Worth its salt in cycling

The Tour de Dead Sea was a delightful experience and raised awareness of the sea's disturbing vanishing act.

bike riders 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bike riders 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Getting up close to the crack of dawn every Shabbat through the summer is simply a given if you're going to get a decent three-or four-hour bike ride in before the sun hits its stride. But arising from the cozy confines of your bed at 4:30 a.m. on something of a teeth-chattering winter's morning - on the Lord's Rest Day, no less - ain't a seasonal prerequisite, or even much of a joy. Regardless, the order of the day was to get down to the starting line of the grandly named Tour de Dead Sea annual bike ride-cum-race at Kalya by 6:30 a.m. But aesthetic rewards for the unearthly start to the day were forthcoming as soon as the car emerged from the tunnel near Mount Scopus. The eastern sky of the Jordanian mountains was ablaze with crimson, orange and purple streaks as the Jordan Valley greeted the chilly sunrise. The early cyclist, it seems, catches the dawn. As "the lowest spot on Earth" came into view, the number of vehicles carrying road and off-road bikes increased appreciably. This event was evidently going to be well attended. "It's not exactly warm, is it?" proffered a shivering biker, already outfitted in thigh-hugging shorts, as he waited in the parking lot for his cycling partner to return from the registration area, located a good 10 minutes' walk away. Presumably the organizers thought that the walk would help the cyclists limber up for the event. The excitement level rose palpably as the improvised parking lot filled with bike-laden vehicles arriving from all over the country - both to enjoy a rare opportunity to cycle along the main road along the Dead Sea down to Masada in safety and to bond, somewhat, with the much-vaunted but rapidly disappearing saline body of water. One of the stated objectives of the Tour de Dead Sea, now in its third year, is to draw attention to the plight of the Dead Sea, but most bikers seemed to be there solely for the cycling experience. "What a great place to ride in," said fortysomething Ayelet from Jaffa, as she struggled up the first of two climbs heading south from Kalya to the turnaround point at Masada. "I'm not used to climbs, but I'm still happy to be here." Uriel Aharonov was happy to be there, too. Aharonov, who founded the event three years ago, is a keen mountain biker and has a day job as chief engineer of the Megilot Dead Sea Regional Council. "The Dead Sea and the surrounding area provide an ideal location for thousands of mountain and road cyclists from around the world, due to the ideal climate and the wide range of tourist spots and natural attractions there," Aharonov stated. Aharonov seems to be doing a good job. This year's rides - there were two road courses and a couple of off-road courses on offer - brought close to 800 riders to the area for the day. Still, the council engineer wasn't entirely satisfied. "Last year we had 1,100 cyclists," he noted. "I think the cold weather might have deterred some people from taking part." This year's attendance, however, still represents an incremental leap from the January 2007 Tour de Dead Sea event which, uniquely thus far, took on both sides of the sea. "There were about 200 riders the first time out," Aharonov continues. "I don't think any sporting event, anywhere in the country, has become so popular so quickly. That first year was something special, riding on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the sea. I hope that happens again some time." That is a sentiment wholeheartedly shared by Majid Ashaar, who headed a team of 10 Jordanian cyclists who took part in the shorter - 55-kilometer - road ride this year. "It was wonderful to come to Israel to be part of the Tour de Dead Sea event," said Ashaar, who also acts as president of the Aryan Sports Club based near the King Hussein Bridge. "The Dead Sea belongs to both countries and we should all join hands in caring for it and helping to improve its state. I hope we can all ride right around the sea next year." Meanwhile, the 120 or so of us on the professional 124-km. ride were busy wheeling southward toward Masada. Although a keen rider, this writer had a couple of qualms after signing up for the longer ride, and I wasn't sure how - at the grand old age of 52 - I would fare against the serious professionals, most of whom would be 20 or more years younger. Originally touted as a race, there was no organized launch to speak of and the riders set off in a long trail. After a short break near Masada the pack headed back northward to Kalya and it immediately became apparent that we would have to fight our way back through a strong headwind on the return 55+-km. leg. There were groans aplenty as we pushed down hard on the pedals, but the added elemental challenge would - as my non-Jewish high school math teacher once said on noting that some members of the class were sporting sfirat ha'omer bristles - sort the men from the boys. All in all, the Tour de Dead Sea was a delightful experience and raised awareness of the sea's disturbing vanishing act, as well as making several poor motorists, who found their progress along the Arava road impeded by cyclists, more cognizant of the fact that two-wheeler users have road rights, too. Aharonov, meanwhile, has big plans for the event and for the Dead Sea. "I want to get international environmental and other organizations on board too. We were hoping to have 10 Israeli cyclists, 10 Palestinian cyclists and 10 Jordanian cyclists take part in the Velocity bikers conference in Brussels in May, but we couldn't raise the funds for that." However, some progress is being achieved on the international front. "Manfred Neun, president of the ECF (European Cyclists Federation), has expressed an interest in promoting the event. That may happen in 2010." Friends of the Earth has also shown some interest, although there appears to be a political obstacle to overcome before much can happen there. "They say that the northern part of the Dead Sea, as far as Ein Gedi, belongs to the Palestinians," says Aharonov. "I guess you always get [into] politics in this part of the world." For now, the Dead Sea will keep on diminishing, and the cyclists will keep on wheeling.