Waking in our dusty clearing we were soon rolling and the trail we couldn’t find the night before was just as elusive in the daylight. We resorted to bush whacking through the vegetation until we popped out on to a very distinct trail.
Today’s goal was Tel Aviv and beyond. The promise of a roll along the coast and plenty of food options on offer spurred us on.
The initial long descent then turned in to long straight flat sections on agriculture plantations, with the weight of my pack annoying me these long sections were really testing as I developed a dull back pain from lack of movement in the saddle. Speed was high but interest was low… then there was sea.
When you are bikepacking the lack of hygiene is never really an issue as there is little to draw comparison against. The people you are riding with are just as dirty and grubby as you but when we reached Tel Aviv, a popular beach resort, it was obvious even on just day 4 we needed a shower. Luckily the beach facilities were at hand and we maximised with a shower and rinse of clothes much to the holiday makers amazement.
The trails into Tel Aviv had been deep sand and frustrating to ride so post shower and heading in to the city it was a pleasure to roll on a tarmac bike path though it was crowded so you had to ride with your wits about you. Bringing a fully loaded mountain bike to a stop is not a quick affair.
The evenings meal as had become the norm was a gas station just off the route, crisps and chocolate milk had become my staple diet.
We pressed on for another hour or so until at around 10pm we came to a picnic ground, mown grass, tables and hard standing were all on offer so not knowing what we might find later down the trail we opted for an early finish and to go for a slightly earlier start.
The next day started with more singletrack. This is maybe a good time to illustrate just how good the singletrack riding is in Israel and the quantity that the route takes in is large, every day was filled with singletrack flow to lift the spirits.
Again as on day 2 we came across a mountain bike marathon event though this time we were riding through the event car park, as we did so we were greeted by a rider that had been following our progress on trackleaders.com. We chatted about our progress and he let us know that Steve Heading, a very accomplished British rider, who had started so strongly with the leaders had become ill and had had to leave the route and make his own way to Eilat.
No sooner had our guest rider joined us another rider decided he would like to follow the route with us for a short while. This was a chance meeting and it was nice for a short while to add another dynamic to the group and discuss not only the event but allsorts of topics as we compared the UK and Israeli outlook on many subjects.
Our hope for a breakfast at a local gas station was dashed as it was closed but our new guest rider had no problem approaching a couple outside their home for some help. Soon water bottles were filled and pockets were stuffed with dates.
This brief restock was enough to see us further down the trail to a gas station that was open and as we knew this was the start to what we thought would be the long climb to Jerusalem (we now know it was the start of an epic climb) we stopped again to address our ever increasing calorie debt.
As we began the climb we had all agreed to climb at our own pace so we drifted apart on the fire road, Ricky taking the lead as I settled in to a comfortable pace with James occupying the middle ground. The climb was not all up and was punctuated with some fast rocky downs.
As myself and James started a section of downhill there was the now unfortunately all too familiar site of Ricky fixing a flat, an aggressive riding style coupled with under performing tyres had dealt Ricky some serious flat changing practice on this trip.
Knowing they would catch me up I continued to roll along the trail on my own enjoying the tree lined track providing shade from the days heat.
As I flowed more singletrack I came to a small campground and met with more local riders who were following the HLC and showed me a natural pool of cold spring water to wait by till James and Ricky caught up.
The awareness in the cycling community for this event was astonishing … many times we would ride past people who would shout ‘HLC’ at us !
The climb to Jerusalem was long, so much longer than we had first thought and every time we thought we were there scrolling out on the GPS screen indicated another false summit. By the time we reached the outskirts of the city it was already early afternoon and we pulled up at the first store we found.
At this point some emergency shoe modifications were needed as I could feel the cleats through the soles of my shoes. The addition of some padded tape to the inside of the shoes offered a cushioned layer offering much welcome respite to my feet. Riding this kind of distance is all about body maintenance and you neglect any niggle it will be sure to bite you at some point and endanger your ability to finish.
The old city of Jerusalem offered up what I consider to be the most comical route choice of the whole trip. The GPS line pointed us down a narrow enclosed market street bustling with traders and people either side and barely only a handlebar and a half wide a corridor to negotiate. All was going well until a group of elderly ladies decided to stop directly in front of us to make a purchase from a shop. Unfortunately that left us no room to manoeuvre around and as the ladies were clearly immersed in their purchase they were oblivious to the traffic bottleneck we had caused. People couldn’t pass in either direction as we were the subject of much annoyance by people trying to go about their day to day business. Eventually after 5 minutes the ladies moved and the huge backlog of traffic could then flow again. We made out exit from this narrow confine as quickly as possible.
Again the initial exit from Jerusalem as in Tel Aviv was a busy cycle path but this led to a huge gravel descent. Unfortunately the descent was proceeded by a huge gravel climb … well we expected nothing else.
After every night so far sleeping out we decided to try and locate some indoor accommodation with hopefully a shower. We had been informed on the route that other riders were using the Bikepacking Israel facebook group to locate accommodation so a message back home to Grace set her looking for a trail angel via social media. It didn’t take long to find a spot at someone’s home in a Kibbutz and with the thought of a bed we rode the last 20km at a brisk pace.
That night we were guests in a stranger’s house but treat like old friends. Food was forced upon us though we tried to be polite and not impose too much. Israel at every turn was offering us up stellar examples of the countries hospitality and welcoming attitude toward visitors.
It was no surprise when we left the next day that the trail quickly turned in to more beautiful singletrack. 6:30am, the sun was shining and so early in the day we were already enjoying life at its best … then we rode past grazing camels … what’s not to love!
We had given little consideration to our standing in the event as a whole, we had no feel for where anyone was in front or behind us and in fairness our only concern was covering kilometre’s and getting to the finish. Even so it was still exciting to see a rider in the distance and more so as we could make out the outline of a bike sporting full bikepacking regalia.
We had caught up with Ilan Rubenstein, a man that at the pre race dinner had promised us overnight accommodation in the aquarium in Eilat where he worked… in the actual subsea aquarium!
We were pleased to see Ilan though his mood was anything but jovial having endured little sleep the night before. The day previous Passover had ended and Ilan had been caught up in the noise of celebration. Still with little sleep Ilan was happy to see us and share some tales from the trail of his HLC experience so far and also offer up some advice on a possible final destination for the days riding, Arad, the start of the desert section.
An over enthusiastic Ricky had shot up the trail down a wrong turn and while we waited Ilan made his own way to a gas station breakfast while we waited for Ricky. When Ricky arrived he was not alone and had been joined by a fast moving Tom Willard, another British rider. We hadn’t seen Tom since the first day and he had apparently been gradually gaining ground on us for the past few days having spent the previous night within a few hundred metre’s of our hosts house.
So after spending days just the three of us we were now in the proximity of another few riders … when we reached the gas station that number grew by 2 more as we caught Ingo and Shay.
We didn’t know it at this point but with the exception of Ilan, who would leave the event once he had completed his own journey, these riders would never be far from us till the end of the race.
This day brought a change to riding companions. I decided to let Ricky and James ride on at a water stop while waiting for Tom to do some ‘self maintenance’ in the form of a shower. I had exchanged emails with Tom before the event and had ridden briefly with him at the start but this would be the first extended period of time we would spend together.
Tom had mostly ridden this event on his own and this was his first bikepacking event so he was learning as he went. I loved this guys enthusiam and the fact that he called it a ‘holiday’. Any negativity I had about any of my current niggles dissolved in his company.
The days riding would see us skirt the Israel/Palestinian current border. While doing so we witnessed car loads of Palestinian’s being dropped off near a gap in the fence where they would exit to waiting cars on Israeli soil before being sped away. Another highlight as to just how real and raw this event can be. This was TV esq images occurring right in front of us.
We rode good pace all day as we progressed up to and on to the long climb and when the climbing was done we could look out across to Arad and the start of the desert. As we crested the highest point of the day it was if a line had been drawn to indicate a boundary between the previous vegetation rich landscape and the stark contrast of the rock strewn desert ahead of us. Everything felt a little more serious now.
We rolled across the mostly flat middle ground between mountain and city until we entered the Arad were again we joined Ricky and James who had been forced to stop due to GPS issues. That night we ate pizza, one of very few hot meals we had had. The nights bivi spot would see us again meet up with Ingo and Shay as we took refuge in an adventure playground, the sandy floor making a comfortable bed.