I first heard about the Holyland MTB Challenge in August 2013 on a twitter feed…
— Kevin Davie (@freedomriderza) August 9, 2013
Instantly I knew I had to take part. It had a number of appealing factors. Firstly it was in a country that I’d never thought of visiting before. Israel was well beyond my radar as far as holiday destinations go. We all hear about Israel in the news and know about it’s war torn history and the ongoing troubles with it’s neighbours but what is it really like? It also neighbours Jordan and I’ve always wanted to see Petra ever since watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a kid. The Holyland MTB Challenge finishes in Eilat which just so happens to be the most convenient border crossing into Jordan so this was an additional reason to go but to have a cycling event in Israel which not only involves bikepacking through desert, but an inaugural and groundbreaking event which is the longest ever ridden in Israel, had to be done. I knew this event would test me in so many ways. I’ve never been bikepacking before let alone taken part in a bikepacking race. I was hoping that my limited bicycle touring experience would provide me with the necessary knowledge and my cycle commute to work would provide me with the training. In retrospect it was naive of me to simply expect these to provide me with what I needed to complete this challenge but life isn’t without it’s risks and there are sometimes far too many factors to consider to be 100% prepared so first things first, without having fully committed myself, in December I started building a bike that would, I was hoping, help me to undertake this challenge. I was thinking that even if the logistical nightmare of planning for this trip did prove to be too much at least I would be half way ready to take part in another bikepacking trip later on in the year. On top of this I was assuring myself that I wouldn’t race, ease the pressure, it’s a bike tour. Meet new people and do some sight seeing courtesy of a pre-mapped route which would cover the whole length of Israel. However I still signed up for a Spot Tracker…..duh, duh duhhh.
Hoping that what I would build would be top spec and cheaper than the big brand alternatives I knew I wanted a bike that was light and after reading various positive online reports about the Chinese carbon frames I bought one over the Christmas period. The various components I’d bought from countries all over Europe to keep the costs down but the build was never really fully completed until a week prior to leaving for Israel.
With the bike nearing completion around early March I kept an eye on the flights and fortunately Easyjet had announced they were to begin flights to Tel Aviv in April. This meant that I didn’t need to use Alitalia which would require a change in Italy and the increased potential to lose my bike! The flights however were increasing in price and I knew that I would have to fully commit soon. So I laid my cash down. Not cheap carriage fees for the bike but the departure and arrival times were very respectable as I chose to depart from Gatwick around midday and arrive at Luton on the return journey at around 9pm. The day following my return to England would be a bank holiday to allow me to rest before returning to work the day after. Looked good two and a half weeks away, an estimated 10 days to complete the challenge, a number of days to properly see Israel and with the plan of visiting Jordan if all went well.
There were still 101 things I had to think about getting as I was effectively building up my bikepacking kit from scratch except for a few items I’d used for bicycle touring. The thing is with bikepacking the gear has to be lightweight and compact. There aren’t many places to store the gear and the bike has to be manoeuvrable on technical descents and light for the ascents or hike-a-bike sections. I’d ordered a custom framebag from Alpkit and things like the Revelate Jerrycan to hold my tools. I’d ordered most of my Revelate gear from France. Every part of my body was crossed in the hope all the gear would be delivered to me in good time.
In addition to buying reliable and lightweight equipment I had also chosen to make certain items such as the phone case and my stem power connector to charge the devices off my dynamo. I was determined to use my phone for navigation. Most experienced bikepackers would have scoffed at this idea but I still think it’s the future. I had also chosen to make a couple of other items including the compression bag for my tarptent and a little coffee filter. Would I use it? Who cares, it’s light and compact. All these items I had designed in my head and knew that I had to get them made with limited time remaining. To say I was making my preparations for the challenge more stressful is an understatement but it’s amazing what can be achieved when the pressure’s on.
My concern about what tyres to choose was one of my biggest dilemmas and various read ups lead me to taking 2.35 Racing Ralphs front and rear. A decision which could well have been my saving grace since I was running rigid forks. I was desperate to know what type of tyres the Israelis generally settle on with the unanimous decision being Maxxis and in general Crossmarks but the consistent advice I was getting would be that tubeless are the way to go. I have never even considered tubeless before but do like to experiment. So firstly I bought Schwalbe Racing Ralphs Snakeskin Tubeless Ready 2.25 tyres with the idea that durability and speed should be the priorities. I’d heard that wear wasn’t so good but I wasn’t bothered by that. The tyres went tubeless on my carbon rims without any problems and I filled them with about 2.5oz of Stans fluid. Then a last minute panic lead me to buying and fitting the 2.35 versions. I wanted as big capacity as I could fit. I couldn’t afford a suspension fork so these would have to fulfill the suspension duties. I was pleased to find the frame had sufficient clearance at the rear. As these tyres were noticeably larger than the 2.25’s and as the trip was long I injected the front and rear tyres with 3oz of Stans each.
Final assembly of the gear took place a week before leaving.
Even with three months to prepare I was still scraping over the deadline and I actually think in retrospect the logistics and kit gathering were the most stressful parts of the entire trip. What I hadn’t been fully prepared for was the amount of organisation that the Israelis were putting in to the hospitality aspect. My initial plans were to get to Tel Aviv at a fairly respectable time with enough daylight to go and sort out accommodation at a youth hostel but the organisers had actually arranged for myself and the other riders from abroad to be hosted. This was fantastic news to me and really lessened the logistical nightmare that this trip was threatening to become. A couple of emails later and I’d become acquainted with Ezra who, as it happened, had also been to Jordan so was able to give me some advice on cycling through it…and that was that I couldn’t. Probably. Ah well, still I’ll get my fix by riding 820 miles through Israel.
15.04.14 – Arrival at Tel Aviv
I’ll skip the flight bit except to say on arrival at Tel Aviv airport, and if you’re reading this in anticipation of taking your bike to Israel. Don’t be surprised by a chap sitting down dressed in casual attire interrupting his casual conversation with another casually dressed chap and shouting,”How much?”, across the exit hall to you.
This is what happened to me and took me by surprise for a moment as I gave him a disbelieving, perhaps suspicious look and continued on. He then repeated his question so I replied,”a bit”, thinking he and his friend were plotting to steal my bike.
At which point he stood up and marched in front to block my path.
“You tell me how much your bike is worth, is it new!?”
“Urmmm, yeeeeeah”, I replied hesitantly whilst trying to look unruffled.
“You’re at Customs now, you tell me are you taking that bike back or leaving it here, if you don’t you pay 200 bucks?!”
Now the thing is Israeli Customs, at the airport at least, don’t wear uniforms and there certainly wasn’t a sign above their two seats. So this was a bit of an unnerving experience but it went without incident once the penny had dropped. I told the guy why I was there and assured him the bike would definately be returning to England with me so he waved me on and even told me to enjoy my trip. So this is a heads up to to anyone else that encounters this chap. He’s doing a job and not about to nick your bike!
After this encounter it was good to meet Ezra who just popped out of nowhere as I tried to find a mobile phone shop. After sorting out a (very expensive) data sim for my phone we left the airport and drove to his house.
16.04.14 – Coach to Majdal Shams
Some more fantastic organising by the HLC crew to ease to logistical burden for the HLC entrants was in arranging a coach from Tel Aviv to Majdal Shams.
However Ezra had to look after a patient of his (he’s a vet) which meant we would have to drive, or at least Ezra would, to meet up with the coach later on and then hop on board to be taken the rest of the way to the event start.
The HLC organisers had also arranged for the entrants to stay a night in the Hotel Narkis, but best of all was a pre-prepared meal served up with some specially home made ale. Lovely. This also provided a great opportunity to meet our fellow cyclists have a good chinwag.
17.04.14 – Day 0 – Event Start
So with breakfast laid on I had to make a decision whether to stuff as much food as I could down my gullet or go easy to prevent stomach cramps. Well, in the end I just had a couple of boiled eggs and pitta
18.04.14 – Day 1