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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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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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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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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Central Negev Loop with Ilan and Danny, Israel

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The plan is to meet in Ezuz on Thursday night, near the border with Egyptian Sinai.  We’ll ride for two days through a southwestern slice of Israel normally reserved for artillery training and ranging antelope, and not much else save for a single road crossing with a free campground and a water tap.  Israelis call this “the backyard”.  When we arrive, I ask about the terrain even through I’ve studied the GPS track.  “Should be mostly dirt roads”, Ilan says.  

Ilan and Danny are coming from the city, escaping busy lives for fifty something hours of touring and training in preparation for the upcoming Holyland MTB Challenge, a north-to-south cross country endurance race set to depart in early April.  Ilan is, as he calls it, a shadow organizer of the event, who is proud of the route, the website, and the chance for others to ride and race across Israel.  Both Ilan and Danny rode last year– mostly together– and both scratched from the race after five days.  Achilles tendons worn by pushing bikes uphill is the shared excuse, although they weren’t on track to finish the 800+ mile route within the 11 day cutoff.  Both are keenly working to improve several underrepresented mountain biking skills: bike pushing, sleeping comfortably and efficiently outside, and learning to rest and relax while stopped outside gas stations and grocery stores.  

Lael and I plan to arrive in Ezuz by way of dirt roads from Sde Boker, which is a quick ride on hardpacked dirt with tailwinds.  It is Thursday afternoon and the area marked “No Tresspassing!  Firing Area”, is silent.  The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday.  We arrive in Ezuz four hours before Ilan and Danny will arrive, but just as two other riders depart the cafe.  One rider is named Ilan.  For a minute, I’m confused.  What is your last name?  “Rubenstein”, he clarifies.  Ok, not the Ilan we are meeting, but he knows that the other Ilan is coming.  How is it that on the same day two bikepackers named Ilan are riding across the same desert tracks from Ezuz, a tiny community of only twelve families?  This Ilan assures me that the coincidence was discovered days ago, via email or forums.  Since the route is only passable on weekends, and the desert is only palatable in the cooler months, and the HLC is fast approaching, the coincidence is understandable.  This is our second major introduction to the active bikepacking community in Israel.  The first are the dozens of emails I’ve received from riders who have offered assistance, shelter, and routing through their country.  Lael and I remark that South Africa was supposed to be real hot about mountain biking.  I’d never heard of mountain biking in Israel, but I’ll be sure that you do.  These people actually ride bikes!

Danny and Ilan arrive in the evening as scheduled.  After introductions and a beer, we settle into a nearby grove for an early rise, agreed not to come from an alarm– we’ll meet in the morning when we wake.  Seems logical.  You never know who you’ll meet on the internet.  

Morning brings a casual pedal up-drainage, slowly trending steeper through gravelly wadi and hard dirt riverbank.  The effort comes from the upper legs, from deep muscles, but is not entirely exhausting for us.  That is, Lael and I have been at this for over six months, and we’ve been sucking air tackling steep climbs and gravelly wadi since arriving in Eilat.  Danny and Ilan are more accustomed to the hard dirt trails up north, and probably office chairs, I think.  They describe spacious pine forests and manicured trails in the center of the country.  

Nearing our expected midpoint lunch stop– a campground with water– we split the group in half.  Lael and I ride onward to rest at the campground.  Lael wants to go for a run, so we agree to get there first.  Danny and Ilan rest in the shade of a river bank, agreeing to meet a short time later.  Danny arrives at the campground as Lael is off running.  We talk.  Lael returns.  The three of us talk, fill waters, lube chains.  Ilan is missing.  Danny and I jump on our bikes, now several hours since arriving here for our rest.  The sun is getting low.  We meet Ilan just over the first rise, pushing his bike.  He has pushed for 6km, which accounts for some of the only easily rideable dirt road of our half-day wadi ascent, not that it was easy.  But it was rideable.   

Under the shade of stone walls and palm fronds– a free camp area provided by the Israeli government– we clean out the inside of his tire.  Danny has a tube that doesn’t have any holes in it.  Ilan has been carrying his tube for years– never needing it, until now– discovering it has since been damaged by two years of transport on a bike.  Flipping his Trek Superfly right side up, we consult the maps loaded to memory and agree to ride the paved road to Mizpe Ramon.  There, we eat, we sleep, and restart in the morning.  Most importantly, we alter our course across the desert in trade for some fresh singletrack.  A section of the Israel Bike Trail from Mizpe Ramon to the ruins at Moa (near Zofar) has recently been built and signed, the newest piece in an expansive cross-country trail project which mirrors the Israel National Trail.  And, we’ll descend all day.  At least, we’ll finish the day lower than we started.

The IBT is a delicacy in a land of rough cut 4×4 tracks and sandy wadi.  The modern, durable trail is cut from cliffbanks, sinuous and signed for miles.  Intermittent sections of doubletrack offer mental respite from the trail, although in total, the IBT is suitable for novice to intermediate riders with strong fitness.  This is not the kind of trail that will scare first time bikepackers.  It will embrace them, leaving a smile.  It is a welcomed resource in a country already densely woven with riding and walking.  Israel is a great place to ride, and it’s getting better.  Events such as the Holyland MTB Challenge are working hard to make that fact known.

Swinging from canyon wall to canyon wall, traversing the sandy wadi with spinning legs and speed, the IBT shuttles us back down to sea level, to a series of ancient ruins, to a McDonalds on a paved road, to a bus back to Tel Aviv, and to the end of our brief partnership.  Ilan washes in the public bathroom, exiting almost as if he has showered wearing flip-flops and wet hair.  Lael and I are quick to buy and finish an expensive beer from the convenience store.  Sharing a few more pedals strokes away from the McDonald’s, we turn back upstream toward Sde Boker, now 11 feet below sea level in the Aravah Valley.  Danny and Ilan continue to the bus stop on the roadside.  

Arriving at Sde Boker, about 1500ft.

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David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, lies here.  The community also claims a university in an idyllic mountain desert landscape.  Many rural Israeli communities were built in the 1950’s and 60’s, reminding me of the many large university building built during this era in the US.  I think of SUNY Albany.  The designs are efficient, square, concrete.

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Sde Boker has a small bike shop, guarded by a tough group of local riders.

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To Ezuz.  They say it rained the week before we arrived.  Nothing but sun for us, although nights are cool and breezy.

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Ezuz.  Singlespeeds, Revelate luggage, and some capable riders.  Ilan Rubenstein, on the right, had kindly contacted me via the blog prior to our meeting.  I just didn’t know we’d meet like this.  We wait for Danny and the other Ilan.

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Pizza and beer in the middle of nowhere, Israel.

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In a stack of National Geographic magazines, I spot a series of issues from 1973 and 1974.  I know what I am looking for: “Bikepacking Across Alaska and Canada” by Dan Burden, May 1973.  This is the earliest use of the word bikepacking I’ve seen in print.

For Velo Orange fans, you’ll be excited to know the article which follows it is about the wild horses of the Camargue preserve in Southern France.  The Camargue is the name of a new Velo Orange touring frame with clearance for full-size 29″ tires.  An unnamed disc variant is soon to be released, although the styling breaks from the traditional European elements Velo Orange has championed for so long. 

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Many Israelis speak excellent English.  Even so, there is a unity in familiar equipment and sleeping on the ground.

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As promised, “dirt roads”.  Kinda soft for 2.2″ tires, in my opinion.  Thinking about coming back to these parts with fatbikes some day.

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Some riding, some walking.  Good training for the HLC.

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The track finally climbs out of the wadi onto a hard dirt road.  We ride to fresh water, leaving Danny and Ilan behind.  

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Danny and I return to find Ilan, pushing his bike.  The rear rim skips across angular rocks, the deflated tire battered by months of use and six kilometers of pushing.

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A quick tour of the tar road to Mizpe Ramon.

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Digital and caloric refuel at the gas station in town, before rolling less than a kilometer down the road to a free public camping area for the night.

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The small forest features fresh water, toilets, and trash cans.  A youth groups tends a fiery blaze for a few hours, until bedtime.  Free camping is awesome.

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The next morning, we arrive at the edge of town, at the edge of a cliff, at the edge of a crater, called makhtesh in Hebrew.

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Fresh IBT, all day long.

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These non-impact craters are the largest of their kind in the world, and the Hebrew word is accepted by the geologic community to describe them.  A single water gap drains each crater.  There are three prominent craters in the region.

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Danny removes a broken spoke which has wound itself into the back of his cassette, hindering the freehub.  Both Danny and Ilan are part of a MTB group– 4 Epic– which organizes local races and rides.  Israelis are organized and efficient.  

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High quality trail, simple and durable, perfect for multi-day rides.  Would you please sign it in the other direction?  The trail is currently only signed north to south.

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“Get off bikes!”  Yeah right.

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A gasline road rolls across the basin of the makhtesh.  On their second day from town, and from office chairs, these guys are finally finding their stride.  Less than two months to go!  We talk about new gear choices for this year, and new strategies.  Ilan is walking the 11 flights of stairs to his office, preparing his hike-a-bike legs.  Rubber soled shoes are to be used instead of the hard plastic soles found on many performance shoes.

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Some of the trail is “green circle”, which makes Lael grin.

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Ilan rides a full-suspension Trek Superfly with a mix of Revelate Designs and Nuclear Sunrise luggage.  The framebag space of a hardtail would be nice, he says.  The modular waterproof Revelate Terrapin setbag allows easy gear removal at the end of the day.  An SP dynamo hub powers an Exposure headlight, and soon, also the GPS.  A Lezyne backpack carries extra food and water.

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Danny is riding a hardtail Trek Superfly with a Jones Loop H-barRevelate Designs luggage, and a Wingnut pack for extra food and water.

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Up, but not much.

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And down.  Way more flow than the previous day.  

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Finishing with a short downstream wadi ride, we miss the final section of IBT singletrack to Moa.  We’ll have to come back with our Alaskan friend Christina for this piece of trail.  She arrives next week.

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Retro-modern: checking the bus schedule aside several thousand year old ruins.

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The end of our partnership.  Back to our real lives.

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Back to Sde Boker, by the now-familiar HLC route over the Marzeva climb.

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Camel tracks.

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Back up to Sde Boker, just 1500ft above sea level.  Our next day of riding will take us all the way down to the Dead Sea, more than 1000ft below sea level.

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Thanks to Danny and Ilan for a great weekend on the bike.

Thanks to Tamir and Adi for hosting us in Sde Boker.

Ilan– the other one– we may still see you in Eilat.

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Negev heart, Israel

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Some days in the Negev desert: resupply at kibbutz, riding sandy wadi and rocky trail, sleeping out under a waxing gibbous, a full moon, and not too distant artillery fire.  Thorny acacia trees are the bridge between South Africa and Israel, although shade is far less important in this northern winter.  We love the desert.  Halva, olives, persimmons, wine, pita, cucumbers, onion, hummus, and water.

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