Chocolate soil and limitless grip: Mountain biking in Israel

For all the news coverage that you see of Israel, it isn’t often the mountain biking that gets the attention.

Pete Scullion flew to the Holy Land to discover a new angle to a very well known country.

Words by Pete Scullion // Images by Alon Ron

Arriving at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport, I was immediately struck by a wave of hot, dry air. It was far removed from the attempt at snow I had left behind in Glasgow hours earlier. I grabbed a good sleep and stoated around Tel Aviv’s vibrant Carmel Market before joining my party for the drove north and east to the Sea of Gailea.

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“To sample what Israel does best. Singletrack.”

Our first stop was Alon Hagali to sample what Israel does best. Singletrack. Local rider Ofer and our guide Nimi Cohen (http://www.mountaingoat.co.il/) led us through fast, flowing trails, with dips and crests followed by long, swooping turns. The local ‘chocolate’ soil offered near limitless grip and begged you to keep pushing harder. The scent of hot pine was everywhere with any offer of shade granting you a cool, fresh breeze and protection from the hot sun. Even in April here, the sun sits high early on in the day and punishes anyone daft enough to venture out without sun screen. We stopped by the Off Road Bike Centre run by Dror Bravilovsky and his wife. Before setting up their bike shop here, there was no place for riders to get their spares, have a coffee and hit the trails. Now, the shop sits at the center of all the official trails in the area and offers a focal point for riders.

The following day we sampled more buff singletrack near Adolam-Kanim. The land here looks exactly like it did two thousand years ago and Roman ruins litter the area. The limestone bedrock offers massive grip and the pea-gravel gives enough slip for some big old drifters! The high sun was as brutal as ever on my Celtic skin and I was finding shade wherever it could be found.israel 2

“I pushed a little too hard on a long, sweeping right-hander”

The pines trees of the previous day had been replaced by low shrubs, so hiding from the sun when we stopped was made a little more difficult. We were joined again by Ben and another local, Amnon Israeli, plus the guys from Israel’s top bike magazine. We were pushed hard and keeping up in the heat was tough, but brilliant fun. By now, everyone had found where they sat speed-wise in the group and set about keeping ahead of the guy behind, or trying to catch the guy in front. In doing so, with Nimi hot on my heals, I pushed a little too hard on a long, sweeping right-hander and ended up facing Nimi with his tyre almost in my face!

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“whistling through shoulder-high flowers”

Great food and drink were never far away and lunch took us to the local Srigrim Brewery, famous for it’s award-winning IPA. We finished by whistling through shoulder-high flowers in the nearby Canada Park and with an evening exploring Jerusalem.

Whilst Tel-Aviv is new, bright and vibrant, Jerusalem is a much more serious place than keeps a very good eye on the past. This is where I got to go daft on my two great loves, bikes and history. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, King Herod’s tomb, the Via Dolores or the Dome on the Rock.

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“Serious Indiana Jones territory!”

The following morning we rocked up at Nofei Prat to ride yet more singletrack, mostly made by goats and camels that would lead us towards the infamous Sugar Route. Lead by local rider Ezra, we explored some serious Indiana Jones territory!  Our group was down to five so the going was quick and the higher the trail climbed, the more of the Negev Desert we could see. There wasn’t a sand dune in sight here as the singletrack ran like a ribbon through the wadis (dry river beds) cut into the limestone long ago. The water had long since dried up and with most of Israel’s rainfall coming in February in a flash flood it’s no surprise the wadis are deep and steep-sided.

I ended the day at terminal velocity on the Sugar Route – a 700 year old camel trail that links the Dead Sea to Jerusalem and was key for getting sugar and other trade up for sale in Jerusalem itself. The trail was baked hard and smooth and dropped us down to the mosque where Moses was said to have been buried.

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“The ride taught me not to judge skinny guys on XC bikes”

Our next day’s trip to the Ramon Crater is certainly not an experience I will ever forget. It’s part of the Israeli National Bike Trail that runs the full length of the country and will reach over 1,200km upon completion. The sun rising above this crater made when rainwater carved away the softer rock is truly a sight to behold. Once the sun was up and the heat turned on, we were whisked off to have tea with a Bedouin family before riding singletrack near Argan and Arkov.

The sweet black tea was just the business before riding the Arkov singletrack into the setting sun. The ride taught me not to judge skinny guys on XC bikes. If a guy’s eyes glisten when you tell him you’re going to try and keep up, you will probably fail!

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“super fast, flowy singletrack in the rockiest desert you have ever seen.”

Day seven brought the hottest and toughest day of the trip. Our guide for the day was Yaron Deri, owner of the Samar Bike Hotel. He made  riding in the heat look easy whilst I drank all the water I could carry in the first hour of the ride. Yaron took us along the Sharyot Cliffs that overlook the border between Jordan and Israel as well as the Red Sea to the south. All the trails here had recently been constructed by Yaron and his team of trail builders and offered super fast, flowy singletrack in the rockiest desert you have ever seen.

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“an unbelievable hue of golden-red”

Our final day was another early start and a trip to the Timna National Park. All legal and way-marked, but nothing like the trails we have in he UK. I would imagine creating this fantastic ribbons of singletrack through a prehistoric park would take some doing, but to the eye they seem nothing more than scratched into the rock. Thankfully, that’s all they need as the sandstone offers plenty of grip.

As the sun rose over Timna, the light caught the red sandstone and turned the whole place an unbelievable hue of golden-red. By this stage in the proceedings, everyone was very tired, but still took the time to gaze around in awe, even the locals, to enjoy the natural beauty on show.

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“two sides to the coin”

Turn to any global news outlet and you will no doubt see coverage of Israel. As with anything there are two sides to the coin. What I saw was a beautiful country full of happy people, crazy drivers, a strong sun, amazing singletrack and unforgettable food.

There’s no ignoring the ‘other’ side of that coin but my experience in Israel gave me a chance to look beyond ‘events’ and meet people. The guys I met like Nimi, Ofer, Dror, Ezra or Yaron were some of the warmest people I’ve met anywhere in the world and our shared love of bicycles and singletrack was what made Israel unforgettable. 

A final thanks to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for their help in making this feature happen. Thanks guys!

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Pete is heading back to Israel in a few months to race the Epic Israel XC Marathon. You can read his training diary here.

You can read about Wideopen’s experience of mountain biking in Slovenia here.

… and mountain biking in Madeira here.

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