The concept has settled for the current season with 3 marathons and 2 stage races – which is probably about right in a region where mountain biking is an emerging sport.
Cycling is about freedom and adventure and a mountain bike epitomises that I think. When you imagine freedom, the life and open spaces of the Middle East become a bit of a grey area. Can you ride there? Is it possible to roam freely? Is there anything but desert?
Coming to the Arabian Epic Series Jordan Stage Race was the perfect way to find out.
The Jordan Stage Race and Arabian Epic Series
The Jordan Stage Race is a 4-day mountain race starting in Amman and taking in a few tourist hot spots along the way. The Dead Sea, trails below Mt Nebo, Petra – that sort of thing.
Of course the question remains – what is the mountain biking like in Jordan? I had no idea, so coming here with team mate Justin Morris would be a bit of a journey of discovery for both of us, filling some gaps in our knowledge of the world and it’s people, with some bike racing along the way.
After arriving yesterday and taking a look around the city of Amman and the old Citadel, today was about getting down to bike racing. Eventually. With a midday kick off we had a pretty relaxed start to the day. Although calls to prayer were an early wake up from a jet lag enforced slumber, we were soon digging into a buffet breakfast.
Eating regionally is both a challenge and joy of racing in new places. Erring away from corn flakes and fruit loops, the cooked potatoes and slow roasted and stewed eggplant with fresh pita bread made for a delicious breakfast. Along with about half a dozen fun sized muffins.
The bus ride from town took us off the hill that Amman sits on, and having seen the citadel yesterday the defensive position above the fertile valleys was obvious.
We heard a basic history on the drive to the prologue start at Wasfi Al Tal Forrest. The country is such a mix of people, and given the area has been a cross-roads of sorts for millennia, that’s no surprise.
With the bus driving up a long road from the motorway, we saw the Red Bull arch and banners set up, along with our bikes racked near the start chute. In its second year, there are 22 riders here in Jordan. That’s not a whole lot, but at this point you need to compare the event to something like Rumble in the Jungle in Sri Lanka. It’s a way to see a place that you might find otherwise more difficult. And with the support of a couple of local outfits, most of the thinking is taken care of for you.
The prologue route was about 18km around the forest, with a spurt on some singletrack and then a burn up on double track. While Justin and I took a quick look at the singletrack, we didn’t have much time to kill and after the first part we high tailed it back to the start, with about a minute to spare before Justin was being counted down.
I was up next, and a little unsure how things would go. Having had a silly tumble on Saturday I was still a bit sore, but also a little rattled. Crashing is always annoying, but doing so in a foreign country is never good, and that weighed on my mind.
Even with a 30 second gap to Justin, he was out of sight. I huffed and puffed my way along and onto the marked trail section. Essentially a mixed of painted rocks connecting some small trails, it was technically demanding in my state of apprehension and hypoxia after digging a bit too deep! I went off line, flailed around, used the tripod technique down sections and generally rode badly.
Once on the fire trail again I needed to give myself a firm talking to, but my heart rate was a bit high to manage it. So I pushed on as I could, until Jan from Belgium (via Dubai) passed.
‘Hold the wheel!’ my head said. But with no major increase in my speed it was clear that Jan was flying. He wasn’t even the rider starting behind me.
The rest of the route contoured around the open forest, with sheppards tending their sheep, lots of grip thanks to recent rain, and in general, the joy of racing. I’d moved through the questioning of why I was doing it, and I was into the general high of life. I was outside, being active, testing myself, and didn’t care how I was going.
But I snuck in a look over my shoulder anyway, and saw a bright orange Poc helmet closing in.
More people catching me? I tried to lift my game, and then heard barking dogs. In the briefing we had been told there would be dogs at about the 12km mark but they wouldn’t attack. And they didn’t, but they sure did bark and run a lot.
Finally past them and flirting with my max heart rate, a fast descent moved quickly into a steep climb, probably 17-18%, with more dogs. Pale ones, dark ones, shaggy ones, old ones, lame ones. All barking, some running closer than others.
You would move out of reach of one dog, and then it was up to the next to take over… I passed through a small camp and instead it was turkeys gobbling, geese hissing, and then the final climb. It was a lot steeper on a bike than in the bus, and I could just see a blue dot at the top that was Justin.
I crossed the line unceremoniously, unsure of results, besides being the third rider to finish and the second to start.
After the prologue
Even without a huge field, there’s a lot of support here. So we had fresh cold brew coffees, packaged hummus and bread sticks, water, and of course our bikes transported back for us and washed and left in the lobby.
We regrouped for a late lunch, that probably was dinner, in a restaurant down the road 500m away that we took the bus to in traffic. There was more food than we could eat, but it was a good time to sit and talk and learn more about the people behind the event and the people taking part in it.
What we did learnt today was that the forest we raced in is set to be Jordan’s first mountain bike park. It’s a pretty setting with shallow hills and rock outcrops, with sparse tree coverage and red dirt.
It was Jan from Belgium who was the fastest today, about 3 minutes ahead of Justin, who was about 10 seconds ahead of me. Tomorrow we have a 6km neutral start before entering a trail along the river, and then racing downhill to the Dead Sea for a float. It looks super fast, and we’re told we’ll have the wind at our back!