Most of the 100-or-so participants made stark declarations like "It's my fix"; "I can't live without it"; or "I need more." Yet this was no rehab center. Israel's first interdisciplinary cycling conference was held over three days last week at the Ben-Gurion College at Sde Boker in the Negev. Something of a fitness freak himself, Israel's first prime minister would undoubtedly have approved of the event. Cycling is the country's fastest-growing leisure time activity. An estimated 400,000 bicycles were purchased during the past year, with the figure rising by 20 percent annually. Conference organizer Hezi Yitzhak, who when not on his mountain bike is a physics lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, ensured that every imaginable aspect of cycling was covered: lectures on the history of the bicycle; technological developments in the field; sports injuries; the place of cyclists in the community; educational aspects; and how cycling can help the environment. One high-profile conference participant was former chief of Israel Police Assaf Hefetz, who talked about cycling and road safety - an issue cyclists of the road variety have to deal with constantly. Training consultant Abe Gilat's address on the last day of the conference started off with a bang. "Sports is not a healthy business," he stated in somewhat sensationalist fashion. If he wanted to grab his audience's attention, he achieved his objective with aplomb. Judging by the participants' aerodynamically shaped torsos and bulging leg muscles, Gilat must surely have gotten something wrong. With more than two decades of serious cycling behind him - a significant number of them also devoted to helping all manner of athletes toughen their mental approach to sporting activities by honing their training schedules - few people are better qualified than Gilat to make such a seemingly outlandish statement. "You should really do things in moderation," Gilat explained. "Look, when it comes down to it, cycling isn't a natural physical activity. People aren't born with wheels. The body is designed for walking, running, swimming and jumping, but you have to learn to ride a bike." Parts of Gilat's slide presentation were not for the faint-hearted. There were pictures of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and other members of the global biking elite with facial expressions displaying nothing short of acute anguish. Gilat talked about mental robustness, perseverance and not giving up. He cited a startling passage from Armstrong's first book, in which the megastar American rider talks about a point in the Tour de France when he was at the end of his physical and emotional tether. Apparently, Armstrong had skipped a food station along the route and run out of energy reserves. Luckily for him, a couple of teammates saw what was happening to him and gave the necessary moral support to stay on his wheels. There was a palpable rise in the tension level as the audience realized that their seemingly super-human hero was, indeed, almost as mortal as them. Gilat soon started speaking their language, talking about the thrill of rising to physical challenges and the adrenalin rush all athletes experience as endorphins kick in and pain is replaced by a sense of joyous freedom and elation. "We all feel pain," he declared. "The question is how we deal with it. All cyclists have crises when they just want to get off their bikes, but there's something other than the body that keeps us going." The inspirational doyen of road bikers in this country is a trim, diminutive 71-year-old gent named Henry Ohayon. He came to Israel from his native Morocco in 1956 and quickly shot up the country's cycling hierarchy. He represented Israel at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, and won or placed highly in practically every road race here throughout the late Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. He is the first - and, to date, the only - Israeli cyclist to have competed in the Olympics. Now retired, Ohayon has plenty of time to devote to his trusty two-wheeled steed, and makes the most of it by putting in more than 250 kilometers of riding a week - plus a few more on his trainer on interim days. The septuagenarian pedals the highways and byways around his hometown of Ashkelon, come rain or shine. What keeps this unassuming pensioner going? "It's my life drug. I may be over 70, but I feel more like a 20-year-old," he said as he retold his sporting life story thus far, taking up Gilat's gauntlet. "Yes, I feel pain too - but that passes. It's the sense of failure you feel if you get off your bike instead of completing the climb that stays with you. You can overcome anything if you set your mind to it." Ohayon recounted how he purchased his first bike at the age of 16, with a little help from his siblings. "My father had a small grocery store, and my sisters ran it when my father took his siesta. He didn't trust me to keep my hands out of the till." Knowing of their brother's cycling ambitions, Ohayon's sisters decided to help boost his savings by siphoning off the odd coin from the store's takings. Ohayon augmented his bicycle purchase plan by providing neighbors with some of his mother's hamin (meat stew) in return for hard cash, and eventually a two-wheeler was duly requisitioned. He's never looked back since. Ohayon became very emotional when he talked of the cyclist's need for moral support, and how he'd received no encouragement from his parents for his sporting ambitions. In fact, the first time he received any substantial material backing was just over a month ago, when the cycling chain Rosen & Meents fitted him out with an expensive carbon bike and full cycling regalia. "I don't know why they decided to give me all this wonderful equipment," said Ohayon, "but I'm very grateful." OHAYON'S STORY may be singular, but his passion for the sport is extending into an increasingly wider sporting hinterland. Although no official statistics exist on the number of cyclists up and down the country, figures around the 100,000 mark have been bandied about. This means that about one in 60 Israelis regularly puts foot to pedal. Judging by the number of riders trundling through areas like the Jerusalem hills, Ben Shemen forest and western Galilee every weekend - along roads and country trails alike - the sport is truly on the rise. While serious riders get out of town as often as they can, there appears to be a glimmer of hope for those who primarily or solely want to use their two-wheelers as a clean and inexpensive means of transportation around their close environs. Even the powers-that-be appear to be finally sitting up and taking notice. Much of this official change of heart can be attributed to persistent lobbying by members of the Tel Aviv Bicycle Association (TABA, www.bike.org.il/taba). TABA was established in 1994 as a non-profit organization aiming to make Israeli cities more bicycle-friendly, by persuading the authorities to provide funding for urban cycle paths. According to the Tel Aviv municipality, there are 56 km of cycle paths throughout the metropolis, although TABA committee member and landscape architect Yotam Avi-Zohar places the figure far lower. The city plans to bring the current path aggregate up to 100 km by 2009 as part of Tel Aviv's centenary celebrations. TABA is also campaigning for the installation of bicycle parking facilities around Tel Aviv and the introduction of legislation that would require all new office buildings in the city to install showers for employees' use - a move that would make cycling to work more environmentally friendly. Similar groups now operate in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Beersheba, Beit Shemesh, Haifa, Kfar Saba, Modi'in and Rishon Lezion. While some cities have introduced cycle paths in recent years, most urban locales in Israel are still planned to cater primarily to motorized means of transportation. One of the grander plans under discussion is the creation of the Israel Bicycle Trail that would eventually traverse the entire length of the country, extending 1,000 km from Dan in the north to Eilat. A meeting to discuss the cross-country route was recently held at the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, attended by representatives of the ministries of agriculture, environment, tourism, housing, sport, transportation and national infrastructures. Work on the trail is expected to start in mid-2006, with the project being completed in stages over a 10-year period. As far as Shahar Solar is concerned, there is no need to wait a decade to get away from the madding motoring crowd. Solar, who works for the Environment Ministry, contributed to a panel discussion entitled "Mountain Bikes and Trail Riding - Problems and Solutions." "You can all get out there right now. There are loads of bike paths all over the country ready and waiting," said Solar, noting the advantages of mountain biking over the road pedigree. "Cycling along country paths also means you can get away from poor roads, exhaust fumes and the dangers of traffic." The message resonated loudly and clearly for the mountain bikers in the audience, who greatly outnumbered the "roadies." The road bike-mountain bike ratio became even clearer as the panel discussion ended and most participants changed into polychromic riding gear and set off to put passion into practice. While several dozen embarked on a four-hour, 17-km escapade along desert trails, just three hit the road for a 70-km jaunt to Mount Avnun and back. Ohayon and some of the other road cyclists had done some serious riding the day before. Cycling on consecutive days is not, generally, recommended. As any cyclist will tell you, muscular mass develops in the hiatus between rides. Earlier this year, cycling finally found a place on Israeli bookshelves. It may not be a bestseller yet, but Hanoch Marmari's account of his cycling experiences, Roadie, was jubilantly welcomed by the entire local cycling fraternity. The former Ha'aretz editor-in-chief is a self-confessed cycling junkie who has been faithfully plying the country's roads for 15 years. Marmari says that he is greatly encouraged by the advances being made in the sport and believes that cycling has made it into the mainstream psyche. "I think we've attained a critical mass," he notes. "You see road signs in different parts of the country alerting drivers to the presence of cyclists. That helps a lot." Things were very different when Marmari first became serious about his cycling. "There was almost no Internet back then, and it was difficult to get hold of information about equipment. There was less awareness of cyclists." Today, the Web is replete with data about bikes and an amazing array of cycling accessories, while bikers exchange views and information about equipment, cycling events and tips via umpteen virtual forums. Marmari points out that the increase in two-wheeled non-motorized traffic also brings new responsibilities. "We cyclists have to make sure that we use the road sensibly," he says. While many riders rail against Israeli motorists' inconsiderate behavior, Marmari believes it's a two-way street. "Cyclists who do unexpected things on the road make drivers nervous and cause problems for all of us. There's room for all of us on the road." Meanwhile, Yitzhak is busy planning next year's conference. "This thing is going to grow and grow," he says. "We've got big plans for the future." For young and old alike While the uninformed masses may think of cycling as an exclusively young person's sport, increasing numbers of middle-aged and senior citizen cyclists can be seen pedaling happily on roads and country trails. It's never too late to start. Sexagenarian couple Elon and Harriet Goitein from Herzliya Pituah, who were among the participants at the conference, became mountain biking enthusiasts only five years ago. Although Elon says he'd get out on his two-wheeler more often if he had the time, he and Harriet regularly ride through the orange groves and along the beach near their home. "It's a wonderful feeling to cycle around the countryside. I always feel energized afterwards, even if I come home exhausted," says Elon. Sometimes the Goiteins finish their ride with more than fatigue to show for their efforts. "We went on the beginners' mountain bike ride at the conference," says Elon. "We weren't going very fast when Harriet fell off her bike. She's very proud of her bruise." Cycling is about far more than just pedal pumping, explains Ofir Galon, who works as a school teacher in the area around Misgav in the Galilee. Galon spends much of his extramural time training children and youths in the art of mountain biking. "Children with concentration problems gain a lot from physical exercise. Many are given Ritalin to keep them quiet so they don't disturb their teacher and classmates - but I don't believe in chemical intervention. On the day we go cycling, I demand that the children stay off the Ritalin. Somehow, they get through the school day without it." Galon says the children in his cycling groups often discover abilities they never knew they had, and that helps to boost their self-esteem. "I've had kids who are considered failures at school because of their lack of attentiveness. The same kids often turn out to be leaders of their cycling groups and are the ones that take care of mechanical problems and plan the routes." Safety and the environment are major features of Galon's extracurricular education program. "All the children are told they must not litter the countryside or stray from trails. And they have to wear helmets. It helps to give them a sense of responsibility."