At the restart in Arad, Lael begs Niv not to ride so fast. He is really, really strong and one of the only people she enjoys riding with. In general, she prefers to be alone.
Following a muddy standstill in the north, the HLC is rerouted to Arad, which stands above the Dead Sea and at the far northern edge of the Negev Desert in the south, where the risk of rain is minimal in the coming days. The north of the country is still under water. Arriving in Daliyat al-Karmel, Lael takes refuge in her favorite bakery to decide how to proceed. Incidentally, I know that her tracker stopped transmitting and intend to find her in Daliyat. I do. While there, I receive the call from Zohar that the race is cancelled– postponed– and will restart the next day in Arad. I receive a call from Meir a few minutes later offering a ride to Arad. We load the bikes onto the back of his vehicle and drive south. Lael does her best to dry her sleeping bag, bivy, and clothing on the ride. I’m not sure how all of this could have been communicated if I hadn’t had a cell phone and if I hadn’t been in the area. My initial plan was to ride from Nazareth to Jerusalem, so it was somewhat by chance that I was still in the area.
In Arad, we stop into our favorite Eastern European grocery which is open on Shabbat, and spend some time indoors at a restaurant to stay warm. It has rained in Arad, and at 2000ft, past dark, it is cold. We expect other riders to arrive at this restaurant and when they do, they trade war stories from the mud. Omri’s photograph of his Lefty fork full of mud take the prize. With only one stanchion, the right side of the tire grew to 4 inches or more. Neither Lael nor I are shocked by the mud– we’ve seen plenty of it in Israel and elsewhere. Lael could see in the forecast before the race began that this would happen, and seriously considered starting a solo ITT from Eilat, which might have avoided the rains, or not. Putting her best foot forward she started with the group in Majdal Shams and had a great time. In the future, race organizers will have a better idea of how to avoid unridable conditions while keeping the race alive. An official scheduled detour, as on sections of the Great Divide route in NM? Unfortunately almost every place in Israel can become unridable with enough precipitation. Start in Eilat? A truncated route in the desert? Or, leave the course as is and see if anyone has the sheer willpower to walk a muddy bike to Eilat?
Lael and I make camp in Park Arad for one of the coldest night we’ve experienced in Israel. What especially made it cold was that both of our sleeping bags were still damp, and hers was probably more wet than damp. Lael chose not to carry a sleeping pad so we shared a small section of foam that I was carrying to insulate our shoulders and core from the damp hardpacked dirt in the park. Thankfully, I was carrying the tent which blocked most of the wind and rain. I’d been fighting a cold since the start of the HLC and this weather wasn’t helping. The fact that rain was forecast at noon for the day of the restart was also disappointing. I wrote an e-mail to the event organizers strongly recommending a delay until the following morning, or at least a reroute around the wadis near the Dead Sea. I’ve seen the clay in there after the rain.
The restart proceeded just past 12 noon, with several paved detours announced at the last minute. Lael was not excited about the last minute changes. That kind of thing throws a wrench in her confidence. Her ability to visualize spaces is not a strength. However, I was able to talk her through the changes in terms that she could understand.
“So, when you get to the Zohar gas station where the water is overpriced and the annoying Birthright teenagers were bothering us, stay on the paved road near the Dead Sea. Later you will pass the bus stop where we spent most of an afternoon, near the turn to Ein Tamar, but you don’t go to Ein Tamar. You know the bus stop with the rooster painting? Climb the paved road to the junction where the bus stop smells like pee. Remember, we climbed that hill twice trying to catch a bus to Jerusalem, but went to Dimona and Beer Sheva instead. Turn downhill toward the gas station with the green and red Pepsi logo. You will cross the HLC track on this paved road and keep going. Take the first paved road right and climb a low mountain and then you will reach the big switchback climb with the roadies. Everything else is just the magenta line on your GPS.”
Her eyes tell me “I can’t do this.” I try again, slowly and sternly. A third time with the map gives her some confidence, but not much.
The group stands under cover as Limor announces the reroute in Hebrew. Lael huddles next to Niv, who is shaking. She really likes Niv. He wears a down jacket and cycling tights, and despite being built like a Soviet prison guard, he is exposed and cold and looks more like a four year old boy in an off-kilter helmet. Amidst intermittent showers, the group gathers on a sidewalk and rides out of town.
Immediately away from buildings and pavement, a vicious wind and a dark cover of clouds force many riders off the bikes, rain and hail further challenging an already difficult, rocky hiking trail. I drop into the trail and in minutes am stopped by the mad hissing of a cut sidewall. The riders continue out of sight.
Later in the evening I intercept the lead group at the Big Makhtesh. I ride with Niv up the paved climb to the dirt turnoff. He asks about our plans in Israel and invites us to visit him at his home in the north, again. Mostly, we pedal contentedly into the night. I stop to fumble with some of my luggage– now empty as I’ve camped nearby to wait for others– and he stops to make sure everything is okay. Come on, you’re in a race! Don’t stop for me. Niv is such an awesome guy. He is different than many people in Israel. He is very calm.
Descending the same road, I encounter Yam Raz. Lael and Omri come through next. Omri stops to open his front brake, which is rubbing due to some complication of worn pads. I can tell his knee hurts, a pain which lingers from the HLC last year. He downplays his discomfort. Omri is another standout guy. He keeps a really positive attitude and a level head.
By morning, there are several riders camped at the Colored Sands picnic area with me. Ilan Tevet makes an early start. He sleeps cold, and usually not that well, so rising early is inevitable. Nir mentions an aching knee and sleeps later, departing into a warming day to continue his tortoise singlespeeding strategy, which always puts him back in front of other riders. Nir is an ox on the bike, and has a great attitude. I pack up and connect with Jose from Spain to make my last paved climb on the road in the makhtesh. Jose turns toward Sde Boker on the HLC route, while I continue up to Yeroham to have a civilized morning with chocolate milk, pastries, and some time in front of the computer. Jose is experienced in many long distance endeavors, although most are big epic rides without need for overnight gear. This is his first time “bikepacking”, and his full-suspension Orbea is nicely dressed in new Alpkit gear. He says nothing like this exists in Spain. That will change.
I arrive in Sde Boker in time to meet a mass of riders at the Geofun bike shop. Tires and brake pads are on the menu, mostly tires, and the store is low on stock. They’ve got a bunch of tubeless Maxxis and Specialzies tires, but few options with more durable casings such as Maxxis EXO or LUST. As always, there are swarms of kids on mountain bikes in this town. I lend an extra hand to whoever needs it as the small shop is buzzing with needy cyclists. Klaus buys two tires, the guy on the 26″ full-suspension bike with the seat post rack buys two chunky Maxxis meats, Nir reinstalls both of his tires tubeless and removes the tubes which are leaking air, Jose buys a rear tire, another rider buys a front tire.
The mechanic at the bike shop offers a ride to Mizpe Ramon where he lives. I accept and am deposited in the center of town just before dark. I stand in front of the grocery store wondering if I should pack four beers down to the makhtesh to surprise Omri, Ilan, and Ingo, or if I should try to intercept Lael. By now, she is a long way away. Impulsively, I jump on the bike and start hammering the pedals on pavement. After weeks and months on dirt, riding pavement is a lot of fun. A cool clear night, little traffic, and a wide shoulder draw me further and further. Last I checked Lael tracked on the section to Pharan. I know I can intercept her via a dirt road, but if I miss her I will be waiting in a dark valley with no idea where she is. And there is nothing I can do but say something nice and ride with her for a minute. I decide to continue to Be’er Menuha where I know I can find wi-fi and a 24 hour store. I track Lael into the night on the computer and go to sleep after I see her pink dot fade, indicating she has turned off her SPOT. The attendant at the store offers to let me camp under a broad tent. I find a stack of foam mattresses and enjoy the best sleep since Majdal Shams.
I awake as a familiar desert sun rises over Jordan, and walk nearer to the building to check on the riders. Lael is on the border road already and has just passed. I pack quickly and try to catch her by riding pavement and shortcutting to the dirt road along the barbed wire fence which separates Israel and Jordan. I don’t find her and can’t be sure if she is ahead or behind me. I do my best to interpret tire tracks, including two pairs of fresh Crossmarks which I assume to be Niv and Yam. I connect back to the paved road and time trial to Yahel to wait. She is already there. We sit and talk over coffee for a bit, as on any other day. For half an hour, there is no race. Then she stands up and her race face comes back. She’s wide awake and happy to be riding. I feel hung over from too little sleep, too much riding, not enough water, and too much on my mind. I don’t know how she does it.
After she learns of the restart, we learn how to make kanafeh, but Lael mostly warms her hands over the fire.
Bikes on cars. Boys, take note when a girls toes the start line with a headtube that looks like this.
Gathering at the start.
Sizing up the competition. Ilan is almost 6′ 7″.
Straight out of the gate the winds threaten to blow riders off the trail. Rain-slickened limestone doesn’t help.
Near the Big Makhtesh.
Camp for the night, and a nice place to wait for racers.
Nir packs his gear in the morning. He began mountain biking no more than three years ago. This is his first HLC.
Jose dives into the Big Makhtesh, en route to Sde Boker.
Klaus shops for tires at the Geofun bike shop in Sde Boker. He works at the largest bike shop in Germany and despite falling ill in the rainy mess of the north, and a quick visit to the doctor in Arad, he is back on the bike.
Remind anyone of Lael? Smiling and riding are good fun.
Nir tends to tires and worn brake pads. On a longer race through varied terrain, more durable casings are a good idea. His tires haven’t suffered any cuts, but many others have.
Ilan Rubinstein, the poet from Eilat, finally seems to have found a happy load. He has a gear acquisition habit, although more time on the trail is teaching him what he needs, and what he doesn’t. Many veteran HLC riders still refer to the minimal load that American Max Morris carried last year, including his small headlamp, sunshade sleeping pad, and a plastic SOL bivy. Ilan made a last minute switch from his full-suspenison Specialized Epic to this hardtail, which he converted from singlespeed to a 1×10 a few days before the event. Ilan also reports some knee pains.
There are always tons of kids ripping around on mountain bikes in this town. There will be some seriously talented riders in the future.
A nice night to depart Mizpe Ramon, and one of the best road rides of my life. Pedaling with a purpose and a tailwind rivals any thrill. Using my highest gear and my best aero position on the Krampus. I arrive in Be’er Menuha only a few hours later.
A nice morning for a ride along the Jordanian border road, wondering if I will see Lael before Eilat.
An unfamiliar bike rests outside the cafe at Yahel. Much of the blue color of Lael’s frame is concealed by white clay.
After coffee. She is quickly back on the trail to Ne’ot Smadar, Shaharut, Timna, Be’er Ora, and Eilat. There are two riders ahead of her, Niv is still not tracking but I suspect he is ahead of Yam. She should arrive at the Red Sea some time this evening.