Bunyan Velo, Issue No. 6

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The sixth edition of Bunyan Velo is out now. Although this long-awaited issue comes from a period of hibernation for the popular magazine, it signals a commitment to continuing the high quality storytelling and imagery that define Bunyan Velo’s reputation.  Included are stories and photo essays by Skyler Des Roches, Cass Gilbert, Mark Sirek and Przemek Duszynski, Josh Spice, Logan Watts, Donnie Kolb, and many more.  Lael shares three stories in “Camels on Wheels” from her experience in the Holyland Challenge in Israel, her first bikepacking race, just months before the Tour Divide in 2015.  Read Bunyan Velo, Issue No. 6 for free online, purchase a PDF of the magazine for $5, or donate to support the future of the best bikepacking and bicycle travel publication on the planet.   

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Prints from the Middle East, For Sale

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For sale are over a hundred small prints from our time in Israel and Jordan, mostly taken on or near the HLC route in Israel. There are scenes of camels in the Judaean Desert above the Dead Sea, images of Lael racing the HLC, portraits of Israeli bikepackers, scenes from Jerusalem, and lots and lots of incredible dirt roads and trails from all across the country. A series of larger images from the same set are also available. Smaller images are 4×6″, larger images are 8.5×6″. Individual postcard sized (4×6) images are available for $10, three for $25. Larger images are $25. Contact me if you’d like more. Additional donations would be greatly appreciated. Add $1 for international shipping.

Please leave your request for images (number of images, content) and your mailing address in the comment field at the time of donation. Select to “Leave a note to the seller” when you confirm the payment. Payment via credit and debit cards is simple and secure; or, transfer directly between Paypal accounts. Contact me directly at nicholas.carman@gmail.com if you have any additional questions. Feel free to request the content of the images your receive, such as camping or singletrack, and we’ll do our best to find a good one for you. We fly to Vegas on Monday, and ride out of town at the end of the week.  Act now!

As we pack our things in Alaska and regroup after a summer of working and racing, I found this shoebox of prints from our “Bikepacking Night in Israel” event this spring. Lael and I are greatly moved by the images and memories and want to share these physical prints with friends of the blog. Check out my HLC route resources at Bikepacking.com and Bikepacking.net. Tour the HLC route at any time, or sign up to race the HLC in April 2016.

Donate to fund Lael’s two Tour Divide rides this summer and help support her racing into the future. We’re hoping to be touring for a month in Arizona this fall before settling into another season of work in Texas to pay for her summer of riding. We’d like to be touring again in the spring, internationally, although Lael is already dreaming up some big race plans for 2016. Help keep this blog healthy with your donation. With limited support from a few companies, everything that happens here is sponsored by the work we do in the off-season, at restaurants, bicycles shops, and elsewhere. Thanks to Revelate Designs, Intelligent Design Cycles, The Bicycle Shop of Anchorage, and our friends at SRAM for helping Lael through 8600 miles of fast touring and even faster racing in the last three months. Her equipment worked marvelously, without exception.

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 Smaller images are $10, or three for $25.  Larger images are $25.  Contact me if you’d like more.
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Adventure and photography from the HLC to the Tour Divide

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Lael arrived in Banff earlier this week, 19 days and 2140 miles from Anchorage, less than a month after arriving in Alaska from Israel, less than 2 months since the start of the HLC, less than a year since we left Alaska for Eastern Europe.   She will return to Alaska within a year, but twenty countries, twelve months, and 15,000 miles richer, for what it’s worth.  

Riding from the north of Israel back toward Tel Aviv last month, we prepared an evening event informally called Bikepacking Night in Israel.  I found a small printer in Tel Aviv named Panda Labs, so as to display a series of photographic clouds comprising “Three Months on the HLC”, hung from a broad section of agricultural netting.  The installation was assembled last minute, not exactly as planned, but as I should have expected it would happen when trying to plan a small art show and a presentation while traveling by bike in a foreign country.  Special thanks to Amir for offering such a spectacular garden setting in Kfar Sirkin, and for helping with all the logistics including the dusty pile of netting and box full of paperclips.  Photos were available for sale, and all HLC2015 riders were given a portrait from the event.  Klaus, you still need to send me your mailing address in Germany!

Following the talk a group of riders rolled into the nearby forest to camp, surrounding a campfire for several hours before sleep.  In the morning, the group rode back toward Tel Aviv, losing members as each found his way to home or work.  Ilan and Nir led us all the way back into the center of Tel Aviv.

Thanks to everyone that attended the event.  A special thanks to everyone that rode to the event, that camped in the forest and shared their bikepacking experience with others, that attempted or completed the HLC, and that brought beer to share.  Most of all, thanks to the trailbuilders and organizers of all the great trail resources in Israel, especially the IBT, the Adulam singletrack, and the Gilboa Mountain singletrack.  Thanks to all the camels that have beaten trails into the Negev and Judaean deserts over the years, and for the Sugar Trail.  Special thanks to Yaron Deri from Kibbutz Samar for his crew’s addition to the IBT in the past years, and for his fervent passion for long-distance mountain bike trails.  The Israel Bike Trail is a world-class resource and makes a trip to Israel especially worthwhile.  Thanks to Limor Shany for knowledge of “every stone in Israel”, and the associated GPS data which comprises the HLC track to connect Mt. Hermon and Eilat in the least direct way possible.  Thanks to Zohar Kantor for the extraordinary passion required to ignite the concept of the HLC, after returning from the Tour Divide in 2012.  Lastly, thanks to Ilan Tevet who is the premier social mechanic in relation to the execution of the HLC event and our time in Israel.  He first invited us here last October, he welcomed us on a ride around the Negev desert a week after we arrived, he has invited us into his home, to local rides, to make a public presentation about bikepacking, and to come back to Israel again some day.

Later that evening, after arriving in Tel Aviv with Ilan and Nir, we packed our bikes in boxes and caught a ride to the airport.  Within 48 hours, I was building a new bike for Lael in Anchorage.  In just over a week, she rolled out of town toward Banff.  Thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for crafting some of the finest custom luggage for Lael, again.  The waterproof liner from my MacPack was recycled into a liner for Lael’s seatbag.  Eric, Christina, Tamra and I rolled out of town with Lael to Palmer, met by Stacy along the way.  From Palmer, we gave Lael a giant push toward Mexico.  She’s nearly halfway there, taking the week in Canmore to rest and prepare for the next phase of the ride.  Lael rode every single day from Anchorage to Banff.  In that time, I worked every single day at The Bicycle Shop, an apt and essential antidote to her ride.  We’re both working hard, hoping to be back on the bikes full-time this fall.  

Settled back into Anchorage life means evening rides at Kincaid with friends, an eclectic mix of bikes everywhere I turn, and the chance to be part of a place which I nearly call home.  The week after Lael left town, I helped a family of eight prepare bikes for a tour of the Great Divide route.  The group includes three Salsa Fargos, six framebags, two BOB trailers, and one rider that is only 11 years old.  We tuned the bikes, prepared them with luggage, and boxed all of them for the flight.  As of yesterday, they had made it to Fernie, B.C. and will be rolling across the border soon.  Whitefish, Helena, Butte!– look out for my crew from Alaska.  Tour Divide riders will rapidly catch them in the first few days of the race.

I was also able to attend Dan Bailey‘s presentation at The Trek Store about his new book Outdoor Action and Adventure Photography, published by Focal Press.  The book is a detailed 300 page crash-course in the technical photographic elements of outdoor action photography, professional considerations, and suggestions for more engaging creative imagery.  This is a text book that reads like spending hours with Dan around a campfire, which Jill Homer almost called a “page-turner”, almost.  Dan has been published in many places and has managed to make a living with the camera.  Purchase a copy of the book through Dan’s Amazon portal by linking from his site, above.  The book is especially recommended for all of the local Anchorage scenery, including snowy singletrack, photo shoots of Eric Parsons atop the Chugach Mountains, and creative perspectives of Amy doing just about everything, especially trail running.

Back to Israel. 

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Yinon, if you recall the rider with the broken rear derailleur hanger that arrived on the beach in Eilat, found a more reliable steed in this 25 year old commuter.  Every one of his kids have grown up on the back of this bike.

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Alternatively, everyone was excited to rub shoulders with local cycling celebrity Chanoch Redlich, who arrives in Calgary this week as the sole Israeli competitor in this year’s Tour Divide.  In our three months in Israel, everyone would ask if we know Chanoch.  Now we do.  He is riding a Trek Superfly hardtail.  

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BYO Zba Beer, the mountain biker’s preferred beverage in Israel.

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 Lael and Chanoch, an excitable pair.  They’ll be the center of attention among the Israeli bikepacking community this June.  Keep track of the Tour Divide through the recently formed Tour Divide Israel Watch Facebook page.  Should be some fun with Google Translate to decipher the Israeli perspective.   

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Shay provided a custom brew for the HLC2015, a gift to Lael.

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Shay rode the entire HLC route last year in 15 days.  I’m told there were two exciting rides last year, Chanoch’s record-setting win and Shay’s ride.  As others stumbled two, three and five days into the event, Shay steadily rode to Eilat and shared his experiences every night, inspiring many local riders.

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Anywhere you ride in Israel, the 4Epic community is well represented.  Endurance events are not uncommon, but the HLC is still an extreme concept to many riders.  It was nice to meet new people, say goodbye to old friends, and share experiences.  It was nice to see the images, like the simple printed pictures we once shared as families.  In a country so connected by smartphones and WhatsApp and Facebook, I am happy to provide tangible media to share.

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Tangible media.

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Lael and Niv, two of the strongest riders at the HLC2015.

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Clean up, roll out, camp.

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Teaching the young ones to crack a bottle of beer with an SPD pedal, an essential bikepacking skill.

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Amidst growing suburban central Israel, there remain small wild spaces, old limestone roads, and ruins.

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And hummus, this local plate provided by the famous Gingi.  

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Rolling into town, the group dwindles.  

Dotan, the photographer, with his Surly Ogre.  He uses a Chariot trailer to transport his daughter, inspired by Cass Gilbert.

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Ophir, the tidiest bikepacker in Israel, who Lael and I nicknamed “Sylvester” on a series of rides before we learned his name.  When we told him he looked like Stallone he said, “but he doesn’t have my muscles”.  

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Singles into Tel Aviv.  For such a small country, these guys know how to make the most of it, like kids who know all the secret trails through fences, along the river, and under the highway

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Nir, the steady singlespeeder who crushed the last 32 hours from Mizpe Ramon to Eilat, poses for one last photo.  He almost resisted raising his hand to wave, his photobombing trademark.

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Tel Aviv is one of the most orderly and pleasant cities I’ve visited, much like the Netherlands, but with better weather.

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Ilan shepherds us through the city to collect spices and dates to bring home.  The small markets on Levinsky Street are a good place to start.

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The rapidly growing metro areas in central Israel feature world-class cycling facilities.

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30 hours later, over the Kenai Peninsula.

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Cook Inlet, Mount Susitna, and the Tordrillo Mountains; 11:30PM, May 4 taken above Anchorage, AK

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Christina is at the airport for the exciting reassembly of muddy bikes, and the chilly ride across town.  My chainring is damaged in transit, although I don’t realize until we pedal away at 1 AM.  A rock from the roadside takes care of things.

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By 10AM the next morning, we are unpacking a box with Lael’s name on it at The Bicycle Shop.

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Late that night, the nearly complete build is finished.  Before leaving town, it is important to adjust the fit and ensure all the systems can solidly support 5000 miles of riding between here and Mexico.

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Lael spends the week planning and preparing for her ride, alongside running, doing yoga, and spending time with family.  Sadly, she just missed seeing Joshua on his Specialized Hotwalk which we bought before we left town last summer.  Joshua is ripping up and down the sidewalk, and confidently lifts both of his feet to coast down the local DH tracks (driveways).  He’ll be pedaling a bike later this summer. 

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The local CBS affiliate, KTVA-11, took an interest in Lael’s summer plans.  If you missed it, check out the segment on the KTVA website.

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Days before leaving, Eric traces Lael frame.  Lael has requested a few simple features which will keep her equipment out of the weather yet easy to access.  It is cool to see prototype tech come to production Revelate Designs product.  The new Ranger and Tangle framebags will use a narrow section of elastic soft-shell fabric, also waterproof, which stretches to reduce strain on the zipper and to ensure smooth operation.  Lael’s framebag for the last 7 months of touring featured two of these elastic panels– on either side of a large YKK zipper.  The slider operates more smoothly than any other framebag we’ve used, and it slides as well as it did on Day 1.  Keep your eyes on Revelate Designs for some significant advances in waterproof features, coming soon.    

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In usual fashion, Eric crushes the race to the finish and lays the last few stitches before leaving town.

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Eric and Becky study the rig before final departure.  These two comprise half of the Revelate team in Anchorage.  Zach and Dusty are the other two, although Dusty is almost always climbing mountains, it seems.  Revelate only recently moved out of Eric’s garage and into a larger commercial space in Midtown Anchorage.

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A quick stop at The Bicycle Shop to say thanks.  Mike Shupe has owned the shop since 1964, and built the current structure on W Northern Lights Blvd in 1974.  He once hosted Ian Hibell in his home at the end of his groundbreaking trek from Argentina to Alaska, back in the early ’70s.  During the summer months, Mike works seven days a week in the service department acting as the essential bridge between technical service and customer service.  He commutes nine miles by bike most days, riding a carbon Salsa Beargrease through the winter months.  Mike grew up with Lael’s uncle, and her grandparents would gas up their sedan at the service station which Mike’s family owned.  In Alaska, this is old-time history.  The earliest white settlements in the Anchorage bowl date to 1914, Alaska statehood was not a reality until 1959.

Thanks to Ray, Chris, and Mike at The Bicycle Shop for helping with all the pieces and parts, ordered while we were still in Israel.   

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The roll out with Eric and Christina on the Chester Creek trail.

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Waiting for Tamra.

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Cruise through Chugiak, Peter’s Creek, and Eklutna; Stacy meets us on the Old Glenn Highway along the Knik River, leading us to her home in Palmer for the night.  

My Hope hub, a year later, is making some horrendous noises.

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Still talking…

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Almost there, but not before a quick stop at the new Palmer pump track, on a Trek Madone.

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Thanks for hosting us Stacy and Scott!  You can see the Knik Glacier from their home.

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Kevin Murphy, a friend from Anchorage and long-time veteran of Paramount Cycles has moved out to Palmer to join the Backcountry Bike and Ski family.  A few other friends have left town in the time that we were gone.  Lael’s gone to find Lucas and Monica, who now live in Silver City, NM at the south end of the Divide.  

Kevin is a riding a newly built Surly Instigator with RockShox Pike fork, Hope hubs, Velocity Dually rims, and only one speed.  He cycles through new bikes faster than the seasons change in Alaska, and is already talking about a new full-suspension Evil, a titanium Kona Rove, a new 27.5 Trek Farley fatbike, and a custom build on the new Trek Stache+ frame (yes, the one with the 405-420mm chain stays!).  Kevin is a super rad rider and one of the greatest cycling ambassadors in AK, from downhill runs at Alyeska, 200 mile Iditabike races, and local group rides.  There is no limit to how much Kevin is willing to talk about bikes, which is great for me.

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Lael realizes the next morning in Palmer that she has forgotten her passport.  My Hope hub has decided after twelve months of use that it is finished and will no longer freewheel; the wheel wobbles dramatically from side to side.  A drive side bearing collapsed, after weeks of creaking.  We hitch a ride back into Anchorage to retrieve the passport.  Christina grabs a demo Trek Domane from the Trek Store where she works.

After giving Lael a big push toward Mexico, Christina and I turn back toward Anchorage. 

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Yeah, road bikes are fun.  The Trek Domane promises a controlled, compliant ride via a flexible seat tube design operating on the IsoSpeed decoupler.  It rides nice, but compared to a well worn Brooks saddle, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.  I’d be curious to compare it to the heralded Specialized Roubaix or the new carbon Diverge, or the new carbon Salsa Warbird.  Lael and I have a series of road rides planned at some point.  I’ll let her tell you about that later.

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I’ve been working every day since Lael left town, although there is always a little time at the end of the day for a ring around Kincaid.  After a day indoors, it is never enough just to loop around the shaded wooded flow trails.  I really like to get up on the Bluff Trail to feel the open space of the peninsula.  Cait is rocking it on the sandy trail with her Surly Karate Monkey Ops, which packs an extra punch on custom built Velocity Dually rims and Nobby Nic tires. 

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Dan Bailey shares an evening at The Trek Store, with stories from almost twenty years as a professional photographer and outdoor enthusiast.  He once spent a lot of time climbing, shooting both rock and ice climbing.  More and more, his subjects are on two wheels.  He rides a new Salsa Fargo 2, purchased last summer.  

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Pick up a copy of his new book Outdoor Action and Adventure Photography.  Click through the Amazon links on his blog to purchase the book, that’s how he makes the most from the sale.

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In a perfect union of all of my interests and skills, a family of eight riders are planning to lay tracks from Banff to New Mexico this summer, over a period of ten weeks.  There are three Salsa Fargos with suspension forks, a Cannondale 29er, a Specialized Jett 29er, one Specialized Hard Rock, a Kona Lava Dome, and a folding Dahon hardtail.  All bikes are packed with Revelate Designs equipment, most bikes support a rear rack, and several bike are fitted with skewers to connect one of two BOB trailers which will be used.  The youngest rider is 11 years old.  Best of luck to the Todd family!  I heard from them the other day as they pedaled across the border from Canada back into the USA.

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Lots of cycletourists are passing through Anchorage this time of year, especially those foolhardy riders who plan to ride all the way from Alaska to Argentina.  I intersect this French couple on my way to Kincaid one night, less than a mile from the airport, where they had recently arrived from France.  I’ve met others this summer from Germany, Austria, France, Alabama, Montana, and Taiwan.

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It’s summer, so get out and ride!

The End of the HLC 2015, Israel

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Lael finishes on the beach in Eilat, adjacent to high-priced hotels and the Jordanian border.  That night, we slept on the beach.

To catch up on the events of the HLC 2015 check out my article at Bikepacker’s Magazine, Live from the Holyland Bikepacking Challenge in Israel; or Update from the HLC and The Restart in Arad on the blog.  The HLC2015 Trackleaders page is a mess due to the restart, don’t try too hard to understand it.

After the first night away from Arad, Niv Amos, Yam Raz, Lael Wilcox, Omri Ben Yaish, and Ingo Schulmeyer made up the top five riders into and out of the Big Makhtesh.  Due to injury, Omri scratched in Mitzpe Ramon.  Niv arrived first to the Red Sea.  Yam completed the distance to Eilat, arriving second, but was officially disqualified for taking a paved shortcut which bypasses a technical mountain bike trail out of Sde Boker.  Lael arrived third, followed by Ingo, Ilan Tevet, and Nir Almog.  

In the north, by the time riders were contacted about the restart, Lael was furthest along the course and was 40km ahead of the nearest competitor.  Ingo and Niv trailed, respectively.  

Sifting through the technicalities of this year’s event, Niv Amos, Lael Wilcox, and Ingo Schulmeyer put together strong rides and represented the spirit of the HLC at the front of the pack in both the north and the south.  These riders limited their time off the bike, rode well, and avoided major malfunctions.

It is reported that some riders reached for outside assistance in the challenging conditions up north.  Elsewhere, the Israeli people offer hospitality like no one has ever seen in a bikepacking race.  This is a fascinating topic of debate in a culture that differs from that of the USA, on a route which is very different from the Tour Divide, in a country where almost everyone lives within 50km of the route and has a direct line to Trackleaders, Facebook, and WhatsApp at every moment.  There is an opportunity for the Israeli bikepacking community to define “self-supported” in their own country, and in the HLC, in a way which embraces the hospitable spirit of the people.  This will not come verbatim from the Tour Divide playbook, but must be a unique interpretation.  Further, how does a race differ from a challenge, and from a tour?  How can we most effectively inform riders about the HLC route, to lead them to the appropriate passage of the route?  Of course, I think that the HLC track makes for a nice tour across Israel.  

Niv Amos (below), the flower farmer from the north, proved to be the strongest competitor in the race from Arad to Eilat.  A seasoned XC endurance racer, this is his first bikepacking race.  He decided only three weeks before the start to participate.  He borrowed bags from a friend and ordered a light and a GPS at the last minute.  Niv rides a full-suspension carbon LaPierre.  

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By the time the race was cancelled in the muddy north, Lael was far ahead of the nearest competitor and was the only rider to reach the top of Mt. Carmel, although her SPOT transmitter had failed several hours earlier in a deep water crossing.  A background in long distance bicycle travel and distance running helped her through her first bikepacking race.  This year, the HLC has two victors, now good friends.

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Lael arrives an hour past dark, about three or four hours after Niv and Yam.  Erez, an HLC superfan, welcomes Lael to the beach and invites us to dinner.  Niv, always the gentleman, waited four hours for us to arrive to eat dinner.  He was starving by that time.    

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I can hardly imagine a better place to finish a long race than Eilat.  It is legal to camp on the beach, there are freshwater showers nearby, and all the food you could ever want is found along the waterfront promenade.  Lael rides a steel Raleigh XXIX with Revelate Designs luggage, including a Viscacha seatpack and a prototype framebag.

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Ingo Schulmeyer, from Germany, is always the first to rise in the morning, often beginning his day before 4AM.  Last year he broke a derailleur hanger and sourced another bike to ride.  That bike didn’t fit well so he found another bike to borrow and finally finished in Eilat in under 10 days.  This year Ingo rides a carbon Giant XTC with a Revelate Viscacha seatpack and a self-made front bag I call the “wurst roll”, because it is the worst looking handlebar roll I’ve ever seen, and because it looks like an overstuffed sausage.    

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Ilan Tevet, the 6′ 7″ former Israeli rowing champion and a shadow organizer of the HLC, started in Majdal Shams with a lingering back injury and the memory of last year’s attempt, where he scratched just past Tel Aviv.  Tevet arrives next at the sea after Ingo, quickly covering the final miles in the Aravah Valley along a series of dirt roads.  I catch him sitting in the sand with his feet in the water, gazing at the southern horizon.  Before I launch a cold IPA his direction, I stop to let the moment play.  Thoughts proceed in one’s mind at such moments.  Then I slap him on the back and pop the top.  Ilan is the main reason that we’ve spent so much time in Israel and he has been immeasurably helpful.  He rides a full-suspension aluminum Trek Superfly 100 with a mix of Revelate and Nuclear Sunrise luggage.

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The yellow foam cylinder is for back exercises prescribed by a doctor.  I don’t know if Ilan mentioned to the doctor that he also planned to ride 1000km on a loaded bike.

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Awesome ride!  Thanks for everything Ilan!

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Ready and waiting, my framebag full of beer and ice.

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Nir Almog is the next to arrive, pedaling the final miles into a brief thunderstorm.  Nir began mountain biking less than three years ago, and on this day, has just ridden over 200 miles from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat in 32 consecutive hours on the bike.  Over the course of three and a half days, he slowly picked off one rider after another.  His tenacity and commitment are remarkable.  Nir rides a steel Kona Unit singlespeed with Revelate luggage including the waterproof Terrapin seatpack, Gas Tank, Jerry Can, and Sweet Roll.

Nir’s HLC ride is one of the most powerful stories of this year’s event.

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Guy Lavy, Eyal Horvitz, and Ilan Rubinstein arrive around 2:30AM.  Regrettably, I was not there to meet them.  This is the first HLC for Guy and Eyal.  Ilan Rubinstein is a veteran of the HLC, but this is his first ride ending at the sea.  He is known to welcome cyclists passing through Eilat, and has hosted us several times at his home and at the aquarium where he works. Thanks Ilan!

Ilan rides a titanium 29er with Revelate luggage, show here as a singlespeed but converted to 1×10 in the days before the event.  

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Jose Maria Fernandez, a Spanish rider, arrives in the early morning.  In the final hours of his ride, he accidentally followed a track on his GPS which was similar in color to the active HLC track, and detoured along the Israel National Trail for some time until an unridable trail up a mountain indicated to him the mistake.  Enchanted by the landscape and the trail in the Negev Desert, Jose stopped several times on a section of the IBT to erect a tripod to take photographs.  This is his first time in Israel.  Jose rides a full-suspension carbon Orbea with Alpkit luggage.

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Klaus Thiel, a German rider, Tour Divide veteran (22 days!), and experienced long distance touring cyclist (Berlin to Beijing!) arrives the following evening.  He withered in a small tent in the rain up north, struck by illness on the second day of the HLC.  He made a brief visit to the doctor in Arad and rejoined the group down to Eilat.  Equally enchanted by the desert and the quality of the IBT trail, Klaus settled into an enjoyable pace for the final days and says he will likely avoid long-distance races when visiting a new country (not that he won’t race again, I suspect he’ll be back to Israel).  He arrived at the Red Sea on his birthday.  Cold beer and a sandwich were waiting.  An impromptu birthday cake topped with a single Hannukah candle closed the evening, before sleeping on the beach.  Klaus rides a carbon Scott Scale 29er with a rigid carbon fork and Revelate luggage.

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Happy Birthday Klaus!  Erez and his daughter Libi try to light a Hannukah candle on the windy beach.

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Yinon Atzmon arrives at the sea with a derailleur in his pocket, riding a singlespeed.  Klaus helped him repair the bike in Pharan, but 500m later the derailleur tore away from the bike and he rode and pushed a singlespeed the final days.  This was his first attempt at repairing a chain, and he succeeded.  Yinon parked himself in the sand, made a sandwich of three day old cheese, and made us laugh with his stories of the trail.  As he says, he was  “packed like a Bedouin”, but it looks like he had tons of fun.  He rides a 26″ wheel full-suspension Santa Cruz with a seatpost rack and a drybag strapped to the handlebars.

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Congrats to all the HLC riders!

Special thanks: The HLC 2015 has two other standout participants.  Erez is a mountain biker from the north who served in the army with race organizer Zohar Kantor, which explains how he first heard about the event last year.  This year, a family vacation in Eilat coincided with the early finish of the HLC and Erez made a point to invite and applaud almost every rider to town.  He bought fresh clothes for Niv.  He and Niv met Lael and the finish, and took both of us to dinner.  Erez and Niv shared a cold beer with Ingo the next morning.  Lael and I welcomed Ilan Tevet to the beach with cold beer.  Erez, Lael, Ingo, Ilan and I welcomed Nir to the finish, after his 32 effort from Mizpe Ramon.  We missed several riders who finished in the middle of the night.  The following day, Erez, Lael, and I welcomed Klaus to the finish on his birthday.  Finally, Lael, Klaus and I met Yinon at the beach to enjoy his stories from the trail.  Thanks for everything Erez!

Back at home in the center of the country, an avid rider and HLC super-fan named Reuven closely followed the event and shared updates about the progress of each rider with commentary to the active Bikepacking Israel Facebook page, the de facto command center for HLC fans.  Including detailed screenshots, he estimated when riders were camped, he would record the time they began tracking again in the morning, and he helped Erez at the finish by estimating when riders would reach the sea.  Erez and Reuven didn’t know each other before the HLC this year, but they now have plans to ride together.  

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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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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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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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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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