Holyland MTB Challenge: Part One - Finding Our Way

Toward the end of 2013 I heard about a new bikepacking event, a 1300km self-supported race across Israel, the Holyland MTB Challenge.

I was instantly drawn to it. The flights looked reasonable and putting aside that I had never managed to finish a self-supported race I was keen to get involved.

The logistics are always a huge issue when travelling to race far away from home, but in this instance the organisers were arranging local support. What was not to like about this event!

As the months passed and the event got closer I still hadn’t booked my flight as life and other projects were getting in the way of sitting down and properly planning the trip.

With just a little over a month to go I got a wake-up email from Zohar Kantor, part of the organisation and Israel’s top bikepacker, checking in the make sure I was still going to attend. Well, I hadn’t planned a single thing so some emergency planning was needed and I was going to need some help in doing so.

Zohar put me in touch with Gordon Active, a specialist tour company based in Tel Aviv. Gordon Active went to work and quickly found me the required flights and provided all the usual required travel information to save me trawling the Internet. With Gordon Active taking care of travel I could start looking at my bikepacking gear.

As it had been a while since I had spent a night out everything needed a review for its suitability for the trip and Alpkit was needed to manufacture some last minute kit ideas to make sure my setup on the Salsa El Mariachi was not only as light as I had time to make it, but also durable.

The packed bike was the lightest setup I had ever put together partly aided by knowledge of Israel’s favourable climate at this time of year.

With gear packed in Alpkit bags, Halo tyres fitted, and a K Lite dynamo setup, all of my tried and tested reliable brands were represented across the bike so that gave me some peace of mind.

I didn’t have any time to test my setup, but as I knew Zohar was riding a new frame only built up a few days prior to the event there was no stress associated with my lack of preparation. After all, I would have 1300km of riding to refine my bike and gear.

The travel arrangements saw me land in Israel right at the start of the religious time of Passover. Most importantly, to me anyway, it meant I would be treated to a large family meal with the Kantor family. You can never eat enough pre-event, especially as food during the ride would be so sporadic.

The days prior to travelling north to the start were spent at Zohar’s house near the beach in Habonim. It was a perfect setting to prepare the bikes and adjust mentally to the task at hand, not to mention being well fed again every day. It was also a great chance to meet and get to know American Max Morris who had made the very long journey to come to the event.

The day before the start we travelled northward and upward as all the riders packed in to a coach and were driven to the mountainous area known as the Golan Heights and the town of Majdal.

The night before a big event is usually spent wracked with nerves as last minute adjustments are made to the bikes, and the kit is unpacked and repacked more than anything just to occupy the mind and divert attention from whatever massive undertaking the next day will bring. This night-before was spent as a group gorging ourselves on amazing local cuisine as we ate our final pre-race supper.

The meal was over all too quickly and some sleep and a quick breakfast saw us already rolling out on the course, within a few kilometres a selection seemed to have been made as three riders headed off at what seemed like day-race pace. My game was focused more on the finish than the finish line position.

If you haven’t been to Israel, you most likely conjure a picture of a dry, arid landscape and trails made from rock and sand. However, we were riding through meadows of wildflowers, descending beautiful singletrack, and climbing amongst trees. The riding was a far departure from the expected, though we had been told that the route would bring huge diversity on all fronts.

So early into the event, all the riders were still comparatively close so we were constantly riding with new people. Exchanges of each others expectations for the days ahead and probing questions as to the personal levels of preparation that had been undertaken in the previous months took place.

Day one would be the one and only day I would ride with my host Zohar. After a few hours we drifted apart as Zohar left Team UK (myself, Ricky Spring, and James Olsen) to craft our own journey.

As we rode we were all too often reminded of our proximity to Syria with the sound of distant artillery fire and the passing of abandoned UN posts. Only some barbed wire fencing and a steep-sided valley separated the countries.

Late in the day we caught our first glimpse of the Sea of Galilee, a huge body of freshwater that we would see from more than one side before the trail would send us southwest to Tel Aviv. Looking out from our viewpoint we were optimistic in our estimations about how long and difficult the navigating around this north shore of the sea would be. We were quickly given a more true indication as a fast descent, followed by an undulating trail, led us to a long road climb in darkness.

We soon decided after this climb to call it a day at around 11pm and our first night would be spent sleeping on the town football pitch.

The following day saw us caught up in a 100-mile MTB race that was winding its way around the Sea of Galilee. Even after only a day on our laden machines, watching guys riding unencumbered bag-free bikes looked very appealing. As the day wore on the temperature in the ‘oven’ was being turned up and a midday stop next to a river to splash in some cool water was appreciated.

The route saw us head north from the Sea of Galilee and take in a large loop before we could again return and begin the climb of Mt Hermon, the highest point on the route. The climb took us four hours and we finally reached the top as it was getting dark. The descent took nearly as long as darkness slowed progress, and was followed by riding through rolling hills before we could again get down to the shore of the Sea to another bivy spot, this time in the corner of a farmers field.

On the morning of day three, I already a routine for packing the bike back up; from sleeping to moving in under 30 minutes. Not exactly Formula 1 pit stop standards, but acceptable.

Our previous day’s descent had left us with a leg-warming climb to start the day.  Checking in with home the night before, Grace had revealed that we had stayed in a hot spot of HLC riders with six or seven of us within a few kilometres of each other. It was no surprise then that early in the morning we could see riders in the distance, and soon after catching them we came upon another two, though this time stopped next to a parked up car.

As it turned out, the German rider Ingo had broken his mech hanger on day two, so had limped on with a makeshift singlespeed until his wife’s family could source another bike for him to continue on with.

We set off as a group of six, but after James had some tyre issues we were back to just the three of us.

Later that day we would meet Ingo’s family again at a bike store on the route where Ingo had taken another bike as his previous loaner was ill fitting. After numerous issues with the other guy’s tubeless setup we took this bike shop opportunity to stock up on sealant-filled inner tubes; heavy but reliable.

Then we left the shop to ride another fantastic section of singletrack trail.

Day three was a standout day not only in the event, but I think also in my life; a single day I will remember for my remaining years and for one very special event that took place.

Late in the afternoon we had just pushed out of a valley up to a roadside car park. The scene was one of rubbish having been dumped, but amongst the bags of building waste and dumped wood came a little growl. Under a bush a small puppy was concealed out of sight, his bed made from a sack he was sat on with a number of makeshift water bowls near him but all dry.

The little fella had lost a lot of hair but was so optimistically happy soon coming out to see what we were up to. There was no sign of any owner and his condition indicated he had been here for a while.

We offered him up some water and then looked in our bags to see what we had to offer him, I think I knew that we couldn’t leave him there, and that in stopping we had made a commitment to him to make sure his life didn’t end as a dumped piece of rubbish.

A call to Zohar’s home was made though no local rescue could be found to take him. Our only option was for me to carry him to the next village and hope that there would be someone there that could help us out. Using James’s packable rucksack I slung him on my front and as Ricky and James rode up the trail to check out the next village, ‘Dusty’ and I enjoyed a gentle roll through the valley as I discussed with him what was going to happen.

On arriving at the village several options had been found including a dog-boarding kennel, though they were unable to help. All hopes were pinned on a Kibbutz near the village. At the heart of any Kibbutz is a sense of community living, a collection of good people helping each other out. My hopes were high and I wasn’t disappointed.

I randomly stopped a couple with some kids in the Kibbutz and this was a turning point in Dusty’s life as these people were not only kind enough to help, but knew people who rescued dogs! I was literally overjoyed, and leaving some money for Dusty I could continue on safe in the knowledge that his little life had been saved and he would go to a good home.

After our dog rescuing efforts we were shown another great example of Israeli hospitality as a local guy had spotted James and Ricky in the village centre and invited us all for coffee, which was excellent.

We pushed Mt Karmel’s steep, switchbacking climb in the dark to finally end our day in a clearing partway down the descent, spending 20 frustrating minutes searching for the small track hidden by the darkness and vegetation.



This post filed under topics: Bikepacking El Mariachi Mountain Biking Paul Errington Sponsored Riders Travel Ultra Racing

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Paul Errington

Paul Errington

UK born and bred, Paul Errington came to riding bikes as a hobby, which soon evolved into an all-consuming passion. Riding fulfills a desire to challenge himself and explore adversity. An endurance bike rider above all else, the ever-progressive sport keeps him enthused. Every day on a bike is a good day. shoestring-racing.blogspot.com


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Pat Irwin | May 22nd, 2014

Great report!
Thanks for saving the puppy!
Look forward to Part 2

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