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 !