the organisers that they had a freezer box full of ice-cold beers waiting for the riders at the end. I suspect the opening ride on the IBT will be long-remembered, as an epic, maybe not for the intended reasons !