All wheels lead to Jerusalem

WHEELS OF LOVE riders love their wheels - and the children for whom they are making the effort.

I admit it. Saturday morning, a mere twenty-four hours before the ride is slated to begin, I turn to my husband and groan, "I'm not going!" It's raining out, the wind is howling and my bed is far more appealing than fighting the elements on two wheels. But my very literal case of cold feet soon dissipates as we board our buses Saturday night, headed for Moshav Ramot in the Golan where Wheels of Love, the 6th International Charity Bike Ride on behalf of Alyn Hospital of Jerusalem, will kick off the next morning. Magic is already in the air as we renew acquaintances, hug virtual strangers, guzzle beer and begin a five-day odyssey of strained muscles, spandex-covered butts and good cheer. It began almost as a serendipitous lark: nine intrepid riders rode around the country five years ago and managed to raise $65,000 for Alyn Hospital. Now known as "Wheels of Love," this year's ride included 325 cyclists - aged 15 to 77 - from nine countries. Over half were from Israel, the majority of them immigrants of English-speaking origin. While each participant must commit to raise a minimum of $2,000 in sponsorships, the average is much higher and the aim this year is to raise $2 million for Alyn, the only rehabilitation hospital for children and adolescents in Israel. Each year, more than 5,000 kids, Jews and Arab alike, are treated at Alyn for disabilities stemming from congenital conditions, accidents, illness and terror attacks. Call it autumn camp for adults, a pure escape from reality (Amir what's his name? you say he won an election last week?), this once-upon-a-time boy's club (yeah, some of the founders really didn't want women to join) included 57 women, like Nancy, who joined a small elite group that made it up Mount Hermon; or Sandy, who lost her brakes on a sharp, serpentine descent and simply, almost nonchalantly got back on her bike; and Audrey, a spinning instructing grandma whose AM and PM stretching classes attracted as many gawking spectators as participants and whose cycling abilities put a good portion of the male cyclists to shame. I am a former couch potato - OK, as a kid I rode my bike around Central Park. So what would possess a questionably sane, book-loving, cafe-addicted urban animal to climb aboard a rather archaic two-wheel machine and pedal over hill and dale for five days, pushing one's muscles and nerves to their very limits of endurance? Giving charity is virtuous. Why not simply write a check? Call it a mid-life crisis - and yes, the majority of the riders are in their 40s and 50s - it was immediately after my husband left on the 2002 ride that I decided to join him the following year. I owned a bike and could barely make it around the block. But cycling, especially for a good cause, soon became an obsession, and huffing and puffing up and down the hills around Jerusalem became a cureless habit. It became so addictive, in fact, that following the 2004 ride, I somehow found myself 'anointed' co-chair of this once exclusive boy's club. Not only did I have to get through the ride in one piece, but I had to make sure the other 324 riders did so as well. And that was not always a simple task. Take our second morning in the Golan. After putting 100 kilometers behind us in unseasonably cold temperatures on the first day of the ride, the following morning I had to convince 200 roadies - myself included (the off-road riders were on a different route) - that the fog would lift, the rain would turn to drizzle and that the sun would eventually shine. Donning shower caps on top of our helmets-some white, others wallpaper floral-what a hardy crew we turned out to be! The drizzle turned to a downpour, which then turned to a hailstorm, and everyone just doggedly rode on - and with visibility non-existent, it became an exercise of the blind leading the blind. Later on, I was gently persuaded that perhaps meteorology was not my field. But the sun did eventually come out and roadies met off-road riders (their route had to be cancelled due to overly-muddy conditions) at Mitzpe Shalom and all made it down the razor-sharp turns past Hamat Gader over to the southern tip of the Kinneret and then along the highway to Beit She'an. It was on the optional, near-vertical climb to Kochav Hayarden that I discovered my front wheel disengaging, only to be followed by my second flat tire of the day. By the time I pulled into the Youth Hostel I was ever so cranky. But it wasn't anything that a hot shower and good beer couldn't mend. Riding is a great equalizer. From doctors - there were over 40 on the ride - to high-school students and retirees, from venture capitalists to lawyers and teachers, all of a sudden you're discussing saddle sores with someone you have never met and analyzing spokes and shocks as if it were the most natural cocktail hour chit-chat. But even this sense of camaraderie does have its limits. Riding with virtual strangers is one thing; sleeping with them is another. Great route, super company, decent food - the one thing the ride cannot guarantee is a good night's sleep. With no way to sort the snorers from the silent sleepers, there have been more grumbles about sleep deprivation than complaints about never-ending ascents. A veteran of the ride, I have learned that Advil is a many splendored thing and that ear plugs work better than counting sheep. This year's 450-kilometer route from the Golan to Jerusalem - one of WOL's longest and most challenging - included a number of serious ascents. One of the most awe-inspiring was the seven-kilometer climb to the crest of the Gilboa Mountain range on the third day. Riding that stretch in the back - yes, I needed the mechanics once again - I was surprised at how little encouragement this group needed. Thinking of the daily challenges faced by the kids at Alyn - the ride's mantra - prodded and inspired these riders, who were just as determined to get to the top as were the speed demons in the front. It just took them a little longer. No matter, they still found time to whip out their digital cameras. After crisscrossing the country from Beit She'an to Zichron Ya'acov and then down to Tel Aviv, cruising along some of Israel's most congested roadways, riders geared up for the final ascent of the ride - the monumental climb to Jerusalem. The route chosen, via Ramat Raziel, is considered by all local riders to be the toughest way up. We secretly kept our fingers crossed that everyone would make it. Some - taking it literally in stride and good humor - walked part of the way; most rode, but everyone made it to our lunch stop at Sataf in record time. Reaching Jerusalem seemed to spur everyone on. Finally, we climbed from Ein Kerem to Har Herzl. As I slowly pedaled my way up, I noticed groups of overseas riders photographing each other in front of the sign marking the entrance to the city. Sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to appreciate all that you have. As we made our way to Alyn Hospital on the very final leg of our long journey - we were greeted there by kids on their therapeutic tricycles - one rider turned to me, thankful for the experience, tears streaming down her face. "I lost it," she sobbed, "I simply lost it when I saw that we had finally reached Jerusalem."