Pedaling on two wheels through Israeli history

Cycling culture has gone hand-in-hand with modern Israel’s development and suffered just as many growing pains.

People enjoy a bike ride along Tel Aviv’s promenade. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
People enjoy a bike ride along Tel Aviv’s promenade.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, is a day without cars on the road. As a result, for secular Israelis, Yom Kippur has become the “bicycle holiday” for riders young and old.
Bicycling is becoming ever-more popular in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there was a 21% increase in the number of non-motorized two-wheeled vehicles imported to Israel over the most recently recorded four-year period, from 351,950 units in 2012 to 426,542 units in 2015.
But there is still a long way to go: this past summer, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation blocked a “bicycle encouragement bill” proposed by the Israel Bicycle Association that would mandate policies for bicycle infrastructure similar to other cycling nations.
No one knows the exact date when the first bicycle rolled into the Middle East, but two-wheelers – and Westerners – were a rarity in the Ottoman Empire when, between 1890 and 1893, American students Thomas Gaskell Allen and William Lewis Sachtleben documented their journey across Asia Minor. (Their firsthand account, Across Asia on a Bicycle, includes rare photos taken with the latest innovation of the time, the Kodak box camera.)
Twenty-some years later at the apex of the golden age of bicycling, riders included none other than Zionist luminary Theodor Herzl.
Because England and Scotland hold partial claim to inventing the modern-day bicycle, the era of the British Mandate certainly played a role in bringing two-wheeled transport to the Holy Land.
Sports organizations Maccabi and Hapoel were also instrumental in popularizing cycling during the pre-state era. The Maccabi World Union was formed at the 1921 World Zionist Congress as an umbrella organization for all Jewish sports associations. The first Maccabiah Games opened on March 28, 1932, in Tel Aviv and included a cycling competition.
Established in 1926 as a union of the Histadrut labor federation, Hapoel organized its first cycling division in 1930, and held the first road bike race in 1932 on the streets of Tel Aviv. Also at this time, Hapoel developed ties with Jewish communities in Europe, with various delegations of Jewish cyclists and motorcyclists coming to participate in festive sports events.
In an interview with Wingate Institute researchers, Arie Doron, who headed Hapoel’s Cycling Division for four decades, recalled a joint Maccabi-Hapoel competition against the British Police in Jerusalem in 1940.
In 1921, Tel Aviv resident Menachem Goldberg began importing Phillips Cycles and Ariel Cycles from Britain to Palestine. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the new government began setting limits and heavy tariffs on importation, a policy that forced importers like Goldberg to become manufacturers. He established HOC – Harash Ofan Cycles, the state’s first bike factory. In its heyday, HOC employed 50 workers, produced 600 units a month, and had a 40% market share.
In a 2015 interview with We:Ride magazine, HOC manager Asher Kasher noted that the kibbutz movement was a particularly important customer for HOC, as every child reaching bar or bat mitzvah age was awarded a bike.
During the 1950s, the State of Israel boasted five bicycle manufacturers: HOC, Israeli Cycle Manufacturers (ICM), Ophir Dahar, Michelson Cycle Industries (MCI) and Yaacobi&Presenti (now CTC – Cycle Trading Co.)
IN 2013, these “blue and white” bicycle makers were part of an exhibition at the Design Museum Holon about bicycle design and cycling culture.
“At first, we all rode Harash Ofan, which was a pretty bad bike,” said David Sela, chairman of the Council for Promoting Israeli Heritage and editor of the Nostalgia Online website. “We all liked the English-made Raleigh but these bikes were very rare. They were not imported in the early years of the state so there was only surplus left by the English. Afterwards, a new manufacturer, Ophir Dahar, entered the Israeli market, and that was slightly better than Harash Ofan. Finally, another Israeli manufacturer entered, creating a well-known bike called ICM; the model that was considered best was one without a foot brake, so the wheels could also turn backwards.”
There was also the matter of the bicycle license. Nostalgia Online contributor Uri Sharon recalls, “City inspectors used to stop children in the street and check if their bikes had a license. And a license also cost money. And what did the license look like? The bicycle got a number embossed on a piece of metal, which was affixed to one of the mudguards. If inspector caught a child whose bicycle had no number – he would take the air out of the tires… This order was canceled in 1984.”
In 1969, Israel’s first bicycle race for primary-school pupils was held in Hamedina Square in Tel Aviv. It was organized by Hapoel youth biking champion Eli Samoucha, who went on to create cycling club Galgalei Etz Racers, which held weekly races from the 1970s through the 1990s.
On the racing front, Israel registered with the International Bicycle Federation in 1958. North African immigration in the 1950s raised the country’s competitive level after a number of prominent riders from North Africa came to Israel, bringing with them the strong French cycling tradition. They were settled in Israel’s southern region and for this reason, from the 1950s through to the late 1970s, competitive cycling activity centered around Ramle, Ashkelon and Beersheba.
In the early 1970s, Akiva Reznik, an experienced cycling coach, arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union. He established groups in the northern region and instilled eastern European training methods that won his riders local and international titles throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1979, the bicycle market underwent a major shift when the import tariff on bicycles was canceled. The motivation for this action was not free-market ideology, as CTC owner Arie Presenti told We:Ride in 2015.
“The deputy finance minister at the time, Haim Kaufman, who happened to be a big importer of toys, was competing with my father’s factory over a huge tender of 5,000 bicycles for the military,” Presenti said. “His price offer was outrageously low and there was no chance that we could compete with it under the existing market conditions.
“It turned out that Kaufman had acted behind the scenes to remove the customs duties and thus allowed himself to import ready-made products at a price that a local manufacturer could not beat,” Presenti said. “It’s sad when a business you created with your own two hands goes down the drain and imports kill a local factory, even though, in a bizarre twist of fate, we are ourselves importers today…”
In 1980, CTC shifted into high gear to the country’s first importer of BMX bikes, and then, in 1986, of mountain bikes.
THE ISRAEL Cycling Federation was established in the 1980s as a nonprofit organization and the sole representative of the International Cycling Union and of the Culture and Sports Ministry in all matters concerning cycling in Israel.
Today, the federation has a general membership of more than 10,500 cyclists and more than 60 clubs registered annually. The federation’s Bikes4All project has established more than 100 new youth clubs that bring together Jewish and Arab children in a friendly environment.
Biking for Israeli adults has, for many years, been perceived as a competitive, endurance or leisure-time sport. Cycling as a weekend sport continues to increase in popularity, and there are endless options for off-road trails – including trails developed by the KKL-JNF in forests and open spaces – but only recently has biking as a means of daily urban transport gained acceptance.
In 2008, Alon Wolf opened the bicycle museum in moshav Herev Le’et, south of Hadera. Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum had a major bicycle exhibition earlier this year.
In 2010, Tel Aviv initiated its “green bike” rental scheme, Tel-O-Fun, and tripled the budget for constructing bike lanes. Jerusalem does not yet have a bike rental program but bike lane construction has progressed.
In 2014, the first Israeli professional team, the Israel Cycling Academy, was launched. In 2016, Israel competed for the first time in 56 years in a cycling event, at the Rio Summer Olympic Games.
In May 2018, the world-famous international Giro d’Italia for the first time started its Grand Tour outside of Europe, in Jerusalem. Another milestone in our cycling history.