Alyn Hospital bike ride: A tale of two wheels

The success story of the ‘Wheels of Love’ Alyn Hospital bike ride over 20 years

Alyn bike ride medals 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Alyn)
Alyn bike ride medals 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Alyn)
This past week, hundreds of participants from 12 different countries completed the 20th Wheels of Love bike ride. What started as a small group of avid riders who biked from Jerusalem to Eilat to raise money for a good cause, has become a leading international sports charity event in Israel. No other event has as many options or the complex logistics as the Wheels of Love for the Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Jerusalem – Israel’s only pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation center.
In the year 2000, nine immigrants, originally from England and the USA, signed up for a charity bike ride in support of Norwood Hospital in the UK. They planned to pay the registration fee and raise the minimum sum for the UK hospital – and then donate any additional funds to the Alyn Hospital in Israel. But with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the year 2000, Norwood moved its ride to Spain. Undeterred, the riders in Israel met up at the Inbal (then Laromme) Hotel to decide what to do with their energy, motivation and sponsorship money. The group quickly organized and planned their own ride from Jerusalem to Eilat. With a mechanic and a security guard riding alongside in a truck, the first Wheels of Love Alyn bike ride was launched and $67,000 was raised.
“It was a modest sum, but there was a huge lesson learned: We could do it on our own. The Wheels of Love ride was off and running,” says Barry Levenfeld, one of the original riders.
For the first few years, the ride was organized and run by a committee made up of the original riders. However, 2000 saw not only the first Wheels of Love ride and the start of the Second Intifada, but also the burst of the bubble. There were some very under-employed tour guides, business people, lawyers and others with the time to devote to organizing the ride.
“We were all surprised by the success of the first ride,” says Steve Zerobnick, who immigrated to Israel in 1980 from Denver. “We raised far more than I ever envisioned. Given this success, it seemed to me that we had a responsibility to try and replicate it and grow the ride. Figuring out how to run the ride was complicated, but because I work in tourism and the Second Intifada made my business suffer, I had a lot of time to work on the ride and experiment. The team from the Norwood Hospital also gave us some solid advice and they have continued to share experience, wisdom and pointers over the years.”
THE FIRST ride had one route on which the cyclists would ride mountain bikes for the most part, putting on “slicks” for the road portions. As the ride grew over the years, the committee members would ride the route ahead of time to make sure that they were appropriate for the average rider. It was a collective effort for the first years where committee members and participants would all pitch in to make it happen.
Chaim Zlotogorski, who arrived from New York in 1991, explains, “After the second ride I think we understood that the ride had significant potential. There were a few of us who are start-up people who understood that we should focus on the “product” as we would in a start-up and deliver the best product possible.” By 2002, the ride had close to 100 participants, so a full-time staffer was employed to work on the annual event.
“We never dreamed it would grow as fast and successfully as it did,” says Levenfeld. “In retrospect, we were riding the wave of a new trend in biking, as well as a new trend in sports charity events, and we were pretty much the first ones out there with a ‘product’ that fit the new trends.”
Twenty years later, the number of participants has grown to 500, who ride on six parallel routes for both trail and road riders of different skill levels. One route allows for leisurely cycling in the morning and visiting interesting tourist sites in the afternoon, while another, the Challenge Route, has riders cycling over 130 km. every day, with long steep mountain climbs. There is even a non-bike trail for friends and spouses who prefer two feet over two wheels, and a hiking route has been added to the five-day trip.
Of the original nine riders, six participated in the 20th Wheels of Love 2019: Geoffrey Freeman, Meir Chasan, Laurie Lebor, Barry Levenfeld, Steve Zerobnick and Chaim Zlotogorski. Alongside them rode participants from the USA, Canada, UK, Singapore, Italy, France, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Australia and Holland. In support of the 20th ride, some of Israel’s Cycling Academy pro riders also took to the road as well as Ran Margaliot, former UCI Continental Cycling Academy Team member and now director of the Gino Bartali Youth Cycling Academy.
BUT OF all the riders on the trails and roads, the most inspiring participants are those of the Swift and Bold Team, teenagers who are patients of Alyn Hospital. In 2019, there are 17 members of the team, ages 10-23, cycling on-road with hand-powered bikes or on trails on tandem bikes with volunteer riders.
Chasan, originally from Chicago, has ridden tandem on the Wheels of Love ride for the past four years. “The kids on the Swift and Bold are faced with challenges that most of us will never have to face. These riders are super-motivated to enjoy cycling despite obstacles that would deter many of us,” says Chasan, adding, “I believe that they are an inspiration to others children at Alyn, and that in turn helps those children to reach their potential in many aspects of life.”
Chasan rides trail and admits that the routes are challenging. A typical day is 50-60 km. on hilly dirt and gravel trails. Chasan acknowledges the part that the Swift and Bold tandem riders play. “The riders need to carry their share of the burden: pedaling, maintaining balance and keeping a positive attitude while riding difficult, and sometimes scary terrain on the tandem bike. The feeling of accomplishment at the end of the ride is fantastic!”
On the final day of the ride, all the participants ride into the grounds of Alyn lead by the Swift and Bold cyclists and a full police escort, where they are welcomed by the children of the hospital, the hospital staff and their friends and families who gather to pay tribute to the participants’ extraordinary efforts.
The original ride contributed $67,000 to the hospital’s budget. This year, close to $3 million was raised by the participants of the Wheels of Love.
“The funds raised allow us to give the children the treatments and therapies they require, rather than limit the care to the basic needs that are covered by the Israeli national healthcare system,” explains Alyn Hospital director Dr. Maurit Be’eri. “Every penny goes toward additional therapists, a wider selection of emotional support modalities, innovative inter-disciplinary projects and extra hands-on care.”
“The Wheels of Love has far surpassed my expectations,” admits rider Zerobnick.  “If someone had said that we’d have hundreds of riders from a dozen countries and raise close to $3 million, I would not have believed them.”
Riders chalk up Alyn’s Wheels of Love success to a combination of an outstanding cause, great times shared with participants, and seeing the breathtaking scenery of Israel on bike.