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 wadi, makhtesh, 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.
Nearing the rim of Makhtesh Gadol, or the Great Makhtesh– The Big Crater.
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.
The HLC features miles of mellow dirt roads, sinuous lines of singletrack, and here, some chunky 4×4 tracks.
The Tsin River at -200ft, and still descending.
Weathered date palms and other salt-resistant flora.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Salt ponds, land mines.
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.
More chalky wadi riding. Sublime when dry, miserable when wet.
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!