April 9, 2015 10:00PM IST
The second annual Holyland Bikepacking Challenge (HLC) departed the community of Majdal Shams on Thursday morning at 7AM, from the southern flank of Mt. Hermon, Israel’s highest peak. Twenty two riders from Israel, Germany, Spain, and the USA casually rolled downhill and out of town to begin an 825mi (1400km) ride across Israel that is likely to last more than a week for most finishers. There is one female rider. The event abides by the grassroots racing ethos popularized by events like the Tour Divide– no entry fees, no prizes, no support. Follow the 2015 HLC at Trackleaders.com.
Top finishers from the inaugural event are missing, including former Israeli pro mountain biker and HLC record-holder Chanoch Redlich, event creator and Tour Divide veteran Zohar Kantor, American Max Morris, and a trio of UK riders to name a few. In 2014, Redlich finished in just over 6 days and 10 hours. There is no clear favorite this year in a field that includes many returning HLC riders. Self-supported bikepacking is growing in Israel and the HLC is both the seed and the core of the local culture, although the words Tour Divide are never far away.
Just past dark on the first day, half a dozen riders tracked within an hour of each other. Israeli riders Omri Ben Yaish and Niv Amos led the pace across the Golan Heights for most of the day, in a route composed of dirt roads and rocky singletrack. Both riders led a one-day 100 mile marathon around the Sea of Galilee several weeks ago, with Amos finishing first. Much of this section of the route follows the Golan Trail, a state funded hiking trail through country still bearing the mark of conflict from the early ’70s, including wounded tanks, abandoned bunkers, signs warning of land mines, and a substantial security fence along the current border with Syria. Angular volcanic rocks– often concealed by overgrowth– punctuate many of the narrow trails and lesser used roads, and cattle gates of various kinds are also a regular obstacle throughout the day. German rider Klaus Thiel, a Tour Divide veteran, smiled while describing the experience of riding his rigid 29er with 2.0” Continental Race King tires through tall grasses near Avnei Eitan. The field is split between full-suspension bikes and hardtails, while Thiel is the only rider committed to a rigid rig. Rookie Nir Almog is the first and only rider to attempt the route on a singlespeed. Thiel, Ingo Schulmeyer(Germany), Ophir Shavit, Yam Raz, and Lael Wilcox (USA) round out the front group. Klaus Thiel and Niv Amos have both tracked irregularly, so their position on Trackleaders may be inaccurate.
Support on this section of the route is uncomplicated, although most food and water points in the Golan Heights are within the security fence of local Jewish communities, just off route. For most riders the first day begins at 3600 ft in Majdal Shams and ends near the Sea of Galilee at 650 ft below sea level. Day two climbs to the highest point on the route at Mt. Meron. Cool weather and some clouds enabled many riders to make a strong push on the first day. Scattered showers and rain are predicted for the next 3-4 days in the northern half of the country, especially at elevation. Snow is predicted on the lofty peak of Mt. Hermon.
After dark on the first day, as a group of riders bedded down in the delta of the Jordan River, Lael Wilcox pressed on into the night to open a wide gap from the group. The sole female rider, and the first ever in the HLC, she put another 30mi (50km) behind her before a late bivy near Mahanayim Junction. She hopes to be over Mt. Meron before the rain begins. This is her first bikepacking race.
Follow the HLC at Trackleaders.com
Nicholas Carman has spent almost eight years pedaling the world with Lael Wilcox, and the last 8 months bikepacking in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and the Middle East. He shares words and images on his blog www.gypsybytrade.wordpress.com