Bringing New York to Jerusalem...on two wheels

This year, for the first time, Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Hills will host the GFNY, which stands for Grand Fondo New York.

The first Grand Fondo New York took place in 2011 and has since spread to over 20 countries around the world (photo credit: GRAND FONDO NEW YORK)
The first Grand Fondo New York took place in 2011 and has since spread to over 20 countries around the world
(photo credit: GRAND FONDO NEW YORK)
In case you haven’t noticed, cycling is a rapidly evolving sports activity in this country. And that includes Jerusalem and its environs.
Yes, Tel Aviv may have more around-town bikers, but the city is almost entirely flat. That, for the hardier cyclists among us, equates to a lack of challenge and, thus, little interest. But in Jerusalem you can hardly move more than 100 meters in any direction without having to negotiate some ascent or descent.
In recent years the municipality has begun to sit up and take notice, and to actually invest some of our hard-earned municipal tax payments in cycle paths, such as along Harakevet Street and the delightful Hamesila Park route. But there is still some way to go before cyclists can get from home to work or to the stores along completely safe routes without having to deal with speeding cars and trucks, and less-than-patient drivers.
However, events such as the annual Yes Planet Round Jerusalem event, now in its sixth year, are helping to raise awareness among Jerusalemites and, hence, hopefully, among the municipal purse-string holders, too. This year’s ride will take place on April 27, with in excess of 7,000 cyclists of all ages and fitness levels taking on one of four routes – 10 km., 20 km., 40 km. or 50 km. The latter two are for mountain bikers.
WHILE THE Yes Planet rides are gaining in popularity year by year, next Friday will see the local cycling profile shoot up several notches. This year, for the first time, Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Hills will host the GFNY, which stands for Grand Fondo New York. The race was first held in New York in 2011 and has since spread out to around 20 countries worldwide, including Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Germany, Bali, Brazil and now Israel.
Shaun Gad, one of the driving forces behind the international cycling network, is now in Jerusalem to oversee the prerace logistics, and as co-founder and owner of Jerusalem GFNY he will naturally be at the starting line near Teddy Stadium himself at 6 a.m. next Friday.
The GFNY event takes in two routes – 70 km. and 130 km. – and comes complete with an exciting marketing hook/slogan – “Be a Pro for a Day.” For the likes of us enthused amateurs, who put in thousands of kilometers of pedal work year in, year out, that is an alluring prospect.
And we won’t be alone. Besides taking place in and around one of the world’s most spectacular and recognizable cities, GFNY Jerusalem will be a truly international event, with around 1,300 cyclists from some 30 countries expected to be at the kickoff next Friday.
The dynamic for next week’s event was set in motion when someone from the Israeli tourism offices in New York contacted Gad and mooted the idea of bringing GFNY over here. Gad was certainly open to the idea, but when personal tragedy struck, the proposal was left on a back burner for a while.
“Around that time, unfortunately, my father passed away, so I went through a hard time. But we were still in communication [with the Tourism Ministry officials], and they said they’d like me to come to Israel, and I told them I’d like to talk to my friends in Israel.”
Gad wanted to get a better of idea of how the land lay here, from people who knew the local scene. That brought Ilan Zaviv, a Jerusalemite tourism professional and keen cyclist, into the picture.
“Ilan has been one of my best friends for almost 20 years,” says Gad.
The two met in Mexico, where they were both living at the time, and Gad felt Zaviv had the necessary professional experience to examine the ministry’s proposal and to see if it was viable to establish a Jerusalem version of the GFNY.
Zaviv was initially unenthused, not because he didn’t want such a prestigious international cycling event to come over here, but because he was up to his proverbial eyeballs with running his tourism company here.
However, after a budget was offered in the lead-up to the country’s 70th Independence Day festivities, Zaviv eventually began checking out the lay of the land with the municipality, and duly reported back to Gad that the latter should come over here to take things forward.
“They were looking for international events that would shed a different light on Jerusalem,” Zaviv explains.
“That’s exactly what GFNY is.”
Kapaim, one of Israel’s leading sports event production companies, was soon brought in, as was event producer Yaniv Cohen, and together with Gad and Zaviv they sat down with Mayor Nir Barkat and a group of senior municipality officials.
“I went over our guidelines and the bare necessities we needed,” says Gad. The latter, first and foremost, included safety. “We needed fully closed roads. That was priority No. 1,” Gad notes. “The bottom line was that there should be no obstacles along the way that would make [cyclists] slow down during the race.”
Make no mistake about it, the GFNY is a race, or a “cycling marathon” as it has been termed, but it is also a large-scale sporting event for all and sundry. Yes, riding 130 km., or even “only” 70 km., up and down the Jerusalem terrain can be challenging. But not everyone is going to be putting in their all to complete the course in double-quick time.
Betwixt the 2,571 meters of elevation gain, and four pretty challenging climbs, there will be four aid stations where riders can smartly replenish calorie and salt levels with energy snacks, fruit and other solid edibles, and there will be a range of beverages on offer, too. Some may wish to put their feet up for a while and take a breather, but the stations will be set up as pit stops, and those who want to get on with their cycling can rapidly satisfy all their nutritional needs.
THE 250-STRONG foreign contingent includes some top-rank athletes, including former Tour de France competitors, and the cream of the local cycling community will be in Jerusalem on April 27. The latter include a certain Adi Deutsch, one of this country’s most durable and courageous sportsmen.
The 59-year-old has taken part in cycling and Ironman competitions all over the world, as well as representing Israel at the 2000 Paralympics as a member of the handball team.
Deutsch was on a secret IDF reconnaissance operation in Lebanon in 1980, when he stepped on a land mine and lost the lower part of one leg. Prior to the injury, he had been a keen sportsman, playing soccer with Hapoel Rehovot and handball. It took a while for him to recover from surgery, but he eventually got back to sport, initially as a swimmer and later as a cyclist. He also took part in the New York Marathon, completing the course in under four hours.
While he is clearly driven, Deutsch says he welcomes any sporting initiative, and especially such an inclusive one as the GFNY. “It is wonderful to have an event in Israel that includes professional and amateur cyclists alike,” he says. Deutsch feels there are rewards to be had for all of us from such an endeavor. “I believe that the closer we get to a critical mass of cyclists, the better it is for everyone. The bicycle is an excellent educational tool, and the more people make use of one, I want to believe we will be a more tolerant society.
That’s my hope.”
If youngsters, or anyone considering getting into sport in general, and in particular cycling, lack the getup- and-go, they could do worse than have a chat about it with Deutsch. The man is quite simply a phenomenon.
His sporting exploits include competing against able-bodied athletes – for instance, in an Ironman event in Eilat in 2013, which featured a mind-boggling 3.8-km. swim, 180 km. of cycling and a full 42-km.
marathon. Deutsch came in 50th out of 139, and was fourth in his age category. He was also the first Israeli amputee to ever complete the race.
“I began cycling with able-bodied cyclists, and I got a lot of warmth and support from them,” he recalls. “I realized that being limited was not an obstacle for me.
I could do anything, if I sent my mind to it.”
No doubt, Deutsch will, once again, demonstrate that iron will next Friday in the Jerusalem Hills.
IF GAD had any misgivings about setting up an Israeli version of the GFNY, they were allayed by a highly emotive discovery. “Nir Barkat and his team did their preemptive work and showed me the route they wanted – this is the kicker of the story. I saw that the route goes right past by father’s grave. My father is buried in Beit Shemesh, and we’ll pass right by there.”
Gad, who has ridden in numerous locations around the globe, was pretty taken with the rest of the circuit, too.
“Who can resist Jerusalem?” he exclaims. “It is majestic.
You don’t get that sensation anywhere else in the world. You have the Dolomites and other beautiful places, but mountains are mountains. But, when you’re going through the Jerusalem Hills and near the place where David and Goliath had their battle, and you’re battling it through the hills right now, it’s adding to the excitement of your race.”
Gad, Zaviv et al. are hopeful that next week’s race will become an annual event here. The Jerusalem GFNY may eventually also offer more added value to local cyclists and would-be riders.
“We have a successful event. And once the government is happy and everyone else is happy, and we’re in the community, we can be a little more proactive in the community, talking about the regular roads and being an advocate for cycling the city,” Gad says.
For now, thousands of cyclists of all stripes and fitness levels are just looking forward to having a rewarding and fun time in and around Jerusalem.
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