The decision to ride the Israel 1200k in 2018 was not based on hours of detailed research or years of daydreaming about riding in the desert. Instead, it came about in a brief moment of mindless spontaneity. Spencer Klaassen and I had been tentatively planning to ride Perth-Albany-Perth this fall. On New Years Eve, I got a text from Spencer suggesting we should ride in Israel instead. With all of the deep contemplation you would expect half way through a New Years Eve celebration, I responded with “I’m in if you are.” By the next morning we were both signed up. I later found out that Spencer was just screwing around and didn’t really have an interest in riding in Israel. Jerry Christensen had also been planning to do P-A-P. A couple texts to him and he was on board as well.
We arrived in Tel Aviv a couple of nights prior to the start. Vinny Muoneke met us at the airport in Tel Aviv and we all took a large taxi van to our apartment in a really fun neighborhood in Tel Aviv. I was surprised by how busy the area was with pedestrians, car, motorized scooters and e-bikes. The neighborhood was dotted with fun looking restaurants, bars and small shops. Our group did our best to scout out a lot of them.
The ride started at 10:00pm on October 23. We left our apartment and rode the bike trail which runs the length of the beach along the Mediterrean Sea. Ride organizer, Tal had organized a pre-ride dinner at a restaurant about 100 yards from the start.
Tal excitedly got the ride started precisely at 10 and we wound for several miles through a network of bike trails before emerging onto the still bustling streets of Tel Aviv.
Within the first couple of kilometers I realized that my front handlebars were loose, causing them to turn about 25 degrees to the left. I didn’t want to lose the group this early so I kept rolling while gently holding the bars and re-aligning them at each stoplight. The field largely stayed in two pack as we rode through the city streets. Eventually, we left the outskirts of Tel Aviv and entered more rural areas. I was surprised that we rode through a number of Arab neighborhoods or communities as we left the City. I didn’t realize that there were numerous Arab settlements within Israel. Eventually, I realized that almost all of the road signs had wording in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
The first control was at Caesarea, approximately 80 kilometers into the ride. Tal had chosen a small park next to an ancient Roman Coliseum for the control.
I was finally able to take a couple of minutes and properly tighten my handlebar bolts. Tal stamped our cards, filled our water bottles and we were off, largely retracing our steps back towards Tel Aviv. The first night of this ride was beautiful. It stayed warm overnight and the traffic finally lightened up. Our group consisted of me, Spencer, Jerry, Matt Levy from the Quad Cities, and Canadian, Marty Cooper. We rode efficiently though the overnight, not working too hard and keeping up a reasonable pace. Somewhere around 150 kilometers into the ride we spotted a gas station and decided on a refueling stop. Walking into an Israeli convenience store was a bit overwhelming at first. None of the products were labeled in English so a fair amount of guesswork was involved. I ended up with a large bowl of noodles.
All of the convenience stores we stopped in had a couple of items that would be big hits for American randonneurs. The first was the large containers of Raman type noodles. When you picked out the one you liked, the cashier would open it and add hot water from the espresso machine for an instant hot meal. The other was sandwiches that were packaged in a colored bag. You’d pick one out based on the picture on the bag and the clerk would heat it in some kind of little oven. Throughout the ride, I had mixed luck with this as I could not get the hang of what kind of sandwich I was getting. The first time, I ended up a cheese and green olive sandwich. The second time was some kind of breaded meat (maybe lamb or veal) that I really couldn’t stomach.
Shortly after leaving the convenience store, we passed through the eastern edge of the Tel Aviv metro area. To say there was a lot of traffic would be an understatement. This stretch had more traffic than any road I can remember riding on during a brevet. However, I never really felt unsafe. There seemed to be a decent shoulder and other than some honking, none of the cars came particularly close. We were rewarded with a beautiful sight of the full moon setting behind the tall buildings of Tel Aviv just before sunrise.
We stopped for a second time at a convenience store near a well-know tank museum. The store was quite crowded with tourists. I encountered my first experience with young Israelis in uniform with machine guns over their shoulder just casually shopping in the convenience store. This would become a very common sight.
Leaving this needed stop we began climbing through a wooded, low mountainous area. I even caught sight of a fast-moving mountain stream that would have seemed natural in Colorado or New Mexico. This section featured a couple of long, gradual climbs and an encounter with some kind of organized cycling tour. It didn’t seem like they were too happy with us for sharing their roads. We eventually parted ways right before the second control in HaEla. This convenience store overlooked the Valley of Elah, the location of the historic battle between David and Goliath.
The next section featured very beautiful and relatively quiet roads. We passed through varying terrain. An earlier section reminded me of some areas of the Desert Southwest, with low desert shrubs, cactus and rocky hills. Within a few miles, we were passing large fields of orange and citrus trees. The day heated up dramatically, so we decided to make another unscheduled stop for fluids and a snack. By mid- afternoon, we were approaching Urim. The road into town was lined with a 5 foot tall “fence” of oversized prickly pear cactuses.
Approaching the control, a large installation of radar towers dominated one side of the road. I assumed the radar units had to do with the town being less than 5 miles from the Gaza Strip.
The effects of the heat and the mounting miles led to a pretty long stop here. After I had finished eating and thinking I was good, one of the non-English speaking Russian riders offered me a cannister of noodles he had purchased and didn’t need. After first refusing because I thought I was full, I reconsidered and ate the whole thing. So apparently, I wasn’t as full as I thought.
The miles after Urim were truly enjoyable. The sun was lowering in the sky and we were riding through a relatively quiet area. For at least twenty miles, the land on both sides of the road was obviously a military training facility. We would periodically hear machine gun fire or loud percussions from tanks or other heavy arms, but it was generally low traffic and quiet riding. We took one more quick stop near Tlalim Junction before the final 20 kilometers of climbing before arriving at the overnight at Sde Boker around 7:40 pm. For the first leg, we covered 243 miles.
The overnights were arranged at a Kibbutz in central Israel. Basically, it was a sprawling communal living space with lots of housing, and other businesses. The kibbutz at Sde Boker had a hostel type space to rent out to travelers. We had a large courtyard and several rooms full of bunk beds and a bathroom/shower. I ate a quick supper, showered and was in bed within a half hour. Unfortunately, I did not sleep well. No one in our pod could figure out the air conditioner so it was hot in the room. After about 45 minutes of tossing and turning, I wet down a bath towel and draped it over my back. This helped a lot and I was able to get a couple of hours of sleep.
The second day was billed as shorter but harder with lots of climbing including the big climb out of the Dead Sea. Jerry, Spencer, Vinny and I left Sde Boker just before midnight.
We rolled about 3 kilometers to the first gas station to get breakfast. The store was open but because of the hour, we had to order and pay though a locked gate. This should have been routine but the clerk didn’t know English and we didn’t know Hebrew. What should have been a relatively easy process was anything but. Instead of a full breakfast to get the day started, I was able to get a croissant type pastry and a Coke. That was enough to get us to the first open store, 35 kilometers later.
The highlight of the day was definitely the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at approximately 1400 feet below sea level. The pre-dawn hours were dominated by the 20-ish kilometers of steep hairpins descending towards the Dead Sea. The temperature rose steadily as we descended. Well before sunrise, Spencer’s GPS showed a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100° F) at the bottom. We rode along the Dead Sea for several miles. It’s not everyday that your GPS shows your elevation as a negative number. As we came to an area of hotels, we decided to stop for fluids and food instead of continuing to the control at Masada. It’s good that we did, because the store at Masada had not yet opened when we arrived.
Masada is very sacred site to Israeli Jews. It is located on top of a large flat mountain. Around 75 AD, Masada was the last Jewish hold in the First Jewish-Roman war. After a lengthy siege, the Romans finally broke through only to find that the Jews had killed themselves rather than become slaves to the Romans. Apparently, all modern-day Israeli service members are sworn in at the site.
Without services, Jerry, Spencer and I backtracked along the shores of the Dead Sea.
Just before the climb out the basin, we spotted the golden arches above a building in an obviously tourist location. The building was completely round and we had a hard time figuring out how to get into it. We asked different people how to get into the McDonald’s but were met with confused expressions. We finally found a way into what was an almost deserted tiny mall. All of the stores were closed except a Bulgarian bakery. I ordered two Bulgarian cheese pastries. It was so rich and odd flavored that I could only eat one. But it was some serious calories and we were able to fill our bottles and use the bathroom. With that we were off to tackle the monster climb out of the Dead Sea.
The climb immediately started in earnest.
2 or 3 miles up the climb, Tal was parked along the side of the road at an overlook. As I approached, he ran along besides me, yelling “go, Dan” like a fan at the Tour de France. It was pretty hard not to laugh. I pulled over at his van and topped off my bottles and talked a little bit. At this point, I was feeling really good and in good spirits. I continued climbing for several miles. As I tend to climb a little faster than Jerry and Spencer, I wasn’t surprised to have not seen them in a while. When I reached what I thought was the top I pulled over to sip some water and wait for them. After about 20 minutes and as I was starting to get worried, I got a text from Spencer saying that he was throwing up and DNF’ing. I waited a bit longer for Jerry but then decided to roll on. Tal had described a place to get water about 20km down the road so I decided to go there. That’s when my ride took a turn.
Within couple of miles of restarting, the wind started to pick up dramatically. At one point, it was so strong that I had to ride my brakes down a descent to keep control in the heavy crosswind. As I reached the bottom, someone in a pickup truck pulled next to me and started yelling in Hebrew. It didn’t seem like angry yelling, more like he was trying to warn me of something. He kept trying to show me his phone but I couldn’t tell what he was trying to say. He seemed satisfied when I pulled out my phone and demonstrated that I would look at it. Unfortunately, my phone was dead so I didn’t learn anything. I really didn’t have much of an option at the point, so I decided to try and push forward for the 10-12 miles to the water stop where I assumed there would be shelter. About this time, I looked to my right and spotted a herd of camels. I had planned to stop and watch if I ever saw camels on this ride, but I only had time to snap a quick photo.
The wind continued to increase and sand started blowing. Soon semi trucks heading towards me started honking and gesturing to me. I assumed they were trying to warn me to take shelter but I didn’t really have anywhere to go so I kept moving forward the best I could. At one point the blowing sand got bad enough that I didn’t feel it was safe to keep riding so I got off my bike and started walking. My knowledge of sandstorm survival techniques is pretty limited but I assumed a big danger was getting totally disoriented and walking off the road. So I decided to walk with my right shoe directly on the divide between the pavement and gravel shoulder. I figured that if the visibility went away completely, I could still feel that. After about a half mile, the blowing seemed to die down just enough that I thought I could ride again, so I climbed back on and slowly rode towards the water stop. I finally got there and found the water stop about a kilometer off the route and was able to refill my bottles. There really wasn’t much for shelter. I was able to huddle behind a low stone wall long enough to recharge my phone and send a text to Spencer, who I assumed was with Tal. I asked what the knew about the storm and whether it was likely to continue. They didn’t have much information either. I rode back to the course and took shelter on the leeward side of a tree to try and figure out what to do. I had about 60 kilometers to go, generally into the wind and no idea how long the storm was forecast to go on.
At that point, I decided to hang it up. I sent a text to Spencer and Tal and they showed up a few minutes later. I had a discussion with Tal and he thought that if I could make it just a little further, I would be dropping into a large crater where the weather might be different. Thinking I had new life, I decided to try and took off for an 8 mile stretch straight into the wind. I was able to cover the 8 miles in around a mile and turned right for the 9 mile gradual descent into the crater. I went about a half mile in that direction, which turned out to be even more directly into the wind before deciding to quit for the second time. I decided I would try to get back to the main road and another half mile or so to get past the military “no stopping” zone to text Tal. When I got there, I couldn’t get through to Tal right away and when I did, he asked if I could try to get a ride to the town of Dimona. I wasn’t really sure how far that was but knew how to get there as we had passed the same way that morning.
I continued slow moving in the direction of Dimona when a couple huge blasts of sand kicked up again. I finally put my back to the wind and hunkered down waiting for it to let up.
I think I stood like that for about 90 minutes before deciding I had to try something. I noticed a small pickup truck had approached the other side of the highway. I was able to get the attention of the young guy in the truck who waited for me to cross the highway. When I got there, it was obvious he didn’t speak English. Through some really interesting negotiating, I was somehow able to get across that I needed a ride to Dimona and that I would pay him 100 shekels. ($35-$40). We loaded the bike into the back of the truck and I climbed in. Before I could get the seatbelt on, he started asking me what I assumed was where did I want to get dropped off. I looked up and saw we were already in town. The whole trip was less than 2 miles. I had him drop me off at the gas station we had breakfast in that morning. I then walked next door to a fast food restaurant and had the best hamburger I’ve had in years. After just enough time to pick up a couple of beers and bottle of water, Tal picked me up and gave me a ride back to Sde Boker.
After drinking my two beers, I showered and slept for 11 hours. A handful of others who had DNF’d had decided to catch a bus with their bikes to Be’er Sheva where we could catch a train to Tel Aviv.
A few strained minute trying to figure out how to navigate the train system led to a relaxing train ride and we were back in our apartment in Tel Aviv.
In my rash decision to ride the Israel 1200k, I was intrigued by riding in such an exotic location and truly wanted an adventure. The ride delivered on that completely. The scenery in Israel was otherworldly and spectacular. The place has a sense of history that is hard to explain. There was considerably more traffic than I was expecting but I never felt unsafe.
This was my first DNF since I started randonneuring in 2007. The DNF is especially frustrating because I really felt good throughout the ride. For now, I’m chalking it up to a freak storm that I really didn’t have a way to deal with. I have wondered a few times what would have happened if I had continued into the crater. The storm raged on for several more hours, so I think it would have been a really hard slog to Sde Boker. If I would have made it, it would have taken a pretty serious recovery to be able to go again the next day. Of the 27 riders who started the event, only 10 finished. Almost all of them were well ahead of me so they were closer to the overnight when the storm hit.