Pushing the limits: wondering how and if my leg muscles will keep the spindly wheels turning, as another of the countless hills is attempted, heat rolls over my back, and the desert spreads out before me in a vista of earth tones and sky.
A major part of the theme of the ride was to further appreciate Israeli desert ecology as one pedals through it. There is also the conscious effort to promote thinking more broadly than just the ecology of Israel, as “the environment knows no national borders”. The 6 day trek of 178 riders took each of us beyond our individual capacities, created community, raised both ecological awareness and nearly $1m for worthy environmental causes, and left (except for the flights to the country), a fairly small carbon footprint.
There were many high points – from the amazing physical tests, to cycling on gorgeous roads that I had driven innumerable times, to bonding with my brother-in-law, the other locals, and many of the chevra (buddies) on the ride, to knowing that while I might be using this ride to indulge becoming 50, I was doing it while supporting a valuable cause – with the help of backers and friends.
Personally, this was a very meaningful and momentous way to mark the beginning of my next decade. It has made the transition easier!
Ready, Set: April 29th, 2007
Sitting in the Paris Airport, readying for the last leg of the trip to Israel, I reflect on the preparation for the journey and what is ahead. Some significant fears and concerns – can I really do it? Training was solid, but really not enough (ever enough?). Do I really need to do this?
Prep Day: in Jerusalem (May 1)
Though there was time for a short tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, most of the day was spend in putting the bikes we had brought from the US back together, field testing it in a short ride on Mt. Scopus and the Mt of Olives, getting hours of preparation lectures, and readying for the morning.
Day 1 (May 2): Jerusalem to the Dead Sea
Starting at 6:30 am, after the blowing of the shofar and a Traveler’s Prayer in 3 languages, we set out from Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, went around the Hebrew University and through a new tunnel and then 12 miles down an amazingly steep incline from Jerusalem to just outside of Jericho. We kept up speeds of up to 40 mph, which could have been more if didn’t have our hands on the brakes for literally the whole time. It was like flying! Passing the signs that declared our position relative to Sea Level and the beautifully arid landscape (with a patina of green from the recent rains at the higher elevations) provided a surreal background, as we plunged further and further down, starting in the Jerusalem hills and getting to over 1200 meters below sea level as we passed into and out of Palestinian Autonomy land near the ancient city of Jericho. We stopped at the Dead Sea, where we had a short lecture on the ecological fate of the Dead Sea. A now ruined beach and hotel building had allowed bathers to dive in from the patio edge during the British Mandate heydays in the 1930s. Now the shore has receded to nearly ½ mile away as the Jordan River gets diverted . Then we headed down the road, tracing the edges of the sea up and down “rolling hills” (a much used euphemism for difficult uphill and sweeping downs) to the Dead Sea area, stopping at Ein Gedi for lunch, a short dip in a cool mountain pool, a short talk about the man-made problems of water at the Ein Gedi kibbutz, then on the hotel for a rest for the weary, and dips in the heated hypersalinated pools to help untwist the sinews and muscles.
The logistics of the ride were impressive and complex. The nearly 25 staff helping run the ride and all its details were incredible – upbeat, excited by the ride and the cause, always helpful, and only rarely a bit disorganized. Many were drawn from the graduates of the Aravah Institute, and they were nothing, if not committed to environmentalism The ride crew included lead riders for what became 3 or 4 groups, bicycle mechanics, SAG cars for those too weary to ride, an ambulance, PR – who also stood at the top of the hardest hills drumming, and a very dedicated group that spent the day leap-frogging the rest and water stations that magically appeared every 10-15 kilometers or so, with lunch and snacks at appropriate times. Others got the places for the night ready, and this does not include the police, who were key in either blocking or monitoring the busiest roads. .
Day 2: Dead Sea to Western Negev
Back on the bikes at 6:00 am for what would turn out to be the hardest day of the ride and a test of strength and will: 133 km (85 miles) between the Dead Sea to the other side of the Negev at Mashabae Sa’ada. This intense 11 hour ride included about 40 of the group, labeled by the organizers as “Chalutzim”(pioneers). We set out blissfully from the Dead Sea hotel area, 1200 feet below sea level, heading 30 miles down the Aravah on a fast 18-22 mph pace, keeping in a fair and aerodynamically advantageous line (“drafting”) up and down rolling hills, till a junction (Hatsavah) heading west directly into the heart of the desert. At that point we began the real fun – climbing out the lowest point on the Earth to the Negev Mountains. This first included 15 km of slow, steady, uphill from the valley towards the mountains. The movement was constantly constant, and I rode in front of, behind, and next to one of the organizers (Howie Rodenstein) who had a GPS gauge on this bike and could call out the altitude. We made it up from 7 feet above sea level when, by the time we arrived at the base of an enormous hill. Then the real work began, doing Ma’ale Ackrabim – Scorpion Ascent – a shockingly steep switchback road first widened by the Romans and 2000 years later by the Israelis. Only 4 of the Chalutzim made it to the top of the hill without stopping, an incredible feat of endurance and will in the now 100 degree weather. Personally, I did some walking of the bike when the grade on the ascent became impossible, but mostly riding – straining every bone and muscle in the body. After a brief rest at the top, we headed north to Maktash Hagol (an unusual crater like valley formation, passing along a beautiful plateau with colored sands, rocks, and even some green plants and occasional flower . The day included, in addition to the 85 grueling miles, with elevation rise of 1200 meters (3600 feet), weather of every imaginable sort: burning hot sun, overcast and sharav (sandy & high barometric pressure), thunder, light rain, heavy rain with high winds (high enough to almost blow us over), and a cool evening on the Negev heights.. We barely dragged ourselves to the rooms on the kibbutz where we were staying – but were surprised and gladdened to receive an incredible gift: the organizers brought in a group of massage therapy students who provided anyone who wanted with 20 minute massages of our battered limbs. Everyone felt pushed beyond their limits, with fluid and electrolytes imbalances, bone weariness – but very appreciative of being alive and swimming in endorphins. There was also a bit of time in the pool, dinner, a briefing for the next day, and back to sleep for a few hours before heading out.
Day 3: Western Negev to Mitzpe Ramon
Somehow we got back on our bikes, and after a little stretching and warm up, were whizzing across the Negev Desert, west to East, towards Sde Boker and the off-road biking that many of us choose to do that day. After switching to off road bikes, we raced down a hill and across the desert to a beautiful cut in the hill where almost icy cold water flowed from the wall into a pool. Overall, the off-road biking was hot and very difficult (particularly on the knees), but great fun and a variation from what we had been doing previously. After a late lunch, we were back on the bikes for another 20 mile sprint down the desert road to Mitzpe Ramon (a small development town on the edge of a crater). There were hills and valleys, all covered at a fast pace, gritting teeth going up very long hills as we tried to find our way to the top. Finally reached the hotel and dove into the pool before dinner. A real find! I shared a room with my brother-in-law, and we succeeded in getting in a shower, a swim, and beer, prior to Shabbat Services (I ended up at the guitar, drum, and dancing minion by chance) and an incredible meal. The extreme strenuousness of the ride was matched by the accommodations and lovely spirit of the people who attended.
Day 4 Mitzpe Ramon
Shabbat and rest! Woke up for a short yoga stretch, breakfast, (I led the Torah Service) and then onto more talks and lunch. Rest and relaxation, catching up on sleep and emails. We had Havdallah at the cliff edge of the crater and readied ourselves for the next day.
Day 5: Mitzpe Ramon to Kibbutz Keturah
Heading down to the kibbutz from Mitzpe – starting from the incredible downhill and through miles and miles of desert. Reached 41 mph on my bike as we entered Wadi Farran, where we headed across the longest straight stretch of highway in the country. This day took us through large tracts of military reserves and past bases. It seemed unusual to be biking past Israeli Merkavah tanks doing exercises, but such was the contrast. For lunch, we stopped at an old Nahal base called Shitim that was supposed to become a kibbutz, but instead is an Ashram in the middle of a large tank training area. On this day, I spoke at great length with other riders. As we headed down the step downhill that takes you from the Negev to the Aravah Valley, it felt like the heat had been turned up – reaching 45 degrees Celsius or 113 Fahrenheit. Hot, but beautiful, and we only had a little more to go. We raced into Keturah in a hale of congratulations, with cold water, beer, watermelon, and the cool water of the pool waiting. I wanted to be near the front on this leg, seeing as I had lived in Keturah for about 12 years, and was thrilled to race in the gate in the very first clump. Some people stayed in Bedouin style tents in a clump of mattresses. I chose inside in the lovely guest rooms of Keturah’s Keren Kolot branch. 4 people became dehydrated that day requiring IVs, while one had become nauseous and only drank water – causing his sodium level to drop precipitously. He was in the hospital in Eilat overnight. I was hot, but fine. And very happy to have made it to Keturah.
Day 6 Kibbutz Keturah to Eilat
This day started with a bit of fear and melancholy. The fear involved trying to tackle Har Eyet, the Mountain of the Eagle that is up the road from Keturah junction and steeply climbs out the Aravah Valley back to the heights. We had just raced down it the afternoon before and it was impressively long and steep. In addition, I had been staring at this hill since first coming to Keturah in 1974, and had never attempted a bike ride up. My legs were certainly stronger after a week of riding, and although I did not race to the top, I made it without stopping, and was thrilled. The melancholy was about finishing the ride – I was in the mindset and did not want it to end. The next 20 km went by places where I had been doctor, or where we had hiked as a family. Then, after passing the airbase,. The real and unexpected hills began and the real work commenced. Taking the challenge and going up Har Eyat – after looking at it for 20 years
Hard day of uphills to Har Hezkiayyhu and an incredible overlook of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Israeli lands in the area – all from one point.
Downhill of downhills into Eilat – exhilaration and maybe even a tear as headed into the hotel. It felt like going into an oven as we descended the hill, though the colors, the speed, the landscape, and the sense of almost being there, was sensational
We were greeted by frozen artikim, and then set off as a group through Eilat down the hill and then down the shore to the Ambassador Hotel. They stopped the traffic and there were some people near the hotel who were cheering. We went either to the beach and the open bar and the beach, or the hotel rooms for a long awaited shower and cool down (I did the latter). We disassembled and packed up our bikes, and attending the “final banquet” to mark the end – 340 miles later. An incredible experience from beginning to end!