Nick and I went to Israel to race, but we were treated not only to a World-class race but a culturally diverse, deeply historical yet surprisingly modern treasure trove of cities, peoples and experiences. Tel Aviv gave us fine dining, café culture and safe, late night walks on the beach, whilst Jaffa and Jerusalem offered ancient alleyways cutting through a rich religious atmosphere and stories that shaped the World. We bobbed in the Dead Sea and bathed in the Mediterranean Sea. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with warmth, and everywhere we ate we were welcomed with hummus!
After three days of culture it was time for three days of bikes…
The sun was beating down and the wind was picking up as we arrived at the Galilion Hotel, right up in the North of Israel, just off Route 90 after 2 hours driving from Tel Aviv. This beautiful new hotel and conference centre is set in the green flood plane of the Jordan river, with dusty brown mountains rising up in the distance.
Nick and I unpacked our bags, built our bikes and headed out for a spin. My legs felt hopelessly wooden but my smile was absolutely genuine. Bowling along dusty gravel tracks with the wind on our backs and the promise of adventure ahead!
Once we had signed on and collected our rider packs (including some mega goodies) it was back to our room for a power shower and a power nap, and then is was time for dinner. We were treated to a feast of appropriately epic proportions and amazingly good quality. Tender lamb; soft, sweet roasted vegetables; wild rice; bulgar wheat salad and much more that I couldn’t fit on my plate. Then stunning chocolate desserts worthy of a top-end restaurant. Good energy and good morale comes from food like this!
A 0500 alarm was set and I went to sleep looking forward to the challenge that tomorrow would bring. I wasn’t nervous because there really wasn’t any expectation or pressure, even from myself. I believed that I could physically and mentally get through the race, but it wasn’t a given; I had never tackled anything like this before. My preparation was poor but my mindset was good. I slept well.
With our numbers already pinned on and our nutrition all set out, pre-race was all about just going through the motions. My experience of working at stage races with OMX Pro Team, and Nick’s experience of racing them on the road, had drilled into us the need for organisation and preparation. We weren’t serious but we were bloody efficient and both of these traits worked really well for us as the race unfolded.
STAGE 1 – 98km, 1480m vertical ascent
We rolled into the starting lane, the sky still dark but the temperature already warm enough to be comfortable in just shorts and jersey. The atmosphere was surprisingly calm, but I think that comes with a sense that you are in the hands of a very good race organiser.
The countdown ended, the whistle blew and the race begun. This was it.
Well, it took us 30 seconds or so to get moving as the riders in front of us slowly pulled away. There was a one kilometre neutral zone led out by a motorbike to point the leaders in the right direction. We never saw the motorbike, or the leaders…
I was a tad concerned that Nick and I would lose each other in the opening few kilometres as the race found its rhythm and we found our place within it, but actually I had no trouble sticking to his wheel as we wound out of the hotel. We soon left the asphalt for the gravel roads and entered into a huge cloud of dust. I honestly didn’t understand how I was going to be able to breathe! It was thick in the air and dry in your mouth. All you could see was the two riders ahead of you and the sense that a hot, golden sun was coming up over the mountains somewhere beyond. Everything else was blanket beige. Including me.
We rode in the wheels and Nick closed any gaps that formed as riders got spat out of the back of what was, at this early stage, a big peloton of riders. As the race and the dust settled, so did we. The gravel roads that cut through the flat valley floor gave way to undulating tarmac and then to the first big climb. The course profile sticker on my top tube told me that we had already clocked off twenty kilometres of this ninety-eight kilometre loop. So far so good.
The climb was gentle in the early stages, but the rhythm was disrupted by rocks and river beds. Soon we came to the first feed station where an army of helpers ran around like busy ants filling bottles and back pockets. Advice and lessons learned from my team mates meant we took our time to refill and refuel. There were bananas, gels, pretzels, beetroot and oat bars, water and isotonic drinks. I stretched my legs and my back, scoffed a few tasty treats and we got on our way in a few fast-but-not-rushed minutes. It was hectic, but as we were learning, that is the Israeli way. Why queue when you can just walk straight to the front?
The climbing continued but the rocks gave way to steep gradients and beautiful views over the Upper Galilee. As we emerged from the valley the sun was now high in the sky but still casting a golden light over the scrubby green hills, making the dusty ground warm and the distant peaks hazy.
There were a few fairly savage sections but nothing that called into question why on earth I signed up for this! With Nick riding ahead and setting a nice, even pace, we steadily caught and passed riders all the way to the top.
There were a lot of people who looked to have blown their doors by the second feed zone. Tact did not appear to be a strong point among many of our competitors.
Nick and I, on the other hand, were both in a pretty good place. I was happy to be past the half-way point on the stage and with most of the climbing complete. I was still smiling, but my major leg injury three and a half years ago was causing my back all sorts of problems. It was a familiar pain, starting at the pelvis and climbing up the right side of my back as we climbed up the mountain. I stretched as best I could and put the pain to the back of my mind where I hoped it would be forgotten.
For the hard climb we were treated to a fantastic piece of wooded single track that dropped us off the highest point and fourteen kilometres down towards the finish. Unfortunately we got held up in slow traffic for most of this section so we couldn’t experience the tracks at full tilt. This may have been a blessing in disguise as some washed out corners and a few tight turns will surely have caught out a few tired or over-enthusiastic riders. Still, it was fun to sweep through flowing single trails and let the back tyre drift through some of the loose corners. It was a perfect playground to tick off another section of the stage before topping up our fluids and food for the final time and cracking on towards home.
From the eighty kilometre point onwards was super fast gravel roads and farm tracks. With the hard climb done and the technical descent complete I knew I had enough in the tank to push on for the final eighteen kilometres without blowing up or blowing any chance of a decent day on stage two. We bowled along beautifully, keeping the speed high through the turns and over the small inclines. Gently rolling farmland stretched out before us and a cloud of dust followed behind us.
As we entered into the hotel complex I rode up beside Nick and gave him the biggest, cheesiest grin ever! Crossing the finish line after long, hard day was as good as I imagined. There was a deep sense of satisfaction, a little relief that my body was capable of doing it, and a lot of that awesome feeling of contentment that comes with warranted physical tiredness. I was proud of how the day went; we rode smooth and steady, we had no mechanical incidents, no accidents and nothing but good vibes from everyone along the way. Plus my dodgy leg hadn’t fallen off and my brain had done a decent job of forgetting my more-than-mildly uncomfortable back pain. We spun our legs and went back to our room for a recovery shake and a shower. I was tired but I was buzzing, and to top it off, I was sat on a comfortable sofa in a posh hotel room wearing a rather handsome towelling robe. Well done me.
Our lunch ticket got us a take-away style box of tasty chicken and noodles which we ate in our room. I did some work, took a nap, organised kit for the next day and then it was time for dinner. Again we were served big pots of slow-cooked meat, rice, vegetables and salads of all descriptions. Like the feed station along the race route, dinner time was a bit of a riot and we had to forget British manners and engage our elbows a bit! We found some familiar faces to eat with and went about trying to replace all the calories we had burnt that day. We sat outside with hundreds of other eager eaters, telling tales of their day. It was an inclusive atmosphere where, despite fighting us for a chicken wing in the dining hall, everyone was interested to know where we came from, what we thought of Israel and how our race was going so far. After lots of chatting, a presentation of the day’s winners and a briefing for Stage Two, we happily made our way to bed ready for another 0500 alarm call.
STAGE 2 – 115km , 1850m vertical ascent
We had a better idea of how we faired against other riders by Stage 2 so we positioned ourselves a little further toward the front of the pack in the starting lane. Once again I was beautifully piloted through the dusty chaos on Nick’s wheel, a little bubble of calm in a whirlwind World that ripped through the beautiful, coral pink dawn at nearly 30km per hour.
Having settled into a good pace our progress was seriously slowed by a tricky – but really not that tricky – section of the course which climbed up through a stream. It was muddy in places, and rocky in others, but totally rideable given a clear path. What we didn’t have was a clear path! It was frustrating to waste time walking, but we had to just be patient and make our way along with all the other pedestrians until the track was again free to ride. Back in the saddle we pressed on towards the Golan Heights and the race’s biggest and steepest climb.
With the wind behind us I took the front for a change and dictated the pace as we made our way towards the foot of the climb. With a slightly technical up and down farm track I could keep the momentum whilst conserving energy and arrive to the climb in a good way. As we began to ascend, so did the temperature! The Middle Eastern sun was beating down on our backs with serious intensity. It somehow concentrated my mind and kept me glued to Nick’s wheel, turning the pedals with mechanical rhythm. Half way up we were treated to an extra Water Point, a real oasis! With a bottle of water over my head and a few cups of isotonic down the hatch we hike-a-biked the steepest section (years of cyclocross racing paid off!) and then slogged up to the top of the hill at the top of the block. The landscape was incredible: barren like a baking moon. Nick’s inner ten year old boy was convinced we were in a war zone, with abandoned villages littered with bullet holes, and squadrons of tanks parked up over the next hill. You’ll be pleased to know that we were not in fact racing through an active military conflict, but instead viewing an inactive military training zone. Either way, I think we rode a little faster…
With the summit reached we refuelled again – I was seriously smashing down the bananas by this point – and then began the long ride home. We weaved up and down through the dry and rocky Odem Forest with its gnarled old trees and skinny cows, and then let the brakes go as we hurtled down sandy tracks through sketchy corners and steep chutes. At the final Water Point I had a fleeting conversation with a marshal about Prince Harry, though I can’t for the life of me work out why. I had a few odd exchanges along the way to be honest, but that rather added to the magic of the whole place.
The penultimate section of the route wound through beautiful valley roads and orchard tracks, crossing the Jordan River (a welcome cool off) and then, like Stage 1, it was time to hold the wheel for dear life and race full-gas for the finish. Nick and I tried to get a group working to battle the afternoon wind, but echelon riding was not a forté of the Israelis, and we ended up on our own again with me popping gels like they were going out of fashion to stave off a sudden hunger and impending bonk!
The smashfest was over for another day, and the buzz of accomplishment was back. And so was the hunger. I ate two lunches and enough dinner to feed a small army. I was beginning to get the appeal of stage-racing!
STAGE 3 – 62km , 1350m vertical ascent
The hardest two stages were behind us and there was just the final 60km to contend with. Knowing we were in pretty good shape and on for a podium finish allowed the nerves to creep in, but like the previous stages we stuck to our guns and rolled out smoothly, riding up to and settling into a good paced group. Good pace over the opening fire roads was about 28km per hour for us, which is all fine and dandy until a rock the size of a farmhouse loaf is disturbed, dislodged and then rolled into the path of an oncoming Nick. I can still see the whole episode unravel as it did in front of my eyes: front wheel hit, bike thrown, over the handlebars and onto the deck, then me following suit like a proper, dedicated partner! I did a pretty nifty ninja dive and managed only to catch a chain ring on the back of my calf. Nothing serious. Nick, however, having unfurled from a foetal position in the middle of the track, was looking more than a little worse for wear. He was up and about and nothing was broken (a true Holy Land miracle!) but it wasn’t the walk of a man who was totally sure of himself, and his elbow was in all sorts of mess. It wasn’t quite race over yet as we toyed with the idea of just spinning along and seeing what came of it, but the medical car which followed the race had other ideas. With a messy, deep, open wound which was full of dirt, we were strongly advised to head back to the hotel. We didn’t really need to discuss it, we knew that this was the sensible thing to do. So with the dust settled we turned around and limped home. It was really disappointing.
A lot of dirt, some infection, a few hospital trips and many, many dressing later, Nick has a big scar to remind him that we have unfinished business in Israel. Once we had agreed that we were okay but needed to abandon the race, the next thing we decided is that we would be back again to complete it in the coming years. Despite the misadventure, we had an amazing time. The race, the people, the country and the memories are all really special.
Epic Israel is a race that can accommodate so many racing requirements for all manner of riders. In the mornings we lined up alongside professional racers and first-time mountain bikers, and in the evenings we shared our day’s stories with people from all over the World. We were all enchanted in some way by the race and with the country we were riding through and the people we had met along the way.
Israel is a complicated place in many ways, but the simple fact is that the Epic Israel race is a great example of superb race organisation coupled with genuine, warm hospitality and a fierce passion for mountain biking that I have seen in few other places. It offered us an amazing opportunity and we came away with a unique and really beautiful experience.
Visit www.epicisrael.org.il to find out more, and make 2017 the year to take on the ultimate Holy Land mountain bike challenge!