Holyland MTB Challenge: Part Three - Desert Dash To The Finish
Under advisement we had spent the night in Arad, as we had been told the descent to the Dead Sea was worth riding and appreciating in daylight. We weren’t disappointed.
A gravel road descent led us to a seriously technical and steep descent. I chose caution whereas Ricky and James went fully committed.
As technical descents go, this one was long…really long…and a real physical effort to get to the bottom. When we did finally reach the bottom we were at the lowest point of the race…the Dead Sea.
This day, and the whole last few hundred kilometers to the finish in general, felt a whole lot more serious than any other prior section. We had been warned so many times about taking care when we reached the desert, 40° Celsius heat and physical activity aren’t very comfortable bedfellows.
Breakfast, as most mornings, was a gas station, though this one was a treat. It would be the last point of food and water we would see on course for 120km! With this in mind we weren’t in a hurry to leave.
The usual suspects gathered as Tom, Ingo, and Shay joined us. Tom lightened the intense mood with the tale of his previous nights bivvy spot. In short, Tom had chosen a pristine grass lawn away from our sandy playground bivvy. At 3 a.m. in the morning he discovered why the lawn was pristine: sprinklers! It was a rude awakening by all accounts and a forced early morning ‘house move’ for Tom.
After we had satisfied our hunger we then turned to the important task of carrying water. Straps, folding bottles and bladders were all pulled out, filled and attached to our bikes in a variety of manners. We all wanted to carry as much as possible, and I managed to secure eight liters of water across varying parts of my El Mariachi Ti and person.
Rolling out of the gas station felt like we were leaving safety behind and really getting into this race properly.
There are moments in cycling where all of a sudden an immense realization of just how amazing what you are doing hits you and this was one of them. Apprehension was suddenly replaced by joy as we rolled through a steep sided narrow wadi. The scenery was akin to something from Star Wars. All of a sudden we were on Tatooine in search of old Ben Kenobi.
Tom stopped at a bus shelter deciding to take some time out and approach this section on his own. Ingo and Shay would stop for food shortly after.
When you are riding south in sight of the shoreline of the Dead Sea and you know the route heads west, you know there is only one way that the trail is going to take you; up. Before we could get to the climb there was the small matter of negotiating a sinuous network of wadis. Wadi, and I guess this should have been explained earlier, is an Arabic term for valley. It also refers to ephemeral rivers, those that only contain water in times of heavy rainfall. A clue to the nature of most of the trails we were riding is in the term ‘river’. We were basically riding along the dry riverbeds, and as such the trail was a mix of gravel and sand. Sometimes it rode well and sometimes not so much.
Navigation was challenging, even with GPS, as we traversed in and out of these small valleys often having to complete a bonus climb to get a feel for where the trail actually went. On one occasion the trail navigated me straight into a patch of extremely soft clay, near losing myself and my bike in the process.
The persistent wadi traversing seemed to go on forever and by the time our wheels touched tarmac and we could see the large climb ahead of us it was already approaching early evening.
Though we were initially relieved to have reached what we deemed a midpoint of the day, we were amazed at the time it had taken to get here… and then the climbing started! The tarmac switchbacks eased the gradient but it was persistent and every crest revealed more height to be gained. Daylight had run out and not close behind was our water supply. A scroll out on the GPS indicated that we were far from our goal of the next source of food and water and we were now each down to our last liter of water. At this point I started to worry…genuinely worry. Coming from the UK a lack of water is not something we ever have to deal with too much.
We stopped at a road junction and made the decision to ride off course and use a marked point of interest 4km from the route where it was indicated water could be found. The point of interest in question was a large processing plant and its lights lit up the surrounding desert. We lived in hope we would find someone receptive and able to help us. We were certainly not disappointed.
The obvious point of call was the security office, again Israeli hospitality was unmatched as not only were we pointed in the direction of the water taps in the car park, but the guys also raided the office fridge and gave us a bag of cold apples, cottage cheese, bread and assorted foods. We sat down in a circle in the middle of the lit car park and shared our host’s offerings. No sooner had we sat though than the security guys had gone back to the fridge for a second look and brought us more to share. A chilled apple had never tasted so good. We rolled away from the processing plant with full water bottles and full stomachs and a road climb later we slept directly on the trail tired from the physical efforts the day had dealt us.
The sound of others conversing and the occasional flash of a head torch woke me from my sleep. It was 4:30 a.m. and we had been caught up by Tom, Ingo and Shay, who we had left the day prior. It was time to get moving.
It was soon light. We had packed quickly and started the catch up to the others. We were riding through a huge crater, the rim of which we had slept on the night before. The views were spectacular.
It was over another two hours of riding before the previous day’s planned destination even came into sight. When we finally reached the small town we found an oasis; a top-notch coffee shop, supermarket and bike shop…heaven.
After the previous days toils there was no rush to leave these luxuries so a few coffees were ordered and multiple trips to the supermarket were made.
The day started out as many others before it had. We would ride out as a group of six but quickly diminish to the three of us. The trail was fast moving to start as we descended into the valley and rode gravel roads quickly ticking off the kilometers. This day was the hottest yet and the lower down the valley we went toward the Dead Sea the hotter it got.
Learning from the previous day we did not miss an opportunity to refuel and, aside from another chance meeting with an HLC fan and a raft of punctures, this was maybe the least eventful day we had had, though what it lacked in interesting content it made up for in duration.
We were now riding to finish so we pushed all day and through the evening, until early the next morning we reached Paran at 2 a.m.; a 22-hour day.
Paran was ‘shut’ when we reached it. A gated town, the gates were firmly shut so we had slept just outside, and keen not to waste any time we made do with three hours sleep and were up at 5 a.m.. I didn’t even bother to get my sleeping bag out and had just climbed straight in to my bivvy bag.
This was it; our last day. Today we would ride until we had finished, no matter what. Typical of the HLC route even the flat gravel roads we began on wouldn’t give us an easy kilometer as we suffered in a headwind. The event was not giving up easily.
The pace between the three of us was more variable than it had been all week, and while Ricky and James decided to stop for food I decided to roll further up the trail until it met the road crossing prior to another venture west. The road crossing turned out to be a tunnel. So I took the opportunity to escape the intense heat and I lay out for a few minutes to cool off.
Leaving the tunnel you were immediately immersed in baking heat and as the trail wound across flat ground prior to the climb there was no shade to be had. The ascent was a relatively short, but very steep affair, and required a push. Unlike the previous days though, what I thought was the top was actually the top and with minimal effort after the climb I found the water stop indicated on the GPS.
With a sink complete with running cold water and some benches in the shade to lie out on I decided this was the perfect spot to wait for Ricky and James to catch up. When they arrived I was a little disappointed to learn they had found a great breakfast just off route at a store though I was happy enough with the food offering we found a few kilometers further down the trail.
The next section of riding was mostly singletrack winding up, down and on top of a large plateau on the mountainside above the Dead Sea. We were under no illusion about how long this section would take to ride before we would finally descend back to the valley floor below and then head almost directly to Eilat and the finish. We paced ourselves in the heat and when we could took some shade. The riding, though on the hot side, was outstanding. For the most part the trail was singletrack and had great flow. Every now and then the odd sand dune or rocky riverbed would be thrown in to check if we were still suffering, but as the daylight faded we were still enjoying the biking and the scenery.
The final section before we reached the valley floor was ridden in the dark, and on the whole was downhill. The last water stop was utilized 40km from the finish, and then the mental high of nearing completion started to take hold.
A last final flourish on manmade trail spat us back to the main road. As we crossed the road expecting the cruel nature of the event to deal us some more rocky riverbed and headwinds we were very surprised with what we found; tarmac! Not just a tarmac surface, the morning’s southerly headwind had switched to a northerly tailwind…possibly a parting gift from the elements that had tested us for the previous eight days. For the first time since we had started the kilometers felt easy. The lights and Vegas-style hotels of Eilat were soon in sight; a strange departure from the landscape we had been familiar with, though we were not complaining.
The nature of self-supported racing means that though there is a mass start the finishing of riders is spread out over a matter of days not hours, so we rolled in just the three of us.
The finish was basically the end point of our GPS file so when we reached Eilat and the finish there were no banners or cheering supporters, just the Friday night revelers partying on the beach. No one was aware of what we had just achieved or even endured. We stopped and enjoyed a silent satisfaction of accomplishment.
In true British style we congratulated each other with a firm handshake and duly collapsed on to the beach. It was 2 a.m. Saturday morning and just under nine days since we had begun. The early morning then involved picking up some food from a store, eating at a quiet bench a few kilometers down the beachfront, and then sleeping on a not-so-crowded beach.
The HLC had been ridden and completed, my first self-supported event finished.
The days after the event were spent mainly socializing and eating. I continued to meet so many amazing people and continued my positive Israel experience the entire time I was in their country.
Huge thanks to so many people that helped me out especially Zohar Kantor and his whole family who welcomed me to their country and home and made sure I was looked after every second outside the time spent on the HLC route. Thanks to Gordon Active for their help with my travel logistics and making getting to Israel as painless as possible, though I wasn’t as keen to leave. The bike and all equipment worked flawlessly and right now I wouldn’t change much about my set up so thank you Salsa, Ison and Halo for keeping top class wheels underneath me. Thank you Alpkit for making sure I always had a comfortable bed and some means of carrying it.
The HLC right now is the toughest challenge I have ever undertaken and I have tried plenty of tough things. The event will without doubt be back for 2015 and will be a great success.
I came to Israel open minded with no preconceptions about the country or people. I made sure media or other opinion did not cloud my outlook. I left with new friends and a genuine love for the country and its culture.
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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