By Stephen Haynes. Photographs by Alon Ron and the author
Music from an unseen collection of folk instruments echoes down the cramped, dark alley as we make our way steadily towards its origin.
David’s Gate is at our back, having crossed the threshold into another dimension. We were told you must enter the gate on our right foot, or was it our left? Shit, I don’t remember. I’m an atheist, but the sense that this is one place where tradition trumps doubt is powerful. Not in a spiritual way, but in a way that tells you “you are too small and insignificant to not do what millions have done before you.”
Old Jerusalem is a cacophony for the senses. At night the tiny streets allow us to move through by bike. We’re told that during the day we wouldn’t be able to walk through, let alone bike. I feel drunk with imagery as the amateur historian in me wants to look and see and touch everything, but it’s far too much for a single evening and besides, there is sus’ing* to be done.
*There is no word in Hebrew for “wheelie,” so mountain bikers in Israel refer to the trick as sus’ing, which roughly translated means to rear back while riding a horse. I attempted lots of sus’ing all over Israel and it became the go-to joke for nearly every situation, whether riding or not.
Living in a dream
Israel is one of those places that I never thought I’d visit. Not that I’d never get the chance, though that was part of it, but that it just wasn’t on my radar as potential destinations. The country itself seems to constantly be shrouded in one controversy or another and talking about the place in positives or negatives can incite vehement discussion depending upon the audience.
I’m neither religious nor well educated with regards to history or global affairs, so to say I am ignorant on the subject of Israel would be an understatement. That said, I like to travel and I like to meet new people and come face to face with a culture and traditions that are different from my own.
Several media outlets, including Dirt Rag, were invited on behalf of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to visit and experience the mountain bike trails and culture in the country.
After we were serenaded by the musicians we have a lovely view of Jerusalem from atop Mt. Zion (yes, that Mt. Zion) before heading back to the old city and looking through Lexan at worshipers near the Western Wall. At this point it’s day three of a week-long tour of Israel and I feel like Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange—eyes forcibly pried apart to take in as much information as possible, though my motives here are self inflicted. Mostly.
If there is one thing I learned about Israel, it’s that, despite its size, is full of different types of terrain and population centers. You can drive the length of the country in a single day and experience any one of a hundred completely different experiences. The riding is no different. Our tour of the country took us in an arc from North to South, starting out in the semi-technical Alon Hagalil single track. Shade from oak trees interspersed along the ride was a nice toe-in-the-water introduction to the Middle Eastern countryside, which can feel hot, especially if you visit in early spring from a place that’s cold (like, Pennsylvania). Be sure to stop in at the Alon Hagalil Mountain Bike Center for a cold beverage post-ride.
From there we took in an off-limits, super technical downhill trail that offered ridiculous scenic views of the Galilee and some sphincter-clenching exposure. This portion of riding is akin to Fight Club, in that the first rule is not to talk about it. I will divulge that there were lots of rocks and thorn bushes involved. I also went ass-over-tea-kettles at low speed into a bush.
Continuing on our southward journey, we were treated to another vast trail network, Adolam-Kanim. Maintained by KKL (the Israeli equivalent to IMBA, though they do much more than MTB trails), the trails at Adolan-Kanim are fast and flowy with wonderful rocky sections that are challenging without being terrifying.
Rambling over rolling hills we were treated to magnificent views of the surrounding valleys. Spring was still in the air and splotches of green dotted the landscape in the form of giant ferns. We were told that within two weeks the scene would be utterly transformed by the heat of summer and that all the greenery would die away.
Ayalon National Park (Canada Park)
After stopping off at Srigim Brewery for some tasty craft beer and hot dogs, we took shuttle runs down one of the all-mountain offerings at Canada Park.
Fast, flowy single track that winds through wooded hills and open sage brush—complete with cows—Canada Park could probably consume half of a mountain bikers vacation. Well marked and well ridden, it is smooth enough to feel developed but has just enough of an edge to remind you it’s not so refined, which keeps it interesting.
While most of the country can feel like a sauna for those of us that aren’t used to oven-like conditions and 90-100 percent sun exposure, Southern Israel is where the desert proper begins and where you really feel very, very small and very, very hot.
Within the borders of a small community, amidst children being ushered off to school, we rolled out into one of the most stunning views of the trip. A single band of dirt cutting through the still green hills, a ribbon of trail laid before us, that will deliver us to the doorstep of St. George’s Monastery and ultimately to the Dead Sea.
For much of the trip through the Judean Hills, we seem to follow a goat path down, up and over the rolling desert. Loose rocks, dust, switchbacks, punchy climbs and exposure in some spots made this portion of the trail challenging, but much more of an XC adventure compared to the first few days’ offerings.
History is carved right out of the rock throughout this day’s adventure, from Roman aqueducts, to long abandoned gun turrets, to a natural wellspring where families gather to relax and play.
It’s quite difficult to focus on the absurd quantities of historic sites you encounter when you are singularly focused on not toppling perilously over the edge of a cliff. I’ve had a difficult time trying to reconcile what I saw while describing what I experienced.
St. George’s Monastery is a sixth century Greek Orthodox monastery built right into the cliffs of Wadi Qelt, a deep canyon. It is an impressive structure that immediately brought to mind scenes from Indian Jones and the Last Crusade. A short path from the road brings you to a viewing area where you can in its grandeur. Back at the road, you can buy fresh squeezed orange juice, take a camel ride, or purchase a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress that is now a fashionable scarf in the U.S.
After taking in the roadside refreshment and trying to digest the image of St. George’s we pointed our bikes down the most absurdly fun and technical single track of our journey yet: the Sugar Route.
The name itself sounds like some bygone rumor, spoken about only in the company of those in the know. The Sugar Route is a jewel in the desert and as such, my words will fall well short of describing this beautifully challenging trail.
Linking Jerusalem to Jericho, it was once used as a trade route between the two cities, now it serves as a playground for the adventurous. A white ribbon of trail laid over the contours of what seems like limitless miles of sun-baked landscape, stretching away to the horizon. from concrete hard, fast singletrack, to challenging, rocky chutes and switchbacks, the Sugar Route is sweet in more than just name alone.
The Dead Sea
At 1,407 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is a vast salt lake whose healing properties and disconcerting buoyancy have been drawing a crowd for centuries. I found it to be smile inducing from the word go.
It also contains so many minerals that upon exiting the body of water, you are covered in a sort of “oil-slick” that’s not entirely unpleasant. It is quite a refreshing and rejuvenating experience to say the least.
Argan and Arkov
After days of riding perilously close to sheer cliffs, the rock-strewn, rolling hills of Argan and Arkov trails is a nice respite; if you consider pinning it down baby head rocks in the middle of the desert a respite.
Shayarot Cliffs, Yitro, The Green Mountain and Israel Bicycle Trail
The whole trip the guides have been keeping on us to top off our bladders at every provisions stop, but today their insistence leaves little room for second-guessing. It’s hot and it’s going to get hotter. We’re now properly in the desert.
The Shayarot Cliffs stand out for me on this leg of the journey—the rest of the day evaporated by heat and time. The trail builders associated with the Samar Bike Hotel and the Israel Bicycle Trail have built a wonder, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. More than once I would snap out of my heat-induced brain wanderings to find myself on a perfectly manicured trail far from anything resembling civilization. It is completely amazing.
Timna Park is a recreation area located within Timna Valley, a national historic site and an ancient copper mine. Sandstone rock formations rise on all sides as you meander through the relatively tame single track trails within the park. A notable exception is a section of trail that consists of steep, wide, bermed turns, hand built using dirt and rocks for the surround area.
As our weeklong tour of Israel reaches it end, it seems that our guides have saved the best for last. The Raham single track would prove to be the most challenging and amazing bit of land of the journey.
The road to the trailhead follows the border between Israel and Egypt. Tall, barbed-wire fences denote the separation with an unquestioning clarity. We stop at a small driveway in front of a border sign that explains that you put your life at risk should you choose to touch or climb the fence and head towards Egypt. Fortunately, we ride the other way and drop into the super technical Raham.
With 2,600 feet of elevation loss over super sharp rocks and drops, the Raham singletrack demands your respect, but rewards you for your efforts. Unfortunately I don’t have photos from this portion of the trail, as our photographer (along with the rest of us) didn’t want to stop and set up a shot. You’ll just have to plan your own trip to Israel and take in Raham yourself.
Getting to Israel is relatively easy. All the major airlines fly there, so finding flights isn’t a problem. Plan on spending $1,000 – $1,500 for a round trip ticket purchased a couple of months in advance.
Take the red-eye into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport so you can watch the Mediterranean coast glide past as you make your final approach. Also, if you can catch a few winks on the plane, you feel almost human disembarking the plane and you have the whole day to soak in Israel’s capital city.
Stepping off the plane in Tel Aviv is much like disembarking into any major airport anywhere. It may even be a little easier. Most signs are written in both Hebrew and English and most folks speak enough English to get through a conversation and make you feel bad about not learning a second (or third, or fourth) language yourself…
Get a guide
The singletrack is plentiful in Israel, but it is dispersed enough that having someone with local knowledge to show you around is invaluable.
If you’re planning on doing a “Tour of Israel” or would like to steer clear of the desert as much as possible, give Nimi Cohen at Mountain Goat a call for the best service for anything from epic cross country to all-mountain and downhill from a guy who is as passionate about mountain biking as you are. Nimi can help you as much or as little as you like, from fully planning your itinerary (hotels, food, transport to trails, etc.) to simply helping point you in the right direction.
For desert getaways you need only look as far as Yaron Deri and the Samar Bike. You can ride with folks who not only know the area but are also responsible for building a vast majority of the trails you’ll be rolling over.
What to expect
Despite being in the Middle East and within spitting distance of places that have been transformed in recent years by intense uprising and civil revolt, Israel, especially Tel Aviv, feels a lot like California. The beach, promenade, shops, bars, nightlife, bikinis, muscle dudes, skaters, bikers, roller bladers—they’re all there. But as soon as you let your guard down, you stumble upon some non-descript tumble of cut stones with a placard telling you that it is a historic sight from biblical times (and that you probably shouldn’t be trying to get air off of it on your bike).
Still, people are cool in Israel. They don’t take shit, they tell you how it is, but in a manner that makes them endearing and wonderful.
Where to stay
There are many good choices for lodging in Israel, from minimalist tent camping to hostels, to five-star unadulterated lavishness. Many of the guide services, including Mountain Goat, can help you pick and choose to best accommodations based on your itinerary.
There are two places that you absolutely must try to stay though. The first is the Samar Bike Hotel. Located in the Kibutz Samar, it has everything a traveling mountain biker could want: nice, down to earth accommodations, a communal space where you can chill and watch bike movies, some of the best home cooking found anywhere, and an on-site pump track. And it’s a short shuttle ride from some of the most mind-bending single track the desert has to offer.
The second is possibly the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. It’s certainly the most unique. Beresheet Hotel is perched right on the edge of Mitzpe Ramon Crater, a national historic site akin to the Grand Canyon in the U.S. It features stunning vistas, amazing suites, ridiculous food, one of the best showerheads I’ve ever had the pleasure of standing under and an infinity pool that looks out over the crater. It’s totally amazing, but it’ll cost you. A lot.
There are a couple other bike friendly establishments that we visited, but did not stay at.
The first is the iBike Hotel located in Mitzpe Ramon. iBike is a nice place that feels like a very nice hostel. Less stuffy than a regular hotel, but not quite down to earth, mountain biker experience of Samar Bike Hotel. Still, super awesome, with very nice proprietors and wonderful food, of course.
The next is Geofun Cycling Center, located in Kibbutz Sde Boker. GeoFun offers a wide variety of products from weeklong bike excursions through Israel’s wine country, to guide services, to bicycle servicing at their shop in Sde Boker.
What to eat
Seafood is an obvious choice for any country bordering the Mediterranean, but Israel’s northern territories are quite fertile as well, making any and all manner of fruit and vegetable quite attainable. Those same fertile lands serve to feed cattle and goat production as well, both of which are standouts in the culinary realm there.
Notable dishes included: fried cauliflower, shawarma and falafel with pickled veggies, tahini and hummus. Oh the tahini and hummus. What’s become the en vogue snack of choice for Americans had been perfected long ago in the Middle East, with every restaurant giving their own little twist to the condiment which is liberally applied to anything that’ll sit still long enough to be slathered.
Israel is a country I’m happy to have visited despite having never previously considered it a mountain bike destination. Given its history and political placement, it’s easy to forget that it is a land of people with a vast array of interests and political leanings. One of the great things about mountain biking and the mountain bike community is that it can be the tie that binds among people who are otherwise very different. Ramble over a tough piece of land with a few new riding companions and revel in the shared experience over beers at the bottom of the hill.
Israeli Board of Tourism for making the trip possible.
Nimi Cohen, the man, the myth, the legend and our guide through much of this beautiful country. He runs, among other things, Mountain Goat guide services.
Yaron Deri, our desert guide and one of the operators of Samar Bike Hotel.
Alon Ron for taking awesome photos the whole time.
All the guides who helped drag us through the desert.