Up to speed?

Apart from the lack of bike paths and infrastructure, there are potholes and endless other impediments bicyclists encounter.

bike in jer 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
bike in jer 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Lance Armstrong and his fellow Tour de France athletes may never have to contend with the problems faced by Jerusalem cyclists. Bike riders in Jerusalem routinely encounter rude drivers who feel that the roads belong exclusively to motorized four-wheel vehicles. Apart from the lack of bike paths and infrastructure, there are the potholes and endless other impediments that bicyclists encounter. Not to mention hills. Steep hills. Many steep hills. But enthusiasts like Eitan Hevrony are not deterred. Rain or shine, he pedals 10 km. daily from his home in Moshav Naham near Beit Shemesh to his job at the Central Bureau of Statistics. "I ride my bike from my moshav to Road 38 and put it in the back of a sherut taxi or Egged bus," he explains. "They charge me an extra 50 percent for that. And from the entrance of Jerusalem, I ride to my work place in Givat Shaul." In February 2004, Hevrony founded the Samson Riders Bicycle Club (www.s-riders.org.il) which organizes rides in and around Jerusalem including the Judean Hills, Beit Shemesh and the Yehuda Regional Council. A year later the Samson Riders invited Joey Klein of the International Mountain Biking Association to lead a workshop on planning, building and maintaining mountain bike trails. The internationally respected American trail design expert specializes in creating trails that are environmentally sustainable, cost-effective, safe, shared use, and fun to ride and walk. Klein's 10-day visit and workshop resulted in the creation of a challenging 3 km. mountain bike trail near the Yad Kennedy memorial park, southwest of Jerusalem. Klein was very impressed by Israel's cycling potential, calling it "the land of miracles." "In Israel you can ride every day, from the cool northern forests of the Galilee to the blazing Red Sea desert of Eilat in the south. This country has great riding opportunities. I had one of my 'top 10' rides in Solomon canyon near Eilat," he said at the time. Hevrony, who has been called Israel's bike guru, is keen to promote Israel as a bike tourism destination, and in June spoke about the country's biking infrastructure at the World Mountain Bike Conference in Whistler, British Columbia - where the 2010 Winter Olympics will be held. In March he also participated in the Velomondial, a similar event which took place in Cape Town, South Africa. Another enthusiast whose cycling passion doesn't take him so far from home is Steve Kelter. The 58-year-old insurance agent, originally from New York, gave up his car in May after riding progressively more for the last three years. Today, dressed in his bright yellow vest, reflective Velcro cuff fasteners, helmet equipped with a blinking rear lamp and a specially-designed sweat absorbing skullcap, he regularly gets chuckles and stares wherever he goes in the city. Serious cyclists like Hevrony and Kelter do not see their activity as just another sport, but rather as a complete culture with its own special characteristics, lingo and symbols. A cyclist, for example, can recognize another aficionado by the tan on his arms and legs. Kelter's zeal began with the Alyn Orthopedic Hospital's annual fund-raising bike-athon, first held in 2000. "They do such caring and beautiful work for physically challenged children. I wanted to be part of this," he recalls of his decision to get on a bicycle after a 40-year hiatus. Kelter started training for the Alyn Ride in October 2003. A few weeks later he was involved in a near-fatal accident on Rehov Graetz. Losing control on a gravel patch while speeding downhill, he flew over his handlebars. Kelter credits his helmet with saving his life - though he was hospitalized for three days with a concussion. Three months later he received a registered letter. Overcoming his skittishness to mount his bike, he pedaled to the post office where a parking ticket awaited him - which he gladly paid. "It got me past the psychological barrier of getting back on the bike after nearly being killed." Kelter then began his Alyn Ride training in earnest, beginning with progressively longer trips on top of his daily 3 km. spin from his home in Katamon to his office in Shaarei Hesed. Today he uses his bicycle to meet clients, go to the office and to get wherever he needs to go. He averages up to 50 km a day, but when training for the annual Alyn Ride, he can easily double that. Not surprisingly, riding has made Kelter muscular and fit. Being an avid cyclist and a vegetarian complement each other, he observes. For him, cycling is an environmental statement. He rides "to protect the Earth from global warming and air pollution. Biking is great aerobic exercise and promotes fitness. I can get to most places faster by bicycle than by car, particularly if there are traffic jams. And I don't have a problem with parking. "I'm helping Israel save foreign currency, and I have no interest in enriching Iran, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela by encouraging demand for oil products. I save a lot of money not spent on gas. Repairs are also much less expensive." The initial expense does not have to be high, Kelter says. "My first bike, purchased second hand, which I rode for 8,000 km within a year and a half including the Alyn Ride, cost me NIS 400." Kelter jokes that he traded in his 1988 Citroen BX to buy an NIS 6,000 magnesium-frame road bike. Today he gets around the city almost exclusively by bike - for transporting his seven-year-old son, Keltner takes a taxi or bus. "It can be a thrill passing cars stalled in traffic," he smiles. If a street is narrow or one way, he will often drive in the middle of the lane to prevent being side-swapped, going as fast as the cars. On downhills he can reach harrowing speeds of 80 km. per hour. "It's hard to find flat in Jerusalem," he laughs. "You get good training just riding around town." Jerusalem is not an easy city for bike commuters, unlike level Tel Aviv with its 30 km. bike path network including the Yarkon Park and seafront promenade. The city is also dotted with bike stands so riders can easily lock up their bikes. Jerusalem drivers are less used to bike riders, Keltner notes. "For some motorists, bicycle riders are invisible. Drivers don't yield right of way, and will pull out suddenly as if you're not there. Drivers and passengers open car doors without looking for passing bicycles. So cyclists have to be extremely defensive." Riding on sidewalks is not an option, both because it's illegal and because of the many parked cars there. In the holy city, Kelter prefers an off-road bike with front shock absorbers because of the many potholes, reserving his road bike for inter-urban trips. He carries an extra shirt to change into before visiting a client and has special rain gear for the winter. You have to drink a lot in the summer, he cautions, and of course wearing a helmet is essential. As a security precaution he has a heavy-duty coil lock and whenever possible, he locks his bike in plain view of where a security guard is stationed. Hevrony and Kelter are hardly alone in their enthusiasm for two-wheeled, self-propelled transportation. A group called Yerushalayim Bishvil Ofnayim (Jerusalem for Bicycles, also a play on the word shvil, meaning path) maintains a Hebrew and English Web site at www.bike.org.il/jm. It's loosely affiliated with Israel Bishvil Ofnayim (www.bike.org.il) and the Israel Cycling Federation (www.ofanaim.org.il) - the governing body for competitive cycling in the country. Hevrony estimates there are more than 100,000 mountain and road cyclists in Israel. While most are amateurs, 1,700 are registered competitors with the ICF. Whether in Hebrew or English, the Jerusalem pedal pushers have an ambitious agenda. Dedicated to raising awareness about bike riding in the city, the group - which according to its Web site boasts hundreds of members - ostensibly works with City Hall and other government agencies to create bike paths and to encourage cycling as an alternative means of transportation. It has prepared a comprehensive plan for a 100 km. network of bike paths across the city. The Web site further notes that the members meet at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month at the Baka Community Center. On December 29, as on the last Friday of every month, cyclists will be meeting in front of the Mashbir department store on King George Street at noon for its Critical Mass bike ride to promote bicycle paths in the city. And every Saturday at 7 a.m. road bikers set out from Binyanei Hauma for a two-hour tour of the city. Mountain bikers meet there at the same time for their weekly three-hour ride in the Judean Hills. Alas, notwithstanding its ambitious program as outlined on the Web site, in the past Yerushalayim Bishvil Ofnayim often seemed to be spinning its wheels. Gad Natan, a retired professor of statistics who still pedals almost daily from his home in Katamon to his office in the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, was a founder of the group in 1995, and served as president from 1999 to 2001. Yerushalayim Bishvil Ofnayim's biggest achievement to date came on September 10, 2000, when then-mayor Ehud Olmert dedicated the city's first - and only - bike path. Extending for 3.9 km., the path begins in Sacher Park and winds southwest through the Valley of the Cross and along Rehov Herzog to the Pat junction. Spurs to the Israel Museum and other sites constitute a further 3.8 km. With considerable frustration, Natan, a spry 71-year-old, describes his group's futile negotiations with Egged and Israel Railroads to make provisions to carry bicycles. Interurban buses are now legally required to allow passengers to put their bikes in the luggage compartment - if there's space. But "drivers aren't keen on it," he adds. Bikes are presently forbidden on trains in Israel. "We've had long discussions with Israel Railroads. We've never gotten anywhere," he shrugs. Currently the group is circulating a petition seeking a change of policy regarding transporting bicycles on trains, found on-line at www.bike.org.il/train.html. Another issue tackled but with little results has been the campaign to place bike racks in front of public buildings. Natan lobbied to create a bike path from the Malha Railroad Station to the Ottoman Train Station in Baka along the disused corridor, which is being preserved for a future Light Rapid Transit line. "The municipality always said it was limited in what it could do because of the Ministry of Transportation." Similarly Natan recounts futile negotiations with CityPass - which is building the Light Rapid Transit system scheduled to open January 5, 2009. "They passed us from one to another," he recounts of his meetings with LRT bureaucrats. While Jaffa Road will be closed to vehicles for most of its length, no provision will be made for bike paths, he rues. Despite Natan's views, Ilan Green of the municipal sports department claims the cycling situation in Jerusalem is far from bleak. On November 10 three new recreational bike paths were dedicated just outside Jerusalem in the Lavan Valley near the Aminadav Forest reaching the suburb of Ir Ganim on the far west side of the city, he notes. Graded easy, intermediate and difficult, the three routes cost NIS 200,000, he says. In addition, a full-day conference on city planning for cycling is slated for December 18. Indeed, the number of serious bicycle athletes in Israel is on the increase. Boaz Shahar, the editor of Ofanayim, Israel's cycling magazine, estimates that there are about 80,000 regular recreational riders in Israel today - an estimate a little smaller than Hevrony's but still impressive. And there seem to be more riders out there each year. A study conducted by Business Data Israel (BDI) found that the cycling industry in Israel has sales of bikes and accessories of approximately NIS 150 million annually. In 2004 alone about 200,000 bicycles were sold here, up 5 percent from 2003, and 25% from 2002, when only about 160,000 bicycles were sold. Hevrony, ever the statistician, notes that Central Bureau of Statistics sources indicate a 20% yearly increase in imports of bikes in 2005. Green is optimistic about the future of cycling in the city. Next year the Jerusalem Development Authority will open the first of three phases of the Emek Refaim bike path which Natan had lobbied for. The initial 5 km. section will go from the Oranim junction to the Khan Theater, and the whole route will ultimately connect to the newly developed paths in the Lavan Valley. Those plans are part of a much larger Master Plan for Bicycle Paths in Jerusalem drawn up in November 2004 by Tel Aviv transportation engineer Amos Avinir. While bike riding in Jerusalem is still struggling to achieve a critical mass, the subject has a powerful allure overseas. The October issue of Eretz magazine included a glowing report, "Cross-Country on Two Wheels," about a trek by Philadelphians Susan and Len Lodish who toured Jerusalem and the rest of Israel pedaling a tandem bicycle. Following the success of the Alyn Hospital's ride, the Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride are organizing a similar venture, called Cycling for Peace, Partnership and Environmental Protection, slated for May 1-8, 2007. The realization that Israel is a bike-sized country of great diversity and interest is spreading internationally. A three-day rally circling the Israeli and Jordanian halves of the Dead Sea is set for January 24-26. For further info on this co-existence rally for saving the Dead Sea, see www.bikeisrael.com. Similarly a Nova Scotia, Canada, company called Freewheeling Adventures is offering bike trips from Jerusalem to the Red Sea from March 11-18 and March 25-April 1, 2007. If the company - which organizes bike trips to exotic locales including Tasmania, Japan and Costa Rica - considers Israel an appropriate venue, perhaps Jerusalemites will finally discover the pleasures that await those who step out of their cars but seek a pace faster than on foot. City Hall officials have belatedly recognized that cycling can mean big business. La Tour de Jerusalem, a 60-km international competition modeled on the famous Tour de France, is set for May 17, Green notes. The race route is still in its preliminary planning stage in consultation with Israel Police, but if it succeeds the plan is to make it an annual event. "Any suggestions about how to get Lance Armstrong to compete?" he asks optimistically.