Night riders

Once a week, an unofficial group of cyclists takes off to explore the city's backstreets and byways.

bikers 248.88 (photo credit: Arthur Brutter)
bikers 248.88
(photo credit: Arthur Brutter)
Mahaneh Yehuda, 9:20 p.m. The shuk is all but closed for business except for the last one or two vendors still counting their day's take and passersby perusing a table of discounted baked goods. An Arab worker parks his truck in the open-air market and begins unloading crates piled high with butternut squash, but he soon jumps back into his driver's cab to avoid the traffic unexpectedly filling the shuk. Red and white lights flash in the puddles of stale water, and bells echo through the vacant alley as more than 30 bicycles suddenly fill the empty market's main thoroughfare. A pair of haredi men examining the last cookies of the day stand and stare in bemusement at the spectacle surrounding them. But the same phenomenon takes place the same time every week, when an unofficial group of nocturnal cyclists takes to Jerusalem's streets to explore the unseen parts of the city. Without a clue where they are headed, dozens of Jerusalemites congregate every Tuesday night around the corner from the shuk at Jaffa Road's Nitzan Cycles. The leader of the pack and the shop's manager, Ilan Shaul, guides the weekly "night rides," which can take participants anywhere from the nearby haredi neighborhoods and Arab villages to the fresh air of the Jerusalem Forest, depending on where he feels like going. "Personally, I prefer the countryside," he says. "I hate the city; it's too busy. But Jerusalem is magical, especially at night when it's less congested. It's only through the last few years that the rides have connected me to the city." What originally began four years ago when a blind couple wanted to experience the city by riding on the back of a tandem has become a weekly tradition that attracts a regular hard core of cyclists who are joined by students, tourists and religious and secular Jerusalemites. Some choose to take to the streets after dark to improve their fitness; but for others, including Shaul, it's a voyage of discovery to unearth new places in their home town or see old favorites in a brand-new light. But if Shaul seems like he knows where he's going, remember that appearances can be deceiving. "We see our city through the eyes of a tourist. We try to get lost and try new places that we haven't been to before; there's always another corner to turn," he explains. "We try to avoid busy roads and take a little sip from every different neighborhood - there are so many to choose from. Just a few minutes from an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and you're in east Jerusalem, where nobody speaks Hebrew, or in a wealthy area with clean streets. You see many different ways of living in the town. The diversity is unbelievable." The common complaint about Jerusalem being a "cycle-unfriendly" city - the steep hills, winter rains and unremitting traffic - doesn't wash with the night riders. "Someone who really is a cyclist wants hills. After the second or third time, the ascents get much easier," says one rider, relaxing after the two-hour journey. "One thing that's nice about the Tuesday rides is that it's an urban tour, it's a nice group, and the level is not too high. On Shabbat it's more hard core. I meet my friends at 5:40 in the morning and ride for 30 to 40 km." But not everyone in the group wears the "hard-core" label, and many find their first time with the group more grueling than expected. "Sometimes we have wild characters joining us, and we invite riders from across Israel for aggressive urban cycling. Other times it's groups of tourists, and we have Italians singing opera between the alleyways of the Old City at night waking up babies," adds Shaul. "I didn't realize I was in such bad shape!" says 29-year-old student Tomer Ashkenazi after his first time out with the night riders. "It costs NIS 1,500 to join a gym, even as a student. But if I ride to classes, I get fit all day and it costs me nothing." His friend Arthur, who also studies industrial design at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, is glad to be back on two wheels after a one-year break from the night rides following a road accident. "During the week I ride to look after my fitness, to strengthen my legs and flatten my stomach," he laughs, patting his belly. "But on the weekend, I go cross country to ride in the field." AS FOR traffic, many roads are empty at night compared to the daytime deadlock, although the night riders often face other perils, depending on where Shaul decides to take them. "Sometimes it can be dangerous. There are risks that we take, especially in Arab or [Orthodox] religious Jewish areas," Shaul acknowledges. This summer, one female rider received a punch to the ribs by a haredi man in Mea She'arim, while other riders were spat at by Arab boys as they passed the American Colony Hotel. Shaul says that he finds cycling through Mea She'arim, less than 10 minutes away from the shuk, scarier than the streets of east Jerusalem. "It's another universe, a secret world of people dressed in black," he says, adding that he avoids haredi districts if there are a lot of women in the group, who normally make up about 10 percent of the bikers. "Riding a bicycle is living on the edge. You're fighting and chasing gravity all the time. The minute you sit on a bike, you feel like a little kid," maintains Shaul. "Going to Mea She'arim feels even better [on a bike]. It's wrong, something you are not supposed to do. You change people's minds by taking them through neighborhoods that they never go to, especially by bike." Safety in numbers also gives a boost to the confidence of some cyclists to ride where others fear to tread. "What really provides safety is increasing the number of bikes on the road; there is a correlation between the number of bikers and safety on the roads," argues Marcelo Glucksmann, coordinator of Bicycles of Jerusalem, citing Holland as an example. Glucksmann empathizes with the fear held by many Jerusalemites of the city's kamikaze motorists but, nevertheless, he rode to his interview with In Jerusalem minus a safety helmet (despite a recent law mandating cyclists to wear them). "There is no basis to pass the law enforcing helmets," he says. "Cyclists' safety [in Holland] is a response to the fact that there are so many cyclists and there is a consciousness among drivers that bikes will be on the road." One of the group's best-loved routes warms up the participants through the backstreets of Mea She'arim and Geula before putting their calf muscles and gear shifters through a workout on the steep climb to Mount Scopus, where they are rewarded with a moonlit view of the desert landscape. Before they are able to get their breath back from the ascent, it's taken away once more at the Mount of Olives, where they admire the breathtaking scene of the illuminated Old City on the opposite side of the Kidron Valley. Following the white-knuckle descent around the Mount's ancient cemetery, passing churches and biblical sites at lightning speed, the cyclists enter the Old City's walls through the Lions' Gate, scrambling past shuttered shops, as well as bewildered Palestinian residents, Jewish tourists and Border Police patrolling the alleyways, before returning to the 21st century at Kikar Tzahal. While some of the other riders might prefer to rest their aching muscles from the previous night's trek, Shaul is back to work at Nitzan Cycles as usual each Wednesday morning, despite the 10-km round trip from his home in Ir Ganim to Mahaneh Yehuda. "The days when I come to work without my bike never start well," he says, arching his lean frame over to fix the rear wheel of a bike brought in by a customer. Until recently, the shop was an unmissable fixture on Jaffa Road before its sign - depicting a larger-than-life cartoon cyclist exclaiming "Welcome to Jerusalem!" to the passing traffic - became obscured by building works for Jerusalem's light rail. Now the pavement is barely wide enough to wheel a mountain bike between the shop fronts and the recently installed metal fence to keep pedestrians from falling into the concrete abyss being prepared for the new railway. The steady flow of customers who still make their way into the shop find themselves passing under a thick ring of tires hanging above the front door as they thread toward the stacks of pink, green and red safety helmets lining the rear wall. Some shoppers know what they are looking for, but others need an expert to help them choose from the rows of cycles on display. "I cycle to work each day and try to do it in different ways all the time; that's what has kept me doing it for the last four years," says Shaul. "Cycling is an addictive habit. It's the best way to connect to yourself and get release from the rat race."