The first day we wandered around Tel Aviv as our tour guide told us fascinating stories about wars between religions, sieges on the city, and nations conquered, as Israel was once the center of humanity. For lunch, we crammed into a local canteen where we gorged on fresh falafel and hummus. This would become routine for us.
The next day we spent exploring Jerusalem, visiting the tomb of King David, Jesus’ grave, and walked the Via Dolorosa, the path He walked to His crucifixion. It was a moving experience seeing people from various religions bringing the old and weak to the Western Wall where they wrote little prayers and buried them deep inside the cracks. After another generous helping of the local fare, we headed to the Dead Sea for a revitalising float and a nutritious mud bath.
Back in Tel Aviv we had a glorious dinner followed by a digestive walk next to the ocean, back to the hotel. The alleys were lined with diners sitting outside enjoying local live music, art and crafts markets, and giggles late into the night.
The next morning we stopped in the historical city of Akko where we explored the Knights Kingdom, a fortress built in the 12th century but only recently discovered. This was also the last opportunity to sample another variety of falafel and hummus as every region in Israel has its own unique way of preparing this dish. I feel that our three days were not enough to explore all that Israel has to offer and would seriously recommend that you take some more time to relax and enjoy. However for us it was time to get into racing mode. We arrived at the oasis in the desert, the Galilion Hotel. Registration went smooth and it was noticeable that the organisers were very professional and well prepared. We built our bikes and enjoyed the luxurious surroundings before an early night in preparation for the start the next morning.
Day 1: 95km, 1480m
The first stage started with a shock to the system. I felt noticeably heavier from all the falafel but we settled into the pack and found a good rhythm. The first ten kilometers were fast, furious, and very dusty. As abruptly as it started it all came to a sudden halt, riders queuing to enter a tunnel taking us under the highway and into the mountains where around 40km of climbing awaited us.
A steep and technical climb took us up the valley, snaking its way over dried up riverbeds with skull-sized rocks proving very challenging for some of the more novice riders. The rugged rocky valley sheltered us from the blistering heat. We are both well suited to the technical terrain and Cat was riding superbly well, as can be expected from one of the UK’s top female adventure athletes. As soon as we cleared the valley things got hot and sweaty as we got onto open dirt roads to finish off the days climbing. Once we crested the top, we were richly rewarded with a 14km section of flowing single track twisting and turning between the trees. The remainder of the descent we careened down fast open roads back to the Jordan River.
For the final 15km of the day we were back on the dusty flats speeding towards the finish line. Overhead massive flocks of pelicans and storks passed us by, effortless in their yearly journey between Europe, Africa, and Asia. Less gracefully, I dragged my sunburnt and exhausted body to the finish line as the heat and distance got the better of me. The Hotel Galilion was the perfect venue to relax and recover, chilling by the pool and enjoying a Jems’s beer while we awaited the feast for dinner.
Day 2: 110km, 1800m
As the sun slowly peaked over the mountains, we got going on the longest and toughest stage of the race. My legs screamed and complained as we sprinted out the line down the same first couple of kilometers as the day before. The first obstacle was the famous basalt paths of the Golan Mountains, scorched black, rocky roads winding up the slopes and back down again. These climbs were a true test of skill and strength. Although I love the technical riding, I was still feeling the effects of dehydration from the previous day. Cat however was going from strength to strength outriding us all.
After the first Gu feed zone, we were presented with a 10km (750m vertical) climb with the second half being brutal, steep and loose. Many riders opted for the hike-a-bike option. My body was taking a beating in the sun but I ground my way to the top and finally caught up to Cat at the Feed Zone, slurping down Gu gel, bananas, and pretzels before we started our descent towards the Jordan River Valley.
Gathering up some speed I could manage a smile again, as my Cannondale Trigger was more suited for almost 20kms of going down, fast! The descent comprised of easy riding rocky jeep tracks, open dirt and sandy roads followed by steep loose rocky roads. The reward was well worth the effort, I looked back and saw Cat grinning from ear to ear at the bottom of the descent.
The final 30km was a laborious flat ride on rural roads following the river valleys. Jumping off the bike and cooling the legs while crossing the river was a welcome respite from the desert heat.
After 6 hours and 50 minutes, we made it back to our oasis. The race village had lots to offer; gear expos, massages, tech zone, ice-cream, slushies, beer, music, and a pool. However, during the day Cat had smashed her ankle on a rock and was in a fair bit of pain. I got the race doctors to have a look. Unfortunately, they told her that she would not be allowed to continue racing the next day. A couple of pain pills later she felt strong and managed to walk without a limp to the doctors insisting that she will race. Brave girl!
Day 3: 57km, 1450m
At only 57km this was the shortest day of the event, it was no walk in the park. It was however my favorite day of the race!
A short flat section took us to a long single-track climb close to Kfir Giladi. We exited the woods and continued climbing up a gravel road with many false summits. The climbing was steep, brutal, and never ending. I had however recovered and felt strong with Cat cruising comfortably next to me as we made steady progress up the climbs and up the ranking in the mixed teams.
We reached 850m above sea level with spectacular views of the Halula valley to the east. We worked our way back down the mountain on great flowing single track, followed by some progressively steeper and more technical riding. Many riders found this section too hard and opted to walk their bikes down, I grinned from ear to ear and ripped down the trails. There was a compulsory walk-your-bike-down-the great-trail section but “unfortunately and accidentally” I did not see this sign and rode down with some wide-eyed stares from the sidelines. Oops! One of the great sections was a trail descending over rock slabs definitely not a spot to make a mistake. Looking down the valley I could see the crystal clear waters of the hotel pool beckoning us to hurry up.
With some 10kms to go, I heard a weird noise from the rear wheel and soon after the Mavic free hub body disintegrated leaving me with a bike that was ghost shifting and slipping gears at the first sign of pressure. Lucky it was mostly downhill from here and it didn’t slow me down too much on these amazing trails.
We crossed the finish line in ecstasy, happy that we survived this brutal hot affair but just a little sad that I have to go home and back to reality.
If you are looking to combine travel to an exotic location with culture, food, history, and superb riding, put this race on your list. Be warned it's not for the faint hearted but rather well suited to the gravel grinder looking for a challenging 3-day race. It will also serve you well if you are preparing for a bigger race like the Cape Epic or similar.
For more details: www.epicisrael.org.il