A Cycling Trip Like No Other: Jetsetting To Israel

By Neil Shirley

If you could take a cycling vacation anywhere in the world, where would it be? Tuscany, the French Alps, Flanders, Sardinia, or Mallorca? Maybe a lesser known yet equally stunning destination such as Chiang Mai, Maui, or the Scottish Highlands? I’m privileged to say I’ve ridden in all those destinations and each provided an experience unique from one to the other. My most recent trip, a trip to Israel, was a place I never anticipated my bike taking me, but it happened, and I had no idea what to expect.

Below is a photo journal of my trip. Look for the entire story in an upcoming issue of Road Bike Action Magazine. 

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“There’s a cycling scene in Israel?” was my first thought after reading an email inviting me to the Gran Fondo Dead Sea held on March 5th. Then my mind quickly turned to, “Is Israel even safe to visit, let alone ride a bike?”. Two valid questions, and both were answered after just a little research. Once I started asking around it turned out a number of my friends have been there before and reassured me that it’s indeed safe, and road cycling is a quickly growing sport there.
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After landing in Tel Aviv we had a 2.5-hour drive to Ein Bokek, the start/finish town of the Gran Fondo that consists of a few restaurants and a dozen hotels dotted along the shore of the Dead Sea.
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The area is a hotspot for tourists seeking the relaxing and therapeutic benefits of the Dead Sea’s 29% salt content (ocean water is a measly 4%). A quick dip into the water was all I needed understand its popularity.
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My faithful traveling companion joined me for the trip, and has yet to let me down. Ritchey’s Carbon Break-Away saved me from over-sized baggage fees and the hassles of lugging around a full-size bike case. Neither the 95-mile Gran Fondo Dead Sea, nor the salt road that took me to the Jordanian border would be asking too much of the travel bike.
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The 2016 Gran Fondo Dead Sea would be the fourth edition and the number of riders participating has nearly doubled every year, now hitting 1,100 riders and becoming the largest cycling event in the country.
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On the start line along with my new friends Joao from Portugal on the left, and Kay from Germany on the right. 70-degree temperatures at 7 am meant that starting with anything other than short sleeves was entirely unnecessary. Not bad for early March weather.
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In addition to the Gran Fondo Dead Sea, the 3-day Tour of Arad was also being held for elite and masters riders, with the final stage being the same as the Fondo. The women’s event brought in teams from eight countries. Photo: Tomer Feder/RunnerScanner
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Once departing Ein Bokek we had 40 miles of lightly rolling roads through the Judean Desert to get ourselves warmed up before hitting the big climb of the day. Photo: Tomer Feder/RunnerScanner
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Yes, those are camels. No, I didn’t get to ride one, unfortunately.
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I was thoroughly impressed with the level of riders out there. Three different clubs each had between 15-20 riders in the Fondo, men and women, all riding together as a team and employing race strategy—getting in breakaways, chasing, protecting selected riders, and keeping our speed downright fast over the undulating desert terrain. Photo: Ronen Topelberg/RunnerScanner
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The Dead Sea is the absolute polar opposite of high-altitude mountain passes where you’re gasping for every breath of air. At 1,388 feet below sea level an ample amount of oxygen is at the ready. We were well into the Fondo before even hitting sea level, or in Hebrew, “face of the sea”.
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Wide roads with large shoulders made up the majority of the route, which make for safe cycling roads, but considering we had full road closures traffic wasn’t the least bit of a worry.
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When you start out at the lowest place on land in the world, there’s only one way you can go, and that’s up. The infamous Scorpion Pass climb that would come at mile 40 would be the biggest challenge of the day. Photo: Ronen Topelberg/RunnerScanner
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The 15 switchbacks that come in just one mile of climbing look practically flat from the aerial view. I can indeed testify that flat they were not. Photo: Itamar Grinberg/RunnerScanner
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At an average gradient of 9-percent over 2.2 miles, Scorpion Pass is enough to put a sting in the legs, yet those stats are fairly deceptive. It’s the first mile that features 15 switchbacks that hit pitches of up to 16%, with an average of 11%. Add in a very rough, potholed single lane road and suffice it to say, it hurt.
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Don’t take my word for it, just ask one of these guys. Photo: Ronen Topelberg/RunnerScanner
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After my event prep of lounging in the Dead Sea and hotel pool, sightseeing, and sampling large quantities of Israeli wine backfired on me, I found a trusted name to get me through to the finish. Photo: Ronen Topelberg/RunnerScanner
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Over the course of 95 miles we went by a number of sites that I had heard stories about. Remember the story of Sodom? You know, that party town that was destroyed by fire and brimstone? Yeah, that was on course at mile 20. Photo: Ronen Topelberg/RunnerScanner
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Anytime you have a beer sponsor there’s sure to be plenty of selfies. The festival at the finish of the Fondo was the perfect opportunity to eat, drink and enjoy the atmosphere. Photo: Tomer Feder/RunnerScanner

EXTRACARRICULAR ACTIVITIES

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I’d be lying if the word “vacation” didn’t cross my mind when seeing our trip itinerary: floating in the Dead Sea, touring Masada, and exploring Old Jerusalem. At least I could justify it all with the 95-mile Fondo, which by all intents and purposes, fulfilled the “work” aspect of the trip. After just a 15 minute drive from our hotel in Ein Bokek we were at the base of Masada.  There are two options for getting to the top: hike up or take the cable car. We took the quick way.
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Masada is atop an isolated rock plateau that sits 1,100 feet above the Dead Sea to the east, and 300 feet above the valley to the west. Its cliff walls provide a natural defense, and after further fortification with rock walls surrounding the top, multiple palaces were built over 2,000 years ago by King Herod. The three steps on the left of the image are where Herod’s palace were located. If you don’t know the story and significance of Masada, you can read what Wikipedia has to say about it here. Photo: Itamar Grinberg/RunnerScanner
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Having Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions all sharing the one-square kilometer walled city gave me new perspective on Jerusalem’s global significance. A full day in the city allowed us to briefly see most of the notable sites in the different quarters and even do a little gift shopping in the bazaars.
We started the day by standing on the Mount of Olives and looking down into Jerusalem while getting a history lesson about each time it had been conquered, destroyed and rebuilt over the past 3,000 years. I had always just assumed that unless you were deeply religious there wasn’t a real need to visit the area, but my ignorance was proven in just a single day as we went from one site to another that has historical significance to the entire world.

Visit www.granfondo-deadsea.co.il/for more info about the event and next year’s date. Look for the entire story in an upcoming issue of Road Bike Action Magazine.

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