By BARRY DAVIS
Anyone who has seen the French animated film The Triplets of Belleville will have learned that cyclists - at least in cartoon form - can perform amazing feats, such as pedaling strongly enough to power an entire cinema. With that in mind, albeit in the real world, would it be too much to ask that several hundred on-road bikers do something to save our rapidly vanishing Dead Sea?
Not according to Uriel Aharonov, who earns his crust as chief engineer of the Megilot Dead Sea Regional Council and also founded the now annual Tour de Dead Sea cycling event in 2006.
The ride, which will take place tomorrow for the fourth successive year, has attracted cyclists of all levels from all around the country, and some from the other side of the diminishing briny body of water too. As last year, there will be a contingent or two of riders from Jordan, which, as Neda Add explains, has a similar vested interest in preserving the Dead Sea.
"People in Jordan are very much aware of the situation," says Add, who works as a coordinator at the Amman Center for Peace and Development, and also spends some of her spare time cycling. "The Dead Sea is one our most important natural resources and there is great international interest in this area which, don't forget, is the lowest spot in the world. We also have a lot of hotels and other vacation facilities here, so we have a lot to take care of, and we really hope the cycling event helps to generate even more interest in the situation."
Add is a member of a 10-strong biking group coming over from Amman - Israeli authorities permitting.
"We are all looking forward to coming over to Israel and taking part in the 60-kilometer ride," Add continues, "but we are still waiting for our visas. Hopefully, that will work out."
Aharonov was also looking forward to hosting a bunch of cyclists from across our eastern border. "It is very important for both countries to do their best to address the plight of the Dead Sea," he said. "We had some Jordanians in the event last year and I really hope everything works out and we have some more this year too."
One thing that has changed significantly compared with last year is the routes and modes of transport. In 2008 there were off-road and on-road routes, while this weekend there will only be the latter pedigree of two-wheelers in evidence. The tough guys and gals will tackle a 100-km round-trip, starting at 7:30 a.m. from the Solarium Center in the hotel area near Ein Bokek, riding north into a headwind as far as Metzukei Dragot. The challenge section includes a precipitous meandering climb, that soars up sharply to a height of 400 meters above the Dead Sea. The way back south to Ein Bokek will be far easier. The participants' "popular" 60-km route, including Ms. Add and her Jordanian pals, will start out from Ein Bokek at 8 a.m. and ride to Ein Gedi and back. Meanwhile junior participants and older cyclists who do not exactly nurture aspirations of taking part in next year's Tour de France will set out at 10 a.m. for a leisurely ride of 9 km along the promenade.
Still, it isn't how hard or how far they pedal but the presence of large numbers of cyclists near the Dead Sea that, hopefully, will raise the area's profile nationally and internationally. On the international front, all the local powers-that-be are hopeful that global recognition of the Dead Sea will take an incremental step up within the next couple of years. "We're hopeful that the Dead Sea will be a winner in the 2011 New7Wonders of Nature competition," said Aharonov referring to the Swiss-based search for the world's most valuable natural wonders.
The Dead Sea has made it to the final stage, along with 27 other important natural locations around the globe, including the likes of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Iguazu Falls that straddle the Brazilian-Argentinean border, Germany's Black Forest and the Jeita Grotto karstic limestone caves in Lebanon.
"It would be wonderful if the Dead Sea were chosen," said Add. "That would bring global attention to the area, and to its problems. Besides the Dead Sea shrinking we also have a very serious water shortage in Jordan."
Aharonov is also keen to keep the area's profile as high as possible on the domestic front. "Just the mere fact that you get several hundred cyclists here for the Tour de Dead Sea weekend already brings in welcome tourism," he says, "and we're also having events for mountain bikers in the near future around here too."
This year's cycle routes have been changed to accommodate Aharonov's neighbor to the south, the Tamar Regional Authority. "They wanted to get in on the act, and we were delighted to have them," he said. "So the routes all start from Ein Bokek, which comes under Tamar's jurisdiction." And the grandly named Tour de Dead Sea is not just about biking. After the two-wheeled exertions are complete cyclists and their families and friends of all ages can enjoy a wide range of activities and entertainment back at the Solarium Center. The program features abseiling, story telling sessions, music, environmentally-oriented arts workshops, food stalls and an arts-and-crafts fair.
Add says that she and the rest of the Jordanian contingent are looking forward to the post-cycling fun but, naturally, mainly want to stay focused on their primary reason for crossing the border. "Politics is, as always, beyond our control - God knows we have plenty of those problems in our region. But we are coming to Israel for very important reasons. We have to do our best regardless of the politics. We have to save the Dead Sea."
For more information about the Tour de Dead Sea call 052-3159898, tel/fax 04-9840369 or tel. 08-9975010, or e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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