A good steak and tasty beer can take you to places you never imagined you’ll get to. That’s what happened to me earlier this year in Manhattan. It was the result of a dinner with Lior Zommer, an old time friend, and Tamir Oppenheim- two Israelis working for FIDF – Friends of IDF in the US: it brought me to the parking garage of… an F-16 fighter jet!
At dinner, I found out that Tamir organizes an annual road bike ride in Israel for American Jews. The plan is to ride the challenging route from Eilat to Jerusalem, and visit an Israeli Air Force base on the way. Get a tour guided by a young F16 pilot, and get to know and ride with IDF amputee veterans. These veterans are able to ride and run thanks to FIDF funding for their expensive but amazing prosthetic legs. Infinity pool at the end of a hard century ride
The ride from Eilat to Mitzpe Ramon is a long, hard and vertically challenging century ride (miles!). On top of that, the constant headwinds and heat intensified the challenge. The brave ones rode the full route, while others opted for a shorter version, around 50 miles.
Eilat’s surrounding desert is beautiful and unique with red rocks and lava formations. A very different scenery from the limestone typical to the rest of Israel. There are 5 unique gigantic craters in Israel (which are not really craters as they were made by erosion rather than meteors), and the first day route crossed the biggest one, Ramon Crater. It ends in the luxurious Bereshit Hotel, which is located right on the edge of a 900 feet vertical cliff – a perfect setting for its infinity pools.
There is more to Israel than the politics, religion and conflicts. Anyone who comes here with these predispositions is usually surprised by Israel’s democratic ways, technological innovations and western feel. It's by far greener than most people imagine, has better coffee than Starbucks, and lots of gourmet food, good wine, nightlife, beach culture and sports. Our US friends also claim that Israel has a top level Babka cakes as well.
Despite its small size, Israel is blessed with various and diverse landscape. You can cross the entire country in 3 riding days. This time the FIDF started in Eilat, continued to the Mediterranean shore and then climbed to Jerusalem. Next year it’s planned to take place in the north.
In general – Israel has a lot to offer to cyclists: you can start in the north with a tuscany style scenery and an almost HC climb to the top of mount Hermon’s ski resort (about 6600 feet and 17 miles climb). Then you continue riding via the Upper Galilee and enjoy the natural Mediterranean Oak forests with scattered olive tree plantations. An hour drive will put you in a completely different landscape possibilities: Pick from the desert like Jordan Valley, the flat and green H’Sharon area where Orange orchards cover the horizon shadowed by the growing real estate boom, or just deep your feet in the soft sand and warm water of the Mediterranean sea.
When riding near Jerusalem, as you climb up you will enter a completely different atmosphere – beautiful mountains full of history and coniferous forest. Then you get to Jerusalem and onward cross the watershed divide – and you’re in the Judea desert descending towards the Dead Sea. Simply put, the western side is green and the eastern side is a desert.
Not all is perfect though: there’s usually heavy traffic in the center. Israel being so small, does not have enough winding, narrow rural paved roads to enjoy cycling like in Italy or France. Having said that, with a good guide and carefully picked routes, you can easily spend perfect 5 riding days. Here are some of our recommendations (use Google Translate… there is no English version, yet!): Road Cycling In Israel.
Adi Deautch, a leg amputee, has recently completed the Chicago marathon. He was able to do this thanks to his blade running prosthetic leg that FIDF helped with. Adi stepped on a landmine when he was a soldier in IDF and as a result lost his right leg. This did not stop him.
About a year ago he completed the Ridley Ultraman Israel – a grueling 3 day event with a 10km swim across the Sea of Galilee, 145km ride from the Sea of Galilee, climbing to the Golan Heights, a 275 km ride along the Jordan Valley, Arava and Dead Sea, and finish with an ultra marathon of 84.4km to Eilat. On his one and only calf muscle he has ULTRAMAN 500km tattooed, to commemorate his achievement.
Thanks to FIDF, Adi and two other guys were able to run again. FIDF provided them with the funds (about 80,000 USD each!) required for customizing and training on how to use the blade running leg.
Roy is a young 24 years old Israeli rider, and is extremely talented and shows a lot of promise. He comes from a family of elite riders. He is one of only three Israeli riders who have been signed by The Israel Cycling Academy Team, the first pro continental cycling team of Israel. The rest of their riders are from Canada, Turkey, Europe and more. As a side note, this team, very much like the FIDF Cycling Tour of Israel, is a product of philanthropic donations coming from the combination of two loves: love for Israel and love for cycling.
Roy is living the cyclist's dream: showcasing his Israeli flag champion jersey in races all over the world, and when not traveling dividing his time between Girona, Spain and Israel. Being in the early season base rides he was more than happy to join the tour before the racing season. He saw it as a privilege, maybe even as his duty of the champion to give back to those who support us. He was leading the group of riders who bravely chose that hard century ride from Eilat to Mitzpe Ramon.
One of the Cycling Academy owners is Sylvan Adams. A Canadian billionaire, and former age group Velodrome world champion, who made “Allia” and joined the other Academy owners to help upgrade the Team to pro-continental level. He is now building the first Velodrome in Israel in Tel Aviv and was involved in bringing the Giro to kick off in Israel on 2018.
Roy’s dream is to be one of the top 6 riders in his team on May 2018 when the Giro d’Italia commences with a prologue in Jerusalem. The Giro d’Italia will then continue with two more full stages from Haifa to Tel Aviv and from Beer-Sheva to Eilat (on the same route we rode, only on the reverse and easier direction).
One of the benefits of arriving with an IDF related delegation is the access given to IDF bases. We met with guys from an F-16 fighter jets squad. For me it was also new – I served at a different part of IDF and never saw an F-16 that close.
We were guided by a young pilot, who was on call, in full gear and ready to go at a minute notice. The situation with the neighboring countries (mainly up north with Syria and Lebanon) has been sensitive recently…
We even got to see a group of 4 pilots taking their helmets and gear and heading to a mission. (Just like Top Gun, but for real…). One of them was a female, something that is not taken for granted in Israel and was only made possible in the last 2 decades.
Does the IDF really need few cyclists’ donations?
To me as an Israeli who served 3 years in the army and has been on reserve for years after, it’s a bit strange to hear about Americans donating to the IDF – since it’s the most powerful organization in Israel, consuming huge amounts of the state budget (and 2-3 years off the lives of most citizens’ best years). When hearing about the stories of Adi and the other riders who rode with us it's clear that in such a big organization, many needs are being set aside and prioritized. FIDF focuses on welfare and the human side of support.
FIDF activities represents the strong bond between the American jews and Israel. The funds donated by the US Jewish community is of huge importance to those affected by it, like the guys we rode with. It's also true, however, that without the US government support, Israel and its 8.4 million citizens, would be in a totally different position, and under an existential risk.
Why do they come?
I was extremely curious as to the reasons that brought the riders to Israel. I had a chance to chat with many of the riders during the rides. The answer was rather simple and one that every cyclists can easily relate to: they simply wanted to have some good time in Israel, see the country, enjoy its views and people and have a good cycling vacation!
And the charitable side? As Tamir Oppenheim told me: “it’s just an added bonus” – but this bonus has a significant impact for the 13,000 graduates that the IDF supported with university scholarships, and so many others affected by this charity.
There’s a risk in such organizations as the FIDF that they will focus only on the high value donors and bottom line effects of their efforts, rather than widening their reach and impact. But the FIDF’s annual cycling event that Tamir Oppenheim produces serves a greater importance than the nominal value of its contributions: cycling is an amazing sport we all share, and it represents a great opportunity for Americans and Israeli cyclists to immediately become friends and bond. By providing that bridge through cycling, the journey represents the core values of the FIDF purpose and justification.
In the coming years I hope it will grow significantly, and will provide an opportunity for more of us to ride together. Through cycling, connections are made, politics become less important, conflicts that threatens our existence can be forgotten, at least for a few miles surrounded by beautiful scenery and new friends.