Trial by Fire. Pete’s Epic Israel retrospective.

Pete Scullion’s first trip to the Holy Land in 2014 was all about great food, great beer and great trails.

His second trip in October 2015 had a very different experience in store… replacing relaxed exploration with ‘Hot Epic Israel’ – an epic, multi-day marathon XC race.

words by Pete Scullion / training by Dirt School‘s Rab Wardell

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race
Out the gate and off up the singletrack like a greased weasel. Energy I could ill afford to waste.

October 2015 saw me complete months of training and fly to Israel with my (considerably fitter) team mate and coach Rab Wardell. We were to take part in Hot Epic Israel – a multi-day cross country marathon stage race. Rab was prepared in mind and body, I was (despite trying to listen to my own advice) considerably less prepared.

To put the physical exertion of Hot Epic Israel into context, over three days, we rode longer than we slept most nights. Simply finishing the race seemed impossible approaching the 100km mark on day 1. It has taken me months to look back on the trials of those three days in an upbeat manner, and not to feel slightly saddle sore and thirsty

So, while the passing months serve to turn all three days into a blur of zoned-out, passive bike riding, there are still moments that stand out in stark contrast against mile after mile of rough doubletrack.

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race

One hundred and seventeen kilometres just for starters.

Day One alone was one hundred and seventeen kilometres of riding. We started through the Horshan Mountain Reserve along wide, dusty tracks, to packed singletrack that did nothing to stem our excitement. Anything remotely technical saw Rab and myself ploughing forward. Soon the singletrack broadened to baked, rough doubletrack that would form the majority of the distance for all three days.

“an enormous Turkey Vulture lingered on the updrafts menacingly. I must have looked like easy pickings.”

Along the Mediterranean shore, heading north towards Haifa I cursed the deep sand as I was distracted by the egrets that thronged to the massive fish ponds all around. Effectively retracing our steps at the midway point through a seemingly endless banana plantation, Rab informed me ‘this is pretty much what stage races are…’. After weaving our way through immense banana plantations then through the Israeli cotton fields the heat started to affect my mood and an enormous Turkey Vulture lingered on the up-drafts menacingly. I must have looked like easy pickings.

The following miles seem difficult to recollect, my next strong memory is enjoying a gel as we past the marker set by my previous longest ride (56 miles), celebrated with a fist bump.

It’s hard to put into words how close I was to not being able to keep moving with 17km left to go. That’s never happened before in 15 years of riding and racing bikes, and I hope it never happens again.

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race
Sun, sea and…sand… No sand on a bike please!

What doesn’t kill you… right?

In honesty, I almost cried and threw up as I donned my kit on day 2. I never want to feel as rough as I did 100km into day 1 ever again.

Day two was 107km’s in the saddle with 2350m of climbing. With a massive day already done I wasn’t clear how I would cope with practically the same distance again.

I had learned countless things about myself and mainly learned that I should listen to Rab’s advice and not go hell for leather off the start line. We sat at the back of the corral start and resisted the temptation to overtake anyone that was outpacing us. Aero-tucking and riding together was the order of business.

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race

We dodged cows as we approached Carmel Mountain. Climbing grabbed my focus, the more technical the better and I set about using the descents as opportunities for rest. Our first feed stop gave a panoramic view over the plains and Mediterranean Sea below and the track beyond saw storm drains offer airtime as we blasted a traverse across the mountainside. I was beginning to have fun.

At some point in day 2 we were met by a welcome nod to familiar weather. Rain. Precious, precious rain. I could feel all the excess heat disappear and I felt at home as we blasted through the cool air. What would have been a fast singletrack descent into ‘Little Switzerland’ became slick with mud, and I don’t think I was clipped in at any point. Rab was gone, clearly lapping up the chance to put the hammer down.

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race

The rain had made the ground sticky and hard going, but after a short fire road blast through a quarry we were flagged by a marshal as we approached a long queue of riders disappearing into a gully. We’d need to work together to pass each other’s bikes to make it through here and were rewarded by a stiff tarmac climb.

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From here, we were greeted by a spectator that was clearly loving the fact that the race was passing his house. He had the radio on full chat and was shirtless on top of a rock with the Rocky theme tune was blazing as he screamed support at us. What a hero.

A long, long fire road descent was a blessing from the top of Shokef summit. On the flipside of that, we soon passed under a motorway tunnel and I was sure I knew where we were…Yep, another double back to trails we’d already covered. Voicing my complaints saw Rab ride off so not to have to listen to me moaning. Sorry Rab! Despite the extra thousand metres of climbing that day, we’d only been in the saddle an hour longer than day 1.

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race
The opening miles of day 2 before we got up onto Carmel Mountain.

Blink and you’ll miss it.

The third and final day of racing was an odd one. The two previous days had left me emotionless it seemed. The start was again packed with riders in all directions, the din of the helicopter faded as the lead riders vanished. Our final day would be a modest 68km with 1320m of elevation.

What followed was a series of long climbs but followed by wide doubletrack descents littered with broken limestone. Passing was a do or die affair. Cross country hardtails aren’t the best bikes to be boulder surfing on. It gave us a moment of madness to keep the focus too, every little helps.

“long shaded climbs in pine forests with brakeless, aero-tucked descents”

The day was so short that two feed stations would fit in the same distance as the first stop on day 1. What followed was long shaded climbs in pine forests with brakeless, aero-tucked descents off the back, and by chance, some buff singletrack that had both our ears picking up.

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race

Taking it in turns to lead out, I was struggling to keep the flow and not working the trail as best I could. Where the traffic thinned we really had a blast and we scalped a few riders who weren’t too happy by our chosen overtaking spots. One rider asked “why here mister?!” as we passed him.

I was crushed by the flattest, roughest field I have ever seen and my toys were close to leaving the pram at high velocity. I knuckled down, knowing the day wasn’t going to take much more of me to complete.

I almost failed to notice we’d finished the race… I was so exhausted from the three days of racing I felt no accomplishment, no satisfaction, just the need to eat, sleep and recover.

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race

A bridge too far?

In hindsight, Epic Israel, based on my three months of training, was a bridge too far. If I was to race it again, I would have started training at the end of the previous race, knowing what I know now.

I can’t thank Rab Wardell enough, firstly for his Dirt School training plan that paved the way for me actually getting to the end of the race, but perhaps more importantly, making sure I was looking after myself. It’s not a task I would have been able to perform as well as he did, and I really understand now why the race is done in pairs. I’d have been vulture food had I been on my own.

Thanks go to the Epic Israel organisation, specifically Nimi Cohen and Idit Shub for inviting us out and organising everything, to Saracen Bikes for sorting me out with a race bike that was flawless throughout, Conti Tyres UK for the race kit and rubber and Zyro for the Giro shoes and helmet.

Pete Scullion Rab Wardell Hot Epic Israel Saracen Mantra Trail Carbon Stage Race