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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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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From Eilat on the IBT and HLC, Israel

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No culture shock, except two-thirds of every road sign is illegible, and one-third is in English.  And, for the first day we don’t know the exchange rate from shekels to dollars, so Monopoly rules apply (try not to spend, but it is not real money so who cares).  The other two languages are Hebrew and Arabic, with Hebrew on top.  

Leaving Egypt, border agents rigorously inspect a few chosen items, ignoring most of the rest.  They seem most curious to fondle the sack of flatbread in my framebag, ignoring the conspicuous 2L steel bottle on the underside of my down tube.  Israeli border agents are far more professional, interviewing each of us separately to determine how we manage to travel with so little luggage, for so long.  “Don’t you stop to see the sights?”  Lael informs her that we are always seeing sights, all the time.  Our bikes are loaded onto the conveyor and sent through the x-ray machine.  

Public bathrooms with sit-down toilets and paper and hot water, and they don’t cost two rand.  Free sugar packets from every roadhouse.  But cane juice is gone and the bread isn’t as good as Egypt, and everything seems really expensive except it’s really just like America.  Local kibbutz communities do produce organic dates, olives, goat yogurt, and wines; although expensive, they are worth the money.  The biggest homecoming to the first world?  Some schmuck who asks too many questions he already knows the answer to, while I am eating.  Don’t interrupt my meal to be a schmuck.  I’m far too familiar with this practice.  Americans do it well.

We connect signed dirt trails straight out of Eilat, linking to the Holyland MTB Challenge race route and the Israel Bicycle Trail the next morning.  The Holyland MTB Challenge took place for the first time last April, connecting the southern border at the Red Sea to the Golan Heights in the north, near Syria.  The Israel Bike Trail will also connect the country north to south, and is currently complete from Eilat to Mitzpe Ramon, included miles and miles of freshly signed and graded singletrack through the mountainous desert.  Thus far, in two days of riding, the two routes coincide for much of their distance.  Thus far, the riding and camping is Israel is great.   

Leaving Eilat and the Red Sea.

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Hiking and cycling trails, signage not seen since Europe. 

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Designated camping areas minimize impact on the land.  Often provided for free, they do not have water, but offer space and fire pits.  So far, I’ve seen only drive-in sites on dirt roads.  

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Technical riding on rocky sandy footpaths, trying to find our own way through the mountains.

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Easy cycling routes, mostly on dirt roads.  Camels on wheels are cool.

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The colors of the Israel National Hiking Trail.

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Which provides a shortcut up a mountain.  We choose to hike our bikes to avoid a $12 per person park fee, required by way of the main dirt road and the HLC/IBT route.  

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Nice trail.

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Which opens up to a rideable plateau up top and a playground of trails.

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Eventually connecting to the IBT and the HLC route.

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Israel Defense Forces (IDF) property and nature reserves cover much of Israel, I’ve been told.

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Incidentally, IBT signage only routes from north to south– no signs coming from the south.  Hopefully the northbound signage is forthcoming.

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Fresh trail.

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And an unofficial wild camp on an east facing ridge.  A campground listed on my GPS turned out to be a commercial quarry.  Instead, we take the opportunity to camp up high, overlooking the Aravah Valley and Jordan.

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Haven’t found alcohol for our stove yet, so a fresh cup of singletrack will have to do.  The imprint of the trail-building machines can still be seen.  Jordan in the distance.

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Switchbacks and countours– modern trailbuilding, durable trail.

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Old trail, and new bike-specific trail, both apparently in use.

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Some sand, not too much, but just enough soft stuff to think that now would be a good time for 29+.  Are those Surly Dirt Wizards available yet? 

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Fresh goat yogurt at our only resupply point for the day, the cafe at kibbutz Neot Semadar.

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More fresh trail.

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Arroyos, called wadi, which is Arabic for valley, usually a dry desert valley.

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We plan to ride a few more days of the HLC/IBT before turning west to meet a group of riders over the weekend, which will lead us back south toward Eilat.  Thereafter, we shoot north to meet our friend Christina in Tel Aviv, who is flying from Alaska for ten days of sun and sand in the desert.  Cool nights, warm days; dry, not too hot, fresh trail– nothing not to like.  

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