Last month, in-house bike designer James Olsen returned from 8 1/2 days of bikepacking across Israel. The 1360km Holyland Challenge took him from Golan Heights to Eliat on the Red Sea, taking in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and the southern deserts.

 Here’s his story… 

After a race in the States last summer I’d spent a little too long on an American bikepacking and ultra-racing forum, reading up on the event that was behind us and wondering if I’d do something as ambitious as that again. An event in Israel was mentioned there, a small group of Israeli riders promoting a route to be ridden in the self-supported long distance racing style, following a complex route from the north of Israel to the south at Eliat on the Red Sea.

Self-supported here means a start line and a finish line, in between there are no stages, no technical or food support supplied, only what is open to all riders along the route. Simple.

The route of the first year of the Holyland Challenge wound its way past sites of historic interest that few countries could match, the terrain was varied and challenging and I’d probably never end up in Israel otherwise if I didn’t do this ride. And the first year of any event is a special time so we were keen to be there. Sometimes the best decision making process with these things is not to over-think it, so three of us put our names down on a starters list.

A few months went by and planning hadn’t gone much further than that. In between discussions with friends who (wrongly) thought we’d be taking risks by riding there, the usual things that come up made the event seem unlikely for the guys I was going to be riding with and my personal motivation for riding alone and getting into a racing mind-set again wasn’t high. But things changed last-minute and we all booked flights with 3 weeks to go.

We may have been a bit under-trained but to me it felt like a healthy ‘wing-it’ approach to the ride that I like. It keeps it feeling like some kind of adventure.

 

To write up the 8 days and 1360km of this event as a day-by-day account would be a long post and Paul Errington (UK Salsa rider, who blogs here) has done a great job of that already. I value the images he put up on his site and those sent to me by Ricky as I lost my camera en-route, after nearly eight years of trips like this. Ah well. However the images the Ricky and Paul captured summed up my memories of this event in a way that my own couldn’t, seeing familiar views through the eyes of others seems to fit well with my often blurred mental images caused by fatigue and heat.

Israel is an interesting and welcoming country with a fantastic riding scene that’s supported by some wonderful riding areas. Our travel plans had been made simple via help from Amir at Gordon Active and Tour Divide rider Zohar Kantor, a rider who could be described as Israel’s bike-packing pioneer who gave us a friendly welcome and a place to stay at the start. We were joined there by Max Morris, a great guy and an experienced racer from Arizona who’d end up finishing in second place with Zohar. A coach to the hotel in Golan Heights gave us a chance to relax in the company of many other riders, enjoy an amazing dinner locally complete with HLC-branded locally brewed beers and begin get a feel for the country. First impressions were good!

Ricky and I shared a room at the Hotel with Limor, an Israeli ride guide and the route-planner and Hanoch, an Israeli ex-pro XC racer with time spent on the US national race circuit. I can’t speak for Ricky but I went to sleep a little less relaxed about the ride than I was a few days before. There was also the fact our rigid bikes had attracted a lot of ‘surprised interest’ and we’d taken a good-natured ribbing. I’d not seen so many suspension bikes among bike-packers before.

Were we the UK tough-guys or the idiots abroad? Erm…

 

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Riding out for dinner as a group, night before the start

The ride was memorable for all the right reasons, the trails were generally fantastic and when they weren’t fantastic they were testing in a way bikepacking trails should be. We rode intermittently to start as flat tyres punctuated a brisk pace in our first few days, a steadier 20 or even 22 hours in a day towards the end with short breaks for more mechanicals (it’s tough on tyres out there) and the odd hour or so for food and a break. Or a few hours longer in aid of an abandoned and in trouble puppy.. but that’s a story Paul tells better on his blog. ‘Dusty’ was an irresistible pup and luckily for him Paul has his priorities right and a real love of dogs.

A ride that had started out with a fairly relaxed pace through green hills, beautiful forests and expanses of water and amazing singletracks for perhaps 30 or 40% of the route changed as we rode south past Arad. I’d been lulled into a relaxed state of mind by the singletracks that we rode at the kind of pace you can be happy riding at when you feel that there’s always more .. no Strava-style pressure riding, just alternating between fast flow and easy rolling on constantly engaging trails that to me were the Holyland of riding. I could ride singletrack like that for the rest of my riding life and never want more. Israel is somewhere I have to go back to simply to explore more of those pristine trails.

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Singletack holyland, this way

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Evening, 10 miles north of Arad. A taste of what’s to come.

At Arad it was an abrupt change in almost every respect as we approached the Dead Sea and a long descent down to four hundred metres below sea level. A dry, almost barren expanse of hills could be seen from the top of a long climb just north of the town and the difference between the terrain in front and behind us was stark. To top it off, just after a brutally rocky decent as we rode the trail passing through their encampment, small Bedouin boys threw stones at us after high-5’ing us on the way in.

I welcomed new terrain that I’d never been faced with before as well as feeling that cycling rarely felt semi-serious like this. In truth we were rarely that far from a road or some kind of shelter but when facing 120km of desert riding without re-supply, carrying 7 or more litres of water into 40 degree heat and some intense sand-laden headwinds, it felt quite committing to start with.

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The Dead Sea ahead

The riding along the entire route was incredible and here it was no different, the trails had changed but the sense of dramatic surroundings had quickly gone up a few notches. After a long, rocky descent we stopped close to the edge of the Dead Sea to stock up on food and water before the first real expanse of desert terrain. Apparently it’s so low in altitude there that UV radiation can be almost zero, so despite the heat sunburn was a very low risk (Ingo told me that as I layered on the factor 50).We then rolled through Wadis and expanses of dry, open space and marvelled at the terrain.

It felt other-worldly and unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, to be able to ride through this scenery was what made trips like this so worthwhile.

 

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On that first desert day we failed to reach our anticipated end-point for the day. Adapting plans as you go is all part of it and that 24 hour period summed up the HLC for all three of us I think. Sometime after 9pm two workers at a nearby industrial plant had shown typical Israeli generosity and raided their fridge to feed us after we’d ridden a few km off-route towards the lights of the plant, in need of water at least, food was just a quiet hope and the carrier bag of assorted goodness was received with gratitude and grins. We then rode back onto the point we’d left the route, carried on for an hour then slept at the side of the trail.

The next morning we were rolling before dawn after three other riders (Ingo from Germany, Shay from Israel and Tom from the UK) who we’d been riding with on and off over the previous few days woke us up as they passed. As dawn started to light up the trail we turned our lights off and slowly saw what was for me the most stunning view of the route. As we climbed and pushed up the hill we were emerging from the large crater of the desert’s cliffs and the sun rose above the opposite crater edge in the distance.

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Looking back to where we’d ridden from that morning as the sun rose. Night-riding is rarely this good.

Towards the end of the penultimate day, heat and general tiredness meant I saw much of the slow, rough and loose desert trails as a chore. By then we were on near race-pace and playing catch-up fairly well (we finished 5-6-7th, or group 4th of the 30+ starters, and almost 50% of the riders dropped out before the end) yet originally we intended to ride it as a more of an experience than a race.

But put blokes on bikes with trackers fitted to show their progress online and the result is comically predictable…

 

We rarely stopped for long, for anything. Good food for riding fuel had been in short supply due to the Passover festival earlier that week and over the last two days I was starting to feel drained. I’d ridden a long way solo as well as more social, exploration type trips in the past but at this stage I wasn’t sure what we were doing or aiming for. The unusually high temperatures had cooked me, the desert section was much longer than I had anticipated and either I’d seen enough or wanted to take it easy, I wasn’t sure. I wanted to finish on a high and would have happily ended my ride sometime during the last day or so, simply wanting to ride in Israel and enjoy ourselves which we’d achieved already. Finishing the event meant different things to each of us.

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City of David, Jerusalem. One of the longest stops we made, too special to pass through fast.

Ilan, an Israeli rider we met before and during the race who gave us a place to stay and great food at the end of the event, summed up what I’d got wrong. He told me:

“It has to be a challenge to be rewarding, you ride, push, carry if needed, you’re making your way any way you can… but you want to make it”.

 

I may not make bike-packing sound much fun by my poor paraphrasing of what he said much more eloquently then but as we chatted after the ride with cold beers in hand I knew he was right. I had known it all along but had forgotten that aspect at some point.

We’d finished at 2am the night before, reaching a finish line that was just dusty ground next to a shingle beach, no welcome party, no finishers medals even for the winner Hanoch who’d ridden 2 days quicker than we had. Still tired and slowly settling back to sleep normal patterns after 8 days of riding, I knew I’d learned more on this ride than any other. To quit and be at peace with that can be a harder call to make than pushing on and finishing, but I found that crossing the line between wanting it to be finished and actually bailing out changed a lot in my mind.

I’d gone over that line for all of 20 yards, within 40 miles of the finish.

Tired, sleepy and seeing little in the beam of the makeshift torch I’d been riding with for the last four nights, I was pretty beat. I was told where the tarmac road to Eliat was when I asked to check, and I took it. I rode it for a few seconds, turned around in a moment and got back on-route, then rode the next singletrack section a fair bit faster than the dim light allowed – just chasing after a wheel, faith and reactions that come from 8 days on a bike seeing me through, clear-or-crash riding that was my reaction to the frustration.

Then I was smiling again, simple. Riding for fun and kicks, the reminder, within a few minutes all was well yet externally nothing had changed.

 

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It’s not only distance and terrain that can beat you, it’s the mental game. Within a few hours we were on the beach at the finish. All a little beat up in different ways but all knowing that finishing meant something very worthwhile. Ilan was right.

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Cheers Ilan. And many thanks to Yair also, who gave us a place to stay in Tel Aviv before we flew home. A bit of time on the beach, more sleep and food at Yair’s place and we were all set to face Israel airport security with all our unusual luggage…

Security: “So where did you stay?”

Us: “Erm.. we slept in the woods, or the desert. Oh, and at a Kibbutz one night”

Security: “Who did you stay with at the end?”

Us: “A rider we met along the way, and one of his friends after that..”

Security: “Why did you come to Israel?”

Us: “To ride our bikes on holiday” – considering that we looked as you’d expect to look after 850 miles of riding and sleeping rough… who’d expect them to understand? But it wasn’t our shaky story that bothered them and in hindsight I can understand it all. They will get used to it. The Holyland Challenge is an amazing event in a country full of hospitality towards visitors and a bike-packing mountain bike scene that is growing fast and full of excited enthusiasm. I loved it and was tested by it.

The event is a highly recommended challenge that deserves respect, but if you prefer to simply ride amazing trails, consider Israel in Feb-April. The UK mountain-bikers answer to roadie training camps in Majorca? I think so.