Event: Bikepacking Night in Israel, May 2nd

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Join the Israeli bikepacking community for an evening centered around your bikes and our stories of travel and adventure by bicycle.  

Lael Wilcox is a finisher of the HLC2015 and will share secrets about eating on the trail, jumping rope while on tour, and why reading books late into the night is good practice for the HLC.  She will also explain why a snowboarding helmet is such a good idea when riding in Alaska in the winter.

Nicholas Carman is the mechanic and spokesperson for this mad traveling contraption.  He will talk about bikes, routes, and why it isn’t a big deal that he uses platform pedals.  

For the past seven years we have traveled through North America, Europe, South Africa, and the Middle East.  Our approach to bicycle travel has evolved, and we now seek unpaved roads and trails as much as possible, including routes such as the HLC and IBT in Israel; the Great Divide and the Arizona Trail in the USA; the GR5, 1000 Miles Adventure, the red hiking trails in Poland, the Greek Bicycle Odyssey in Europe; and the Dragon’s Spine Route across South Africa and Lesotho.  Sometimes, we call Alaska our home.  Together, we share our story, as well as some technical discussion about routes and equipment.  A short Q&A will follow.  We fly back to Alaska on May 4th.

Ride to meet us at Kfar Sirkin at 6:30PM on May 2nd.  Pack your bike for a ride across town, across Israel, or around the world.  If at all possible, ride your bike!  Join us on a ride to the Nachshonim Forest to camp for the night.  It’s really close, so don’t sweat it.  First time bikepackers welcome!  It is rumored that HLC singlespeed champion Nir Almog will be present. 

Meet: HaDkalim St. 3, Kfar Sirkin at 6:30PM for conversation, the program begins at 7:00.  Bring food and drinks to share, especially if you are driving.

Ride: Nachshonim Forest, after the event.  Simple camping gear, a small light should be fine, pack a beer and a topic of conversation.  We’ll probably ride to coffee in the morning. 

Tell your friends!

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The Restart in Arad, HLC, Israel

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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.

Daliyat al-Karmel.

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After she learns of the restart, we learn how to make kanafeh, but Lael mostly warms her hands over the fire.

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Bikes on cars.  Boys, take note when a girls toes the start line with a headtube that looks like this.

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Rest.

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Recovery.

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Pre-race prep.

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Gathering at the start.

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Sizing up the competition.  Ilan is almost 6′ 7″.

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Straight out of the gate the winds threaten to blow riders off the trail.  Rain-slickened limestone doesn’t help.

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Near the Big Makhtesh.

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Camp for the night, and a nice place to wait for racers.

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Nir packs his gear in the morning.  He began mountain biking no more than three years ago.  This is his first HLC.

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Jose dives into the Big Makhtesh, en route to Sde Boker.

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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.

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Remind anyone of Lael?  Smiling and riding are good fun.

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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.

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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.

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There are always tons of kids ripping around on mountain bikes in this town.  There will be some seriously talented riders in the future.

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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.

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A nice morning for a ride along the Jordanian border road, wondering if I will see Lael before Eilat.

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An unfamiliar bike rests outside the cafe at Yahel.  Much of the blue color of Lael’s frame is concealed by white clay.

Before coffee.

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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.

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Update from the HLC

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Lael racing the local e-bikers away from the Sea of Galilee.

The HLC departed Mt. Hermon April 9 at 7AM.  After one solid day of riding, most riders intercepted scattered showers and increasingly unrideable roads and trails some time during the second day.  Lael’s strategy to ride long and hard on the first day payed dividends as she was the only rider over Mt. Meron that did not encounter significant mud (until later in the route).  Ingo Schulmeyer, the next rider, got through without too much trouble.  Everyone after that was carrying heavy muddy bikes for miles over the mountain.  Lael and Ingo continued pace about 40km away from each other into the second night and on the morning of the third day.  Historically, Lael has been a late rider and Ingo an early riser.  Niv Amos, Yam Raz, and Omri Ben Yaish have all been in contention over the first few days of riding, until the mud.  

By the middle of the third day everyone was walking their muddy bikes, or carrying them.  Lael declined a hot shower and a dry bed from some fans who had stalked her track online, and managed to sleep relatively comfortably under a tree with a broad and dense umbrella of leaves on the second night.  Her biggest complaint was that she was sleeping on a steep hill, but used her bike at her feet to stabilize herself.  The rain was forecast to continue for several days, and it would continue longer in the north than in the center or the south. Theoretically, if a rider was able to walk with the bike through Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, there would have been an eventual break in the weather, slowly drying trails, and rideable conditions.  But that was many days away and many miles of walking in between, including some travel on managed mountain bike trails which would suffer damage.  HLC race organizers scheduled a restart in Arad for noon on the fourth day.  We were both quickly driven to Arad by a friend of the HLC named Meir.  Thanks for the lift Meir!  

On the morning of the third day Lael crossed a fast moving river and submerged the bike.  Her SPOT transmitter stopped working at this point, just east of Mt. Carmel.  She proceeded with a much lighter and cleaner bike and walked up the steep moto trail to the top of Mt. Carmel, riding hardpack gravel and paved roads into Daliyat al-Karmel at 9:30AM, still 40-45km ahead of the second rider.  Two weeks ago we passed through Daliyat, and I knew exactly where she would go if she got there.  I rode paved roads to meet her in the center of town, where her favorite person in Israel works at her family’s bakery.  Lael was sipping coffee with cardamom and eating kanafeh, a sweet dish of melted cheese, crusted dough, and honey.  She was planning to go to the bike shop in town to buy narrower tires so that at least her bike would roll though the mud.  Hopefully she would be able to ride some sections.  Within the hour, I got a call from Zohar Kantor informing me that the race would be rescheduled in Arad.  Other riders were already planning their trip south. Lael might be the only rider without a cell phone, or even a smart phone.  

At noon on the fourth day, the race restarted in Arad in high winds and rain, with a few frozen particles also falling from the sky.  The route begins a precipitous drop to the Dead Sea on hiking trails, signed MTB trail, and a very steep hiking trail the last 1000ft to Dead Sea level at -1200ft.  The winds and rain made some of this descent precarious, although the only casualty is that German rider Klaus Thiel cut the sidewall of his tire.  Sadly, I did the same thing only a few minutes out of Arad as I chased the group on my loaded bike, hoping to capture some images.  I had just received a small bottle of sealant from Limor Shany, another of the race organizers.  The cut was too large for sealant to repair and for reasons too complex to elaborate here, a tube would not work and I hiked some distance down to the road where I hitched back to town, stitched the tire back together with a needle and thread and successfully reseated it with fresh sealant using the compressor at the gas station.  Thankfully I had gotten some pro tips from Scott Morris a few days ago on tubeless field repairs.  I hadn’t expected to need those skills so soon, but I am rolling again, chasing racers and running from rainclouds. 

The route along the Dead Sea was modified to avoid wheel-sucking calciferous clay in the lowest wadis, where a friend lost a derailleur and hanger a few weeks ago.  Even on the paved roads, some flooding and clay covered the riders in a coat of white mud.  By evening skies were clear, although strong winds from the S and W persisted in the face of progress.  I camped in the Big Makhtesh on the fourth night and watched Niv Amos, Yam Raz, Lael Wilcox, and Omri Ben Yaish pass toward Sde Boker.  By morning, several other riders had camped nearby and the last of the group passed mid-morning.  Omri indicated some mild pains in his legs, but was riding strong.  He also expected to stop at the Geofun bike shop in Sde Boker for some brake pads and a new derailleur pulley.  Niv and Yam were riding strong.  Lael ate two sandwiches and rode away into the night.

As in the north, after Sde Boker, Lael and Yam Raz are near the front.  Niv Amos has not been tracking successfully and he may be ahead of Lael and Yam.  They will soon arrive in Mizpe Ramon where the HLC route follows much of the IBT to Eilat, Lael’s favorite section.  From Mizpe Ramon the winds should be more manageable for some time, in conjunction with a total descent to the Aravah Valley.  

There is some talk about accounting for the standing of the riders after the first two and half days in the north.  This may be in the form of a handicap directly related to their location when the race was cancelled.  Either way, it looks like Lael is gunning for a fight in Round 2 of the HLC.  

Follow the HLC at Trackleaders.com.

Camped near the start, making sandwiches at 5AM before the race.

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The race start from the hotel where all the boys stayed the night before.

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I met Lael after her big rider over Mt. Meron.  She rode until 2:45AM to Mahanayim Junction, then climbed Meron in the morning to arrive back at the Sea of Galilee at noon or 1PM.

At Ein Nun, water, shopping, and extra salt on those sandwiches.

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A section of the Gospel Trail.  The Gospel Trail sucks.  Don’t walk it.  It is all thorns and farm roads next to streams full of sewage effluent.  This section was tolerable, just before the thorns.  

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In Daliyat al-Karmel after a day and a night in the rain, and a very wet morning where her entire bike submerged in a stream.  That is the last time her SPOT tracker sent a location. Without much issue, she walked and rode to Daliyat where she was planning her next strategy, before the restart was announced.

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That little pink dot on Trackleaders has become quite famous.  She logged into her Facebook account in Arad to find 65 new friend requests from Israeli fans.  Included in the mix was a request from Nathan Bosch. Come on Nate, does she really have to win a race to be friends?  I’ve heard that some trackstalkers went looking for her when her SPOT failed.  A man went to that location with his kids but didn’t find her.  Instead, he found another trackstalker.  

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After the restart I saw Lael last night in the Big Makhtesh before Sde Boker.  She slammed a couple of sandwiches and pedaled past Omri into the night.  Niv Amos should be out in front somewhere, but his SPOT has been spotty, at best.  Otherwise, she and Yam seem to be pedaling together or near each other.  Yam is from Zofar in the Aravah Valley and claims to “know every stone” in these parts.  Lael has ridden this section of the HLC almost three times.

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I promised to take her back to the beach in Egypt if she wins.  Go for it Lael!  See you in Eilat.

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Trackstalkpacking

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Don’t forget to follow Lael and the HLC on Trackleaders.com.  She’s carrying a small transmitter called a SPOT which sends a signal to the moon every ten minutes or so.

And you thought following colored dots on the internet was fun.  At the crossroads of tracking riders online, stalking riders in real life, and bikepacking.  It’s trackstalkpacking!

I spent the first day of the HLC chasing riders, but I wasn’t racing.  I rode sections of the HLC track to meet riders at critical moments, or at scenic vistas to capture a few photographs live from the race.  I’d ride to the nearest town and scan for free wifi with my MacBook Air, to check the progress of each group on Trackleaders.com.  Then, I’d extrapolate their trajectory to try to intercept them on the trail.  I pedaled with German rider Klaus Thiel for a bit, and saw Omri and Niv about seven times during the day.  A smartphone with cell coverage would simplify things greatly, but I still had tons of fun.  After nearly 100 miles of riding on my first day, ending at Ein Nun, I can say that trackstalkpacking isn’t for everyone.  It is a curious hobby requiring quick judgement, a general interest in watching other people race, some fitness, a bike, and basic computing or smartphoning skills.  Next time there’s a multi-day race in you neck of the woods, get started with an S24TSP and be back to work in the morning (this is a variant of the wildly popular S24O).  Don’t have three weeks to burn on the Tour Divide this summer?  Go trackstalkpacking for a week in Colorado.  Live near Tel Aviv and want to test our your new Revelate seatpack?  Go for it!  Just don’t harass the riders.  Positive vibes only.  That’s a rule.

Lael reported than a man came around last night just past dark offering her spaghetti and water.  She declined, until he informed her that he was doing this for all the riders.  She took a to-go cup of hot noodles.  That is some extraordinarily generous trackstalking.  Thanks to the spaghetti man!

For a report from Day 1 of the HLC, including photos, read my article entitled Live from the Holyland Bikepacking Challenge in Israel at Bikepacker’s Magazine, your online resource for bikepacking news, reviews and features.

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And if you haven’t been following the race, Lael is out front and headed for Mt. Carmel, the Mediterranean Coast, and Tel Aviv.  A bank of wet weather is quickly approaching, teasing a few rain showers during the day today.

Thanks to everyone who shared supportive words for Lael.  I read them to her the morning of the race, and at intervals since the start.  Lael runs on sunshine, sandwiches, and the good spirit of others. 

Lael’s Other Half and the HLC

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Skip to the fun part and leave an encouraging comment for Lael at the bottom of the page.  Yes, she is racing the HLC.  The event starts Thursday at 7AM.

She rides and rides and rides, you know that.  But at the beginning or end of every day, or anytime in the middle, she bounds away for a run of an hour or more, powering up the cell phone which we rarely use to keep track of time.  She will lose track of time while running.  She has carried a jumprope for the past six months to aid the healing and strengthening of an ankle injured while working in a restaurant last summer, but the jumprope has just become another smile inducing part of an active daily routine.  She also carries a book on the bike, so it’s not all business all the time.  

At the age of 18, only a year or two after shifting focus from soccer to running, she ran her first marathon in 3:18, placing third.  Back in 2010, she decided at the last moment to participate in the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon in Urique, Mexico.  We had biked there from Tacoma via Baja.  In 2013, while living in New Mexico, she rode from Albuquerque to the start of the Cedro Peak Ultramarathon, a 45km trail run with lots of climbing on rocky trails.  She won, and rode home.  In December 2013, returning from five months of bikepacking across Europe and two months in the southwest USA, she rode to the start of the Tucson Marathon and finished 4th.  Last winter in Alaska she completed her first bike race, a 50mi fatbike race called the Frosty Bottom, and smiled all the way to the finish.  She signed up for a few local XC mountain bike races in the spring for fun.  She discovered endurance road riding on a series of springtime rides across the state of Alaska when the mountain bike trails were too wet to ride, at the same time discovering the state where she had grown up.  She rode home from Fairbanks.  She rode to Homer to see her grandparents.  She rode to the family’s cabin in the valley and back, over Hatcher Pass, returning in time for work the next morning.  On the Thursday before the locally-famous Fireweed 400, she signed up at the suggestion of a friend who offered to provide support.  Borrowing her mom’s road bike and a set of slick carbon racing wheels from a demo Trek Madone, she raced to the front of the pack as the top female finisher, second in the overall standings, and only 12 minutes behind a man on a recumbent, in just over 27 hours.  A few weeks later we left Anchorage for a period of travel expected to last up to a year.  

It has been eight and a half months since leaving Alaska.  We have travelled in Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.  Having immersed ourselves in the Israeli bikepacking scene and in the culture of the HLC over the last two months, her participation in the event was almost inevitable (thanks to the ever-convincing Ilan Tevet, no doubt).  With the strength and experience of months of bikepacking behind us and a penchant for excited last minute race commitments, you will now be able to follow a pink dot across Israel on the HLC Trackleaders.org page.  Lael will be the first and only female to participate in the HLC, and the only American this year.

Cue uplifting music to accompany the HLC training montage…

Hill climbing, hike-a-bike, protein loading on sardines and hummus, shopping for ultralight gear at a 24 hour convenience store, sleeping on the ground, a framebag full of grapefruits, learning to use the GPS, wildflowers, singletrack, doubletrack, chunk track, cattle trails and barbed wires fences, and drinking lots and lots of water. 

Photos from the HLC track, Mt. Hermon through the Golan Heights and Galilee.  Camel skull with helmet from Jordan.  Looking at these photos reminds me how much I like this girl.  Good luck Lael!  Keep smiling.

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Wheel lacing photo: Ilan Tevet

Lael with her truncated touring load on our latest ride from Mt. Hermon back to Tel Aviv.  The full race kit halves the already light system.  Thanks to Eric at Revelate Designs for the unbreakable framebag, able to contain six grapefruits without complaint.  Thanks to Charles Tsai at Intelligent Design Cycles for the new Shutter Precision PD-8X dynamo hub, the same as I have been using without fault for the last ten months.  Shipped last minute from Taiwan, the hub arrived to Israel in less than a week.  Thankfully, hub dimensions for the PD-8X match the Hope hub it replaces, enabling us to reuse the spokes.

With some rain in the forecast up north and a seasonal heat wave brewing a week away in the desert, it should be a fun ride.  She hopes to finish the 825mi (1400km) distance in under ten days.

Send some encouraging words to Lael by leaving a comment below!

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Crossing the Judaean Desert, West Bank, Israel

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It is HLC season in Israel.

Nowhere else have we engaged the local bikepacking community as in Israel.  America is a big country and there are many riders, but there are miles and miles of trail for each rider to hide.  South Africa is a big country which claims a lot of riders, but most mountain biking seems to happen behind closed doors on private land tracts, only on the day of a race or scheduled ride.  Israel is a small country with a lot of people and a lot of public trails.  The people are active, organized, and committed.  Self-supported bikepacking is rapidly growing out of a foundation of mountain biking and hiking.

We receive the details of a plan on our small yellow phone to meet Ilan Rubinstein at Mitzpe Yeriho at 1800 hours.  We will sleep within the confines of the community, a Jewish settlement on a hill above the city of Yeriho (Jericho) in the West Bank.  We ride at 0600 hours.  Active, organized, committed.

We were first invited to participate in the HLC race last fall, via the blog.  By the time we crossed the border from Egypt I had received invitations for accommodation or conversation over coffee in places further north.  Facebook friend requests flood from serious looking riders, their names masked by Hebrew characters which I still cannot read.  We meet on the trail, partly by coincidence, and they know all about us.  I don’t usually recognize them by name, but we are friends.

The 1400km HLC was organized by a core group of riders in less than a year, and the first race took place in April 2014 from the southern flank of the tallest mountain in Israel, Mt. Hermon, situated at the junction with Lebanon and Syria.  Zohar Kantor, a Tour Divide veteran, conceived the event.  Limor Shany traced a line across the country from north to south, an extension of the week-long supported mountain bike tours he has been operating for years.  Ilan Tevet is the ever-convincing marketing man with a Swiss Army knife of skills to facilitate and promote the event.  He was the one to invite us to Israel and to the HLC last October.

Last year, the weather was hot in April, with two substantial heat waves during the HLC.  April is a month tightly sandwiched between cool wet winter and oppressively hot summers– the weather can go either way, but is most likely to be hot and dry.  The north of the country features a typical Mediterranean climate with wetter winters, while the south is consistently dry most of the year.  In almost any part of the country, substantial rain results in unrideable trails.  Limestone soils quickly clog tires and irregularly shaped limestone fragments– their exterior surface slickened by moisture– are hazardous when wet.  I’ve heard the complaints from last year’s heat, but Lael and I have spent enough time traveling this country during the rains to know which is worse.

The culture of the HLC isn’t entirely new, except for the essential details of being a week long self-supported race across Israel.  Israelis love mountain biking and regularly ride in groups, scheduled one day a week or more.  We’ve met many groups of riders who have been together for as much as a decade.  Ilan Tevet’s group rides very early on Tuesday morning and gathers for a stomach full of hummus at 8AM, before parting ways for their respective professional lives.  Some groups employ a more advanced rider to aid skill building and as a guide.  And the bikes!– we’ve seen more high-end bikes in Israel than anywhere in the world.  Spotting an Ibis, Turner, or Santa Cruz in the wild in America is uncommon, except in high-octane wealthy mountain towns like Crested Butte or Moab, or attached to riders with supreme skill.  Even in the middle of a suburban forest in Israel these bikes are not uncommon, and their association with skill is seemingly at random.  The impact of global marketing has also pressed enduro and all-mountain trends into the Israeli mountain bike culture.  Knee pads and other armor are common.  At the same time, lycra kit mated to Epics and Scalpels and Superflys are all part of the scene.  A few rigid singlespeeders keep it honest.  And on Shabbat, we ride.  Check out the Ben Shemen forest on Shabbat.  Only Marin comes close in my experience.

Bikepacking is growing thanks to the HLC and to the popularity of overseas events like the Tour Divide.  Bikepacking for fun, or mountain bike touring, seems to be missing from the current patchwork of Israeli mountain bike culture, to the point that when we describe to some riders that we are touring the HLC route, they are confused about how this is possible.  American riders often make the same mistake, failing to differentiate touring the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from racing the Tour Divide.

Coming from Jerusalem to Mitzpe Yeriho, we descend 2000ft on paved highways toward the Dead Sea.  We are the first to arrive and take a place at the picnic table outside the small grocery in the community.  Like many small planned communities in Israel, there is a gate surrounding the property and a structural steel gate at the entrance, often kept open during daytime hours.  But this is the West Bank, and even if only in my imagination, it is different here.  The shacks of sheepherding families line the roadside from Jerusalem.  But when we enter Mitzpe Yeriho, we could be in any other community in Israel, from the Negev to Galilee.

Ilan Rubinstein arrives first from Eilat, and quickly unveils a third of a bottle of Johnny Walker.  We’re sitting in front of half-empty pints of Tuborg Red and a tub of hummus, one half of our now-typical dinner.  Ilan serenades us with stories about the “spirit of the trail” and about the life-changing experience of racing the HLC.  It is inspiring stuff and Ilan is one of the greatest students and most sage instructors of the method.  But Ilan scratched from the HLC last year after a monstrous effort to Jerusalem.  The details of the end of his race are never made clear to us.  Despite countless queries, he avoids answering by chasing tangential trail philosophies.  He did the same thing last time we met him on the beach in Eilat.  There is something out there for him yet.  He arrives on a Specialized Epic with a combination of Revelate and Nuclear Sunrise gear.

Omri arrives next, a much younger man on a smartly packed Cannondale Scalpel with Porcelain Rocket gear.  He scratched even sooner in the race last year, but is quick to admit his mistake, with a smile.  The HLC is not like a short-source XC race, where he excels and where he draws much of his experience.  You cannot ride the same way, at the same intensity.  He recently spent several months in Ecuador touring Andean backroads, shadowing some of the routes he’d seen on Cass’ blog While Out Riding.

Nir deboards the same bus as Omri, a relative novice mountain biker (in time, not skills, since starting to ride three years ago) and a first time HLC racer.  He rides a singlespeed Kona Unit packed with Revelate Gear.  Nir is comfortable telling Ilan when he is overthinking, which amuses us greatly.

We’re just along for the ride.

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Awake before dawn, above Jericho and the Dead Sea.  How else could you convince men to wear tights and sleep on plastic house wrapping on the ground in a park?

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Leaving Mitzpe Yeriho, we pass several small homes with large flocks of sheep and goats.  These poor Arab families are increasingly a minority in Area C of the West Bank as Israeli settlements grow at an extraordinary rate.

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A climb ending in a steep hike downhill sets the tone for the day.

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Searching for trails etched by sheep and camels over decades and centuries.

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Unlike many of the official hiking and cycling trails and 4×4 routes we have been riding, this trail likely predates the state of Israel by many years.

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A nearby mountain bike route called The Sugar Trail passes from the hills above Jerusslem to the Dead Sea, once a popular trade route now a popular shuttle run.

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Singlespeed and happy, Nir keep an even keel and an even cadence.  The sign on the front of his bike indicates that he is riding the HLC to raise money and create awareness for Asperger’s syndrome.

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There are a series of wells along the first part of our ride, which makes carrying 7L of water feel a little silly.

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HLC training.

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The Judaean Desert is never this green, locals say.

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Mountain bike traffic– luggage and water uphill, full-face helmets downhill.

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Continuing to the south, the desert becomes increasingly green.

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Short steep hikes punctuate much of the first part of the ride.  Following GPS tracks up and down steep hillsides within sight of rideable trails is amusing, but the resultant ride is absolutely worth it, making connections one would not have seen from afar or from available basemaps.  The combination of local intel and a GPS are irreplaceable.

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A donkey would be a better tool than a bike up here.  Sage is in season, easily identifiable by smell from several meters away.

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Camels and green grass.

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Some flow, some chunk, some hiking, and some technical descents if you choose to ride them– HLC training.

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Ilan, the bikepacking poet from Eilat.  Ilan is well-known to provide hospitality to passing cyclists and has met many riders connecting distant parts of the globe, coming through Israel from Jordan and Egypt.  He has arranged for us to sleep in the aquarium in Eilat on several occasions, where he works as an accountant (with seemingly endless vacation time to go bikepacking).

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Still over 2000ft above the Dead Sea, Jordan in the distance.

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Metsokei Dragot, water refuel.

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Mostly doubletrack from here to the end of the day.

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Morning above the Deas Sea, cool air reminding us that we are here in the right season.  This place is an oven in the summer.

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Our track crosses a series of deep wadis which drain to the Dead Sea.  We can ride into these canyons, but not out.  Local Palestinian 4×4 clubs are out enjoying the day, bumping Arabic electro tunes.

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Lael judging form.  Looking good guys.  Good luck at the HLC!

The race starts from Mt. Hermon on Thursday morning at 7:00.  Follow along on the HLC 2015 Trackleaders page.

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We eventually arrive at an important junction where we can continue toward our planned destination at the Aravah Junction, or ride toward Arad and end the day at a reasonable hour, before dark.  Before the decision is made, minds wander to cold beers and obligations at work the following day.  We finish our crossing of the desert in Arad, where regular bus services take Omri, Ilan, and Nir back to their lives.

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We reconnect with the HLC track in Arad and begin riding north for a second time along this section.  If anyone asks, we live on this off-road artery across Israel, on the HLC.

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Sojourn in Jerusalem, Israel

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Journey to Jerusalem between solar powered weeks in the Negev and the rising tide of spring in the rest of Israel, unfolding new layers of riding to the north.  Arriving in Eilat on the first of February, we cordone ourselves to the south for a few weeks, making circles in the desert to join Ilan and Danny for a fresh piece of the IBT.  We finally pass north to the Dead Sea, and out of the deepest natural basin on Earth, in a sandstorm.  We continue toward the north– just to the center of the country– to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem: an ancient modern city amidst a series of steep hills, bounded on three sides by Palestine, one of the highest densities of religious Jews in the country, rich in culture and beauty and diversity.  Tel Aviv, I now know, is quite the opposite.

Rain arrives in tandem with our arrival to Jerusalem, 2500ft above sea level.  Cold weather sees us into a cave for the night, one of hundreds or thousands in these limestone hills.  But this cave just happened to find us on a dark night on a terrace just below the HLC route, just out of town (GPS coordinates here).  We push onto a narrow track to set up our tent in the pines.  A dark hole in the yellow glow of the evening catches Lael’s attention– just a mile from the edge of the city, properly– we literally walk into a warm dry cave out of the rain.  This becomes our home for the two and half days in Jerusalem.  This place, we promise, remains on the list of places to revisit.

On our first morning in the city, we meet Louis in the souk.  Dates and nuts and Euro-chocolate pastries take center stage, next to olives and piles of pita and fruits and vegetables.  It is a nice market, probably stunning if you come from Iowa, but nothing compared to Cairo.  Cairo tends not to be a popular topic of discussion in Israel; instead, I tell people we have come from Eilat.  That’s nice.

Louis comes from Iowa.  He first traveled to Israel at the age of 18.  Ten years later he has just completed six months of mandatory military service, now awaiting his Israeli passport in the post.  He will maintain dual citizenship, but plans to live in Israel.  He finished with the military last week, and begins work as a music teacher on Tuesday.  After a cold shower and several cups of hot coffee, we walk all around the city to the tune of every thread of information our impromptu tour guide can offer.  His knowledge and passion for the city is contagious, passing secret alleyways and favorite eateries.  He rides a Brompton and without hesitation, asks us to coffee at his apartment as soon as we meet.  Thanks Louis!

We meet Julian on our second evening in town.  Julian comes from Philadelphia by way of a semester in Jerusalem a few years ago through Eastern Mennonite University.  He came back to volunteer time to develop the Jesus Trail.  He now works for the Abraham Path, an international walking path projected (and growing) across the Middle East, from Sinai to Turkey.  Through the development of local walking resources, the organization aims to empower governments and people to welcome visitors, and in return, to hit the trail to discover other parts of the Middle East.  This is grassroots diplomacy, although the organization claims to be “non-profit, non-religious, and non-political”.  Most staff members come from the USA and the EU.  The Abraham Path relies on the vast network of existing trails in Israel, yet charts a new path through the West Bank (Palestine)  The Jordan Trail is now complete.  A projected route is in development in Sinai.  Scouting trips have been made to Eastern Turkey.  Syria is on hold for the moment.  There is talk about extending the path into Iraq.  Julian has been a valuable resource to us, even before we set foot in the country.  He has suggested routes and contacts in Israel, and proposes a trip to Jordan later in the month.  He rides a secondhand Surly Pugsley.  Thanks Julian!  

Yuval stands outside staring at our bikes, locked under the sodium glow of a street lamp.  We exit the coffee shop with Julian, a stack of 1:50,000 hiking maps in his hand.  Yuval is in awe of our bikes, “they are beautiful” he repeats over and over.  Immediately, he offers a place to stay for the night.  He invites us to the small bar where he works, for a round of Goldstar lagers.  We talk until late in the night about bikes and travel and Jerusalem.  He has recently completed his three year military service and has begun to study animation at Bezalel Academy.  He rides a finely appointed Surly Long Haul Trucker which he acquired in Germany and has taken to Iceland.  There, he ran into a guy that wrote a story for Bunyan Velo.  “You know Bunyan Velo?” he asks.  

Yuval asks if we know Poppi, aka @UltraRomance.  I don’t, but I point the question at Lael, knowingly.  You know a guy named Benedict?  “You mean Jeremy’s buddy from Texas?”  We’ve both heard that name while camping with Jeremy.

“I drew a picture for him.”, Yuval says simply.  “He said he would send a patch.”  

He never sent a patch, despite the massive popularity of Yuval’s pencil work, including a recent feature on The Radavist.

I’ve been carrying a Bunyan Velo patch in my wallet for the last eight months.  As I pass it to Yuval, he reaches for an envelope from Matt Whitehead, Patagonia-sponsored traveler, fatbike rider, and surfer.  The envelope contains a small stack of patches, a white background with a line drawing of a bicycle and a bundle tied off the back.  The bundle is a heart.  He hands one patch to me, and another to Lael.  Thanks Yuval!

Bike, electric bikes, and pedestrians; signs warning not to enter religious Jewish communities dressed in pink shorts and cutoff sleeves; an Ethiopian Orthodox church, lions everywhere in there; the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and a big line to visit the Temple Mount, normally closed to nonbelievers; hummus, dried fruits, sweets; Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, lots of English; vineyards and INT singletrack and farm tracks and a dirt road entrance all the way into Jerusalem; a mosaic showing Jerusalem at the center of the world; Louis, Julian, and Yuval; an IMBA certified trail out of town and a signed route to Tel Aviv; and of course, our cave.

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Coffee in Palestine

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He insists that it must be cold in Alaska.  “Yes.”  I resist divulging any further details.  My computer is plugged into an outlet shared by a machine stirring an iced drink across the plaza.  A plastic bag containing a 1 kg tub of hummus and a pile of pita bread sits on a bench next to my bike.  Small shop windows encircle the plaza.  This public space is borrowed from a Soviet urban planning guidebook, or from community college design.  The man keeps a shop full of junk best described as a hardware store, but he is offering herbs procured from Arabs over there, looking to a rocky grassy landscape beyond a security fence.  This side of the fence is an orderly collection of homes and a managed pine forest.  The herbs are claimed to cure almost anything, he jests, or so they say.  I ask if he ever goes over there.  Only when going to Jerusalem.  It is 40 minutes this way, much longer to go around.  

I ask, in exact words, “What’s going on over there?”  

“They live with the sheep, the goats.”  

Now he’s trying to sell me a bottle of 100% alcohol.  I inquired; my own fault.  I’ve never seen 100% alcohol and I can’t read the Hebrew label and the price is kind of high.  I return the bottle to the counter.  Ethanol reaches a 96% equilibrium with water at standard temperature and pressure, bolstered only by the presence of benzene or other exciting additions, as I recall to myself.

I continue asking, and he continues to describe the life of Palestinian Arabs with an obsessive focus on the animals they tend, as if the practice of our forebears is anymore admonishable in light of microwavable chicken nuggets and foil-sealed yogurts.  At a high point, he exclaims, “they eat the eggs from the chickens!”  Lael and I look at each other knowingly.

We pass an unmanned gate, like a toll booth, just north of Meitar.  The HLC route circumnavigates Palestine.  To Israelis and much of the world, this is the West Bank.  To Palestinian Arabs, especially those living in the West Bank, this area is unquestionably Palestine.  However, Areas A, B, and C are all administered differently.  About 70% of the West Bank is wholly secured and administered by Israel and the IDF.  This is Area C.  Jewish settlements in Area C of the West Bank are rapidly growing and are encouraged by Israel, creating a Jewish majority in a region which is largely off-limits to the Palestinians living in Areas A and B.  Those areas, on the other hand, prohibit Israelis and are administered by the Palestinian Authority.  In some cases, such as with the security of Area B, the PA and the IDF work jointly.  

Every map of Israel I have seen includes the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights without question.  One map included the land area of Sinai, formerly under authority of Israel, although at least that map indicated the area is part of Egypt.  It reminds us of the tourist map we received when arriving in Serbia.  Where is Kosovo?, we wondered     

We continue uphill on a secondary paved road.  Men stand alongside sheep and goats on the roadside as promised.  Unsanitary water flows downstream toward Israel.  Half-built homes, similar but different than those in Israel, stand tall on the hillside.  Certain adornments and features connect them to homes I’ve seen in Egypt.  We pass a steel gate onto a disused paved road.  A dirt mound blocks the road beyond the gate.  I ask a shepherd if this is the way to Dahariya.  He agrees, repeating the word as it is pronounced locally.  

We enter Dahariya past dozens of auto repair shops, men with greasy hands standing in amusement and awe of two tourists arriving from a closed road by bicycle.  Tourists visit placed like East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, but not Dahariya.

Our eyes focus on the light traffic ahead, our minds peer out the corners at fruit stands and homewares sold in small shops.  Mops and colored plastic buckets are remarkably common in Muslim countries.  Cleanliness, especially clean floors, are a homemaker’s obsession.  The camera remains hidden.  When stopped, I make obvious gestures toward beautiful fruits and taller buildings.  I do my best to act like a tourist.  Everyone wonders, suspects, supposes we are Israeli.  I photograph the street and obvious things, and slide the camera back into the pouch over my shoulder.    

At a major intersection a man confronts us.  He is obviously asking where we come from and where we are going, through basic English.  I pretend not to understand several times to decide how to respond.  I first insist I am from Alaska, from America.  He continues with the exact query.  I admit we have come from Meitar, which doesn’t please him but doesn’t surprise anyone.  A group aged from young boys to old men congregate, each and all with a more polite and positive demeanor than our surly captor.  The next question I don’t understand.  Each time he repeats it I hear the word evrit, which I repeat as a question.  Satisfied at my inability to answer, we are told to come inside.  

We cross the street into a coffee shop, a covered open air space nicely kept with far more space than patrons, printed murals of fresh fruits and cooked meats posted to the walls.  We sit, the two of us and the surly man and another man by my side.  I hate it when Lael is cordoned away from me in a group like this.  She and I sit diagonally from one another, each sitting next to and across from strangers.  It feels like a strategic move, but it couldn’t possibly be the case.  We relax into the absurdity of the situation. 

Four coffees arrive in paper cups, boiling water poured over fine grounds with sugar, the smell of cardamom light but present.  The day reminds me of those cool Sundays in autumn when a sweater is necessary.  It is already late afternoon, springtime in Palestine.  As I finish the first cigarette, a second man offers from his pack, offering fire from his lighter.  Two bottles of water arrive at the table.  The older men inform us apologetically that they do not speak English, in English.  We deny any reason to apologize.  Young men near to my age come and go through the door; most are a little younger, carrying smartphones in their hand.  Someone is fishing the stream of pedestrians on the sidewalk to see if anyone can speak English.  A string of unenthused men arrive and politely ask us where we are from.  We exchange names.  “Welcome”, they say before they exit.  It is a pleasant charade which continues for some time, as the third round of cigarettes are drawn.  Two non-alcoholic malt beverages are brought to the table.  A teenage boy takes the place of the man next to me.  The surly man across from me has lost interest and the round of questioning restarts.  The boy to my right opens the strawberry flavored drink and pours it into two plastic cups.  At the wave of a hand, two packs of chocolate wafers arrive at the table. 

A boy, perhaps thirteen or fifteen years old, is given a smartphone to bring to me.  A Facebook application is blank, awaiting my input.  I type my name, selecting the image of me and Lael in front of our bicycles with the subtext listing my high school.  The boy scans the page and reads the title of a past blog post on my Facebook wall, but all I hear him say is the word Israel.

Lael returns from the bathroom and we stand, shaking as many hands as we can find.  Two boys want to ride the bikes.  They throw a leg over, manage not to fall off as the seatpacks wag side to side, and skid to a stop after a short tour.  They point to the bottle of wine rising from Lael’s feedbag and say whiskey.  “Wine”, I reply.  But the word whiskey comes back at me again and I give up.

Into Dahariya. 

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Leaving the coffee shop.  I am Facebook friends with the young man in the black sweater on the right, and with shepherds in Lesotho, young boys who love Mercedes cars in Albania, and a soldier in Egypt who frequently posts selfies of himself in front of sand colored tanks.  One young boy in Kosovo casually tells me he loves me whenever we chat, but I think the translation is imprecise.  

We turn the corner and stop to consult the GPS.  First, let’s ride out of town.  Then, we’ll figure out where to camp for the night.  It may be easiest to pass back into Israel if we can find a gate.

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Rowdy, but friendly.  Lots of skidding tires.

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From Dahariya, we descend back to Israel.

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The unmistakable skyline of a Muslim village, punctuated by the minaret of a mosque.

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We pass a small security gate manned by two young soldiers.  We show our passports and are allowed to pass.  Just a few kilometers away we make camp amidst ruins on a grassy knoll.  Tonight, Israel is a quieter and simpler place to camp.

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Sunrise over Palestine.

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Sandstorm out of the Dead Sea on the HLC, Israel

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At 1200ft below sea level, there is nowhere to go but up.  Into a stiff west wind, we depart from the gas station at Newe Zohar, at the south Dead Sea.  The ascent out of this big hole, the Jordan Valley, comes in three distinct parts.  The first thousand feet are a steep hike up a signed footpath.  The second thousand feet are gained slowly up a wadi along a signed cycling route, which often rides above the drainage on a series of camel trails.  Finally, a dirt road leads up to elevation and to the city of Arad.

Leaving in the afternoon from the sea, we top out by the end of the day.  The wind clouds the sky with earthly particulates, concealing the sun.  The wind slows us to a stubborn crawl.  By the end of the day, we camp by the side of a dirt road, sheltered by a barren hillside near a Bedouin community.

Through Arad the next day, the wind intensifies.  We consider out options and consider the forecast for rain and wind next week, when Christina arrives from Alaska.  

We press on through slowly greening hills, past cherry trees, grasses, grazing sheep.  Riding and pushing another couple hundred feet upwards, we reach the Yatir Forest and the border of Palestine.  Israelis refer to is at the West Bank.  Across that fence is Area C, which is described as being under “full Israeli civil and security control”.  There are no trees on the other side of the fence, only rocky hills and grasses and two communities, each centered around the towering minaret of a mosque.

This is a dusty beautiful place.

A group of seniors are walking the entire INT, one day per week.  They offer to take our bikes on their bus and to house us for the evening.  We can restart in the morning.  Aside from severe wind, I remind Lael that everything else is just fine.  It isn’t raining, it isn’t cold.  She glares at me.  We continue.

A moment later large rain drops begin got fall.  Pushing across a grassy field towards a number of unfinished structures, a pair of eyes and hand emerge from behind a tarp.  A Bedouin shepherd invites us into his camp.  We sit, and have lunch, offering an orange, which he accepts.  He refuses our bread and hummus.  He makes mint tea with sugar.  Lael pulls our her sleeping bag and rests until the rain passes.  We continue.

We camp in the Yatir Forest near a large tent which serves young IDF recruits who are staying for the week to utilize the nearby weapons range.  They sit around the fire on the morning of their departure.  We make coffee on their fire, they make coffee on a gas burner.  They offer cigarettes and a kilo of apples.  Several speak English; the feeling is much like being with a group of young men anywhere.  It reminds me of the night spent in Egypt by the highway, mothered by a group of 22 your old boys.  Other than Lael, there is one other girl around the fire.  

The morning air is clear and the technicolor kaleidoscope of Israel presents itself, an exciting change after two weeks in the desert.  Going to Jerusalem.

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To the Dead Sea on the HLC, Israel

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We complete a circle around the Negev desert with Ilan and Danny, connecting new singletrack from Mizpe Ramon with the now familiar HLC route from Tsofar back to Sde Boker.  Moving north from Sde Boker, we eventually descend 3700ft to the Dead Sea, over 1200ft below sea level.  We ascend an ancient Roman road into a forest along the border of Palestine, we cross paved roads teeming with inexperienced roadies pissing by the roadside on Shabbat asking for snacks from their group’s escort vehicle; we sleep in a cave in a forest park outside Jerusalem and push our bikes through the Old City market in the morning, deflecting questions from Arab vendors about “How much, the bicycle?” while we seek the earthy brown bread they make.  Israel, the Negev, Palestine, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, the West Bank, Area A, Area B, Area C; chalky lime wadimakhtesh, savvanafication and desertification, kibbutzim, fences, farms, forests, 4×4 tracks, and so many signs and trails, but one simple GPS track from north to south, or south to north.  That’s only a few days on the HLC. 

The HLC, as you well know by now, is the annual bikepacking race across Israel from north to south, although it really only becomes an annual race after its second running this April.  By now, you also know our propensity to follow existing routes through new lands, using them as backcountry highways and approximate touristic guides as we slowly peel away the layers of a place.  From scheduled off-pavement touring routes like the Traversée du Massif Vosgien in Alsace, France to rough and tumble footpaths across Poland and the multi-day stage race route across Greece, the Bike Odyssey, we like to know that even when our maps don’t entice us in one way or another, we can continue along a charted path.  These routes aren’t challenges to be accomplished and completed, but sometimes-challenging paths of discovery.  Most of the time, just as we set off across South Africa on the Dragon’s Spine, we don’t really know what we are in for.  Two weeks out of Cape Town I wrote about our growing understanding of strongly institutionalized racism only twenty years after the official dismantling of the Apartheid system, “and I thought I was just bikepacking across South Africa”.  There was a lot more to South Africa than dirt roads.  There are many things you cannot learn from the internet, or from others.  Those are discoveries to be made on the ground.

Seven years ago we looked at dirt routes with curiosity.  Several years ago, we pushed onto dirt almost full time, beating around the bush on an old Schwinn High Sierra and a Surly LHT, but singletrack and true all terrain biking loomed.  Our current bikes, a Surly Krampus and Lael’s secondhand Raleigh XXIX enable access to most of the riding we encounter.    Even so –and we have already spent lots of time on fatbikes– there is a proper fatbike tour in our future.  Places like Namibia, Jordan, Finland, Baja California, Australia, Mongolia, Bolivia, Egypt, and Alaska beckon.  How best to use a bicycle to reach new places?  I’m not ready to abandon the bicycle.  Lael talks about walking.  I think about fat bikes and full suspension and ultralight, perhaps not all at the same time.  Having a bike by my side is a strong habit.  Our current equipment is suitable for about 90% of the riding we can expect to find (including pavement, of course), which makes our bikes reasonable, and as close to perfect as one could ask.  But the other 10% is fascinating.  Maybe it is more than 10%, once the lens of a fatbike is properly focused.  A full-suspension bike is a similar extension, although more a difference in degree than in kind.

As for the HLC route, the riding ranks alongside some of the best explorations we’ve had in Europe and uses a similar mix of well-signed dirt roads and walking trails.  The chance to ride in the desert reminds us of the AZT, but is far less technical.  It is like the Divide, with much less climbing, yet more technical than the endless dirt roads which link Canada and Mexico.  The route includes a mix of recently built IBT singletrack, technical jeep trail, sandy wadi, mellow dirt roads, and just a bit of pavement.  

No, the politics of the region do not present themselves significantly along the HLC, especially not in the desert.  The entire route remains in uncontested Israeli territory, excepting the section in the north in the Golan Heights, which is under full Israeli military control.  Israel is extremely safe.  However, it is not uncommon to see young soldiers with automatic weapons over their shoulders, a duty of their combat training to keep the weapon with them at all times.  Otherwise, overpriced gas station snacks, smooth paved roads, an efficient bus system, and helpful but know-it-all Israelis welcome you as in Germany, or America.  

For anyone interested in a bikepacking challenge in the style of the Tour Divide or the AZTR, airfares to Tel Aviv are very well priced including roundtrip rates from NYC for just over $600, and the bike flies free with Aeroflot.  It is rumored that the great Scott Morris will be there, alongside AZ compadre Max Morris who returns for a second year.  Even Lael is thinking about a nice ten-day riding binge back to the Red Sea.  There may be no other bikepacking race in the world that pushes through the crowded marketplace of an ancient city.  The HLC starts April 9.

From Sde Boker to the south Dead Sea.

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Nearing the rim of Makhtesh Gadol, or the Great Makhtesh– The Big Crater.

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Into the makhtesh, a natural non-impact crater found only in this region.  The entire makhtesh drains though a single wadi at the southeastern end.  

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The HLC features miles of mellow dirt roads, sinuous lines of singletrack, and here, some chunky 4×4 tracks.

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The Tsin River at -200ft, and still descending.

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Weathered date palms and other salt-resistant flora.

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A short lungbusting climb to a high vista above the river, still only at -278ft.  The lowest point in the USA at Badwater, Death Valley, CA is just four feet lower at -282ft.  But I am still on top of a hill.

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Our route crosses to an adjacent valley, where we ride a gravelly wadi, recently compacted and cemented by rain.  The jeep tracks in the center are softer than the surrounding riverbed, which is often less smooth than the softer tracks in the center.  It is a riddle often without an answer, except perhaps a fatbike. 

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Into a precise and narrow canyon of soft limestone, down to Ein Tamar at the southern end of the Dead Sea.  Looks like rock, but is soft like fragile dry clay.  Really fun and easy downhill riding, especially when a clear drainage presents itself.  This section is signed as a local MTB route.

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We arrive in Ein Tamar just after dark and discover a public camp in a spacious town park featuring fresh water and pit toilets.  The local grocery is well stocked and open late.  We often dream about free, legal camping and cold beers at the end of a long day.  The combination usually remains a dream, but is not uncommon in the Negev.  In most communities in the desert you may ask for a place to camp, while some even have simple established places for camping.  Just ask.

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About a kilometer from the town is the southern terminus of the Dead Sea, which is exclusively cultivated for salt production in the south, separated into evaporation ponds.  No floating in the water down here.

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Additional spoils of our free campsite, and of traveling in a wealthy country.  I find 22 strawberry yogurts in the trash at the park, obvious remnants from a picnic on the previous day, discarded alongside plates of Israeli salad and paper coffee cups, and a persimmon.  How many yogurts can we pack on our already loaded bikes?  Well, about 22.  There is always a way.  I ate 14 that day.  Lael insisted on counting.  

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Salt ponds, land mines.

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Shade.

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The HLC follows dirt tracks to the west of the Dead Sea for some time, crossing drainages at the base of the mountains before turning sharply upward and away from the valley.

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More chalky wadi riding.  Sublime when dry, miserable when wet.

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1000ft up an unrideable hiking trail away from Nowe Zohar begins our ascent out of the Jordan Valley.  Toward the center of the country, forests and flowers, and Jerusalem!

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