Israel is a Middle Eastern country of 8.7 million people located on the shores of the Mediterranean sea. It has a predominantly Jewish population and is regarded as the biblical Holy Land. Racing a bike in Israel has been on my to do list for a long time as I have heard many conflicting stories about this country which has had more then its share of conflict since its independence in 1948. Riding a bike around a country is my favourite way to feel its heartbeat and stage races specifically allow us to get deep into the countryside without having to think too hard.
The 4 day UCI Samarathon Desert race was a great way to see the southern Arava desert of Israel. Their organisation has built a great event which allowed us riders to just show up, shut off our minds and ride our bikes through a very beautiful part of the world. Joining 300 other riders in the event’s 5th year, we covered nearly 230 km through the desert with close to 40% being on nice singletrack. Coming from Canada we are spoiled with the trails we have, but I was definitely impressed with the quality of riding that was offered to us in Israel. The scenery was pretty epic as well, with cliffs, canyons, sand dunes and some great views of the mountains of Jordan in the distance.
Race wise my partner, Soren Nissen from Luxembourg, and I weren’t too sure what to expect with our early season form, especially with the field being full of Israel’s top XC racers. Rolling into the 20 km prologue we were both pretty tired after a huge effort just to get to the start line. My trip had taken 3 days from Pokhara, Nepal and was highlighted by 2 delayed flights, a missed flight, 48 hours hanging out in Katmandu and eventually a 2 am arrival in Jerusalem. The next day we went on an 8 hour tourist trip down to the race start near Eliat. At one point we rode out into the desert to visit a local Bedouin family. The Bedouins are desert dwellers who are generally Arab Nomads. A lot of them are urbanised now but make a living showing off their traditional ways of life such as camel riding and desert camping. It would be cool to come back and explore this part of the culture a bit more one day as living in the desert seems like quite a tough existence.
The Samarathon Prologue
In the prologue I did my best to stick to Soren’s wheel as we had to pass over 15 teams as we were given one of the last start positions in the time trial format. The course was a ribbon of smooth singletrack through a very rocky and unforgiving desert terrain. Luckily we escaped unscathed but lost over a minute on the Israeli leaders, signalling that the days ahead were going to be a tough battle. After the stage we were told it was just 25 km back to camp, and there would be a tailwind, so we opted to ride. It ended up being closer to 40 km, mostly into a headwind which left us both dehydrated and with some hunger pains. The scenery was amazing though with the mountains of Jordan to the east and a high desert plateau leading to Egypt on the right. This part of the country was really skinny with just 50 km separating the 3 countries!
Samarathon Stage 1
Heading to Stage 1 we missed the bus transfer back to the start as we thought it was 6:15 am not 6am. At 6 we had loaded our bikes and then went back to our tents to gather a few things. Returning at 6:15 we found all the busses had left so hitch-hiked with the Samarathon media team. Unfortunately our bikes didn’t get unloaded with the other racers at the race start and were now on a bus headed towards Egypt. Thankfully one of the volunteers chased the bus down and got us our bikes just before the race start!
This day the race started with a big climb up to a desert plateau at 500 metres. I set the pace dropping everyone except the Israeli team in the leaders jerseys. Soren sat back and analysed the situation. He told me the Israelis had struggled to hold my wheel so we made a tactic that I would attack going into the next singletrack and he would sit at the front letting the gap grow. He would then attack and bridge over to me.
This tactic worked brilliantly except once Soren caught back up he started to cramp up really good allowing the Israelis to close the gap again. The riding on this stage was awesome as we rode some trails on the edge of a ridge overlooking the dry desert below. It was a very dry climate but the temperatures were perfect for racing, sitting in the low twenties. Towards the end of the stage Soren and I would break away from our Israeli competitors and put 4 minutes into them by the finish to overtake the pink leader jerseys. The highlight of the stage was the final singletrack climb to the finish which switch backed its way out of a box canyon. This was also the KOM of the day in which there was a side competition to see who the best male and female climbers were on the day. A Russian rider won the overall, although I’m sure Soren would’ve claimed it if he hadn’t stuck with me as a good teammate.
Once back at camp we settled into our Villa camp on the edge of a small lake in Timna Park. It was a real oasis in the desert with beautiful rock walls surrounding us. The restaurant on site served some great food for us racers and showed off why Israeli cuisine is so popular around the World. The highlights were the Shakshuka, hummus, tahini and falafels- although pretty much anything after a long day of racing generally tastes good. The awards ceremonies in the evenings were entertaining events with one of the race organizers, Nimi, putting on a bit of a comedy show and the pictures of the day would allow us to see just what beauty we had missed while our heads were down pushing our pedals as hard as we could. The awards would often go past 9pm, and the race days would start with 4:45-5 am wake up calls. This combination led to some short nights! I guess this is why the race slogan was “Ride hard, live Harder!” Being a 24 hour racer these short nights probably played into our favour as I’m used to riding tired while Israeli’s XC racers are likely used to being a bit better rested!
Samarathon Stage 2
Stage 2 was the Queen’s stage and took us 85 km across a desert plateau before dropping down a cool canyon and then on some rough river beds back to the race finish. This part of the race felt pretty wild and let us really soak in the outback of the desert. We extended our lead a couple minutes as the Israelis crashed at one point while trying to follow our wheels. Being the polite Canadian I started to ease up to let them catch back up but Soren reminded me that they had refused to stop for a pee break earlier in the stage when things were calm. Coming from a road racing background, if the leaders aren’t respected in the peloton then they will put the hammer down later on if things go sideways. He was right so we took off and we had 6 motivated Israelis trying to chase us down into a nasty headwind. I was suffering this day but Soren single handedly held off the charging Israelis while I went cross eyed just trying to hold his wheel.
We gained a 3-4 minute advantage at one point but lost a bit on the rough descent to the finish as we played it conservative to avoid any flat tires or crashes. My Kona Hei Hei full suspension was a great choice for this race as the terrain was pretty rocky and rough throughout. At the finish we had a 2 minute gap and were both spent as we weren’t just battling the race but we had also both picked up a small flu bug somewhere in the previous days.
The final day of the Samarathon Desert Race
It was a rough night as we both got sicker and the early morning wakeup at 4:45 came much too early. Going to breakfast there were only 10 other people there out of 300 riders which probably signalled we weren’t the only ones struggling with the early mornings. With a 5 minute GC lead we had some time to play with but the 52 km final stage was suited for the punchier Israeli XC riders. The Israelis got away from us on one of the early climbs but Soren would set the pace on the fire road sections and myself on the singletrack, which kept the gap from growing to big. A few spectators on course would tell us the gap was 3-4 minutes, we think just to stress us out, when in reality it was just between 1-2 minutes. The riding this day was amazing as it was on a new purpose built singletrack through Tinma Park.
They sure have put a lot of work into the riding in the desert and it was a real treat to race on. Rolling into the finish in 3rd, just over 2 minutes down of the leaders, meant we had successfully held onto our Pink leader jerseys and taken the title at this UCI S2 ranked stage race! What a great way this was to kick off the year! It certainly wasn’t an easy victory, but that makes it that much sweeter.
The action didn’t stop the days after the race as time was spent in the city of Tel Aviv, and of course riding. Tel Aviv is on the Mediterranean Coastline and is the country’s economic and technological hub. It is also party central and has a 24 hour lifestyle. We were pretty tuckered out from the race so settled on some more relaxing activities. I tried a recovery ride on the coastal bike path but this turned into one of the sketchiest rides of the year as it was littered with out of control e-bikers and e-scooters. Old men with beer bellies would overtake me and glare down as if to ask why I was going so slowly. Because I’m actually pedalling my bike while you guys have your e-bikes set up so you don’t even have to touch the pedals! I was thankful to make it back to the hotel intact. In the evening my friend Yoram picked me up to take me up to his farm in Northern Israel for a few days of riding in the Carmel mountains. It was interesting how different the environment was up there with lots of greenery and rolling hills.
To cap off the trip Yoram, teamed up with a local Kona dealer Erez Golan to take us on the famous “Sugar trail” from Jerusalem down to the lowest place on earth at the Dead sea which is -430 M below sea level! It was a sweet ride as he flowing singletrack went past Mosques and some Bedouin settlements. One of the coolest things was to see the relationship that our Israeli hosts had with some Palestinians in the area as I have heard so much about their conflicts in the media. To finish the day off Erez hosted us for a night of Steaks in which he BBQ’d up 5 different delicious cuts and opened up a cooler full of beers and champagne. The hospitably of our Israeli friends is what truly made this trip one for the ages.
The days in Israel ended by getting combed over by the tight Israeli airport security. This was the toughest security I’ve ever gone through as they took everything apart and even took my bike pump as they were afraid it was a weapon. I escaped before they had time to probe me as I’m sure that was next. Now back in Nepal It’s time to rest up a bit before the next adventure up in the Himalaya’s as this trip to Israel was a tiring one. My mind is full of great memories, especially from the Samarathon Desert which reminded me a lot of the laid back atmosphere we have at the BC Bike race and Singletrack 6 in Canada. Both the organisers, Nimi and Yaron, are great characters and it has translated over into the race they have produced. I’ll be crossing my fingers for a chance to return to the Holy Land again someday soon!