Heat, Hills, Hummus and The Holy Land: Racing Epic Israel

I think my body may have finally digested the gargantuan portions of food that filled my belly following my recent trip to race Epic Israel. On arrival to the buzzing city of Tel Aviv, I could sense the creative and culinary delights immediately, the perfect compliment to three days of mountain bike marathon racing. Israel is certainly a land I will remember for its baking heat, history and helpings of hummus!

Hosted by both Playtica Epic Israel and The Minstry of Tourism, my partner and I joined a party of eager riders and journalists from around the globe to take part in the 4th edition of this fast-growing stage race, which was this year, held in the Israeli occupied region of the Golan Heights. In the lead up to the event, our enthusiastic and historical tour guide Gal was on hand to show us round this ancient and holy land, a melting pot of religious views and political intrigue.

A morning visit to Jerusalem took us straight to the heart of the bible, where we wandered to the sacred spots of many faiths that choose to pilgrimage annually. A rapid-fire history lesson admittedly left my mind mildly boggled albeit fascinated by the power of this place. Inside the mighty church of the Holy Sepulchre emotions ran high as we watched faithful travellers rubbing items on the Stone of Anointing; a traditional act of blessing. Later, a trip to the Western Wall would see us split into genders as we all watched in amazement at the wailing and worship; dedicated Jews had brought the elderly and infirm to plant prayers inside the cracks of this ancient limestone surround.

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After a face full of falafel for lunch, we quickly took off to make our next visit to the Dead Sea, a welcome revival for the body after many days of travelling in the lead up. Whilst this site has a mildly eery feel to it thanks to annually receding waters and subsequently abandoned buildings, we were all itching to get into the water to cool down. For every litre of water, there’s approximately 30% salt, so as soon as you step in, you’re fighting to remain vertical! Once out the water, we painted our bodies with magical mud, willing it’s healing powers to set us up for the days of riding to come.

The following morning we made a historical last stop to the city of Akko, stuffed ourselves for the final time with local fare and set off towards the Gallion hotel, which was to be our race base for the remainder of the week. After registering, building bikes and laying out kit ahead of the brutally early kick off, we enjoyed a social evening then made for bed. As 4:45 am struck, the alarm buzzed in my ear. I jumped out of bed, feeling ready for the 98km of sun scorching trail riding and excited to get back on my beloved bike. Breakfast was almost overwhelming at that hour of the day; we packed in Shakshouka, fresh bread and veggies, a few shots of coffee for added kick, then grabbed our gear and moved to the start line.

Once 7 am arrived we charged off on a flat and fast start on tarmac that broke on to dusty dirt road in no time. Heart rates pounding, Ico and I settled into a pack of riders and picked our way up the field. I was feeling strong and motivated to get in a good position, also knowing that the tighter trails would be torture should we be held behind. We rode like this for a short time, until we hit a mass of riders trying to get their way down a very narrow bank and through a tunnel. At this point some of the riders got a little irked, with some teams pushing through the bushes. We just went with the flow and got out when we could. As we rode through the rocky valley, my lack of hardtail riding was apparent, my poor backside feeling every bump! We both love this kind of riding though and made some good time and mixed pair places, keeping speed as the bowling ball sized rocks tried to knock us down. Some unsuspecting hikers moved off the path to let us through and we stopped only to sort my seat post, which was coming a little loose. After the first 10km or so, the climbing began and we enjoyed a reasonably technical ride, with steep sections that kept us focused. The first day is literally up the mountain and down the other side, but neither of us found it particularly steep, just constant and unyielding.

Tiring legs were rewarded with a fast and flowing downhill through singletrack, with both of us pushing the pace and trying to work our way around the slower riders. Luckily we made most of the 20km uninterrupted and had huge smiles fill our faces as the tracks flowed continuously. At the bottom of the trail, we had to be content with dirt road to take us back to base, yet this time it was almost 20km of flat riding with winds that were severe and gathering pace. Ico wasn’t feeling great at this point and we had to back down. Without a pack of riders to draft it would be tricky to keep pushing on and his lack of  nutrition and hydration was playing havoc. We rolled in for the last few kilometres, satisfied to have completed our first big day.

A relaxing afternoon by the pool was indeed a novelty and one I took advantage of to the full! An atmospheric village was building and Jem’s beer was on tap to celebrate the day. As we’d finished by midday, there were hours to relax and take it all in, chatting busily to our newfound friends. I needed those hours to wash off all that dust too! The evening meals were again a marvellous mound of every kind of meat and vegetable imaginable, a theme each evening that would see us cheer on the winning riders of the day and help us practice our Hebrew as we listened to the speeches.

Our second day on the bike would take us to much rougher ground as the technical climbing came into play. Again this suited our strengths. Out on the same road as day one – this time with a 6.30 am start due to the 110km distance – once more we tucked in to a pack of steady riders and made our way on to the basalt boulder field ascent. Ico was still feeling the affects of bad sleep and nutritional deprivation, so we kept together. Even so, he was super strong on the climbs and powered his way up through riders keen to walk or avoid the wet mud. I gained quite a few places here too, despite getting a knock and smashing my ankle. A body check let me know it wasn’t too serious and adrenaline and drive took over.

Playtika Epic Israel 2016

Whilst the climbing is never too high in terms of altitude, today’s stage was the sting in the tail with some defiant sections that left most of the field hiking with their bikes. After a water stop we pushed for sometime uphill, but I felt strong enough to get back on, ticking over until I topped out and waited for Ico to meet me. Here we were only a short distance from the feed station, so we threw back some GU gels, pretzels and bananas. Within seconds Ico took off on his Trigger, flying like a missile down the rocky paths. We still had a short climb to do through the Odem Forest until he could completely let loose, but once he was there, he flew. I held on and switched to full travel mode on my Scott Scale RC, whooping as I chased him down the mix of dirt road, rocky paths and steep, bouldery trails. The last feed station was 30 km away from the finish and although we were on flat ground, this section saw us weave through small towns, backroads and even pass through a raft guiding outfit – with customary cheers in Hebrew of course. A short, enforced river crossing cooled us down and cleared the dust from our bikes and bodies. Luckily we got into a pack with some eager riders shortly afterwards and they rhythmically led us down the final few kilometres of the day. Without this aid, it’s a tough end to an already brutal day of beating heat and bumpy riding. The last section was a true test of mental strength as they served up an out and back to add on kilometres and by the time we arrived over the line, the beer was needed!

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Standing off the bike, as my veins stopped pumping, my ankle began to scream. I’d actually forgotten about the earlier bashing, but it was back with vengeance. I hobbled to the bike wash then hopped my way back to our room and knew I was in trouble. On to the bed, my ankle was a bulging mess of bruises and inflammation. Ouch. I took Ico’s advice and keep moving it and then begged him to get me some painkillers to numb the agony. Shortly after, a knock at the door revealed the race medical team who promptly strapped up my ankle and looked at me like a woman possessed as I negotiated to keep riding for the final day. A few hours passed and with a decent dose of paracetamol, I actually felt good! My first mission now I was standing was to hunt down the medical man, insisting I was totally fine and that I would most certainly be back on my bike… he just told me to come see them in the morning to be sure.

Once cleared of medical issues, I arrived at the start for the final day of riding. At 58km it’s a shorter affair but in my mind, the most challenging. Sure, the third day is always a killer as your body is somewhere between sore, tired and getting accustomed to the riding. Ico had a newfound glimmer of gusto and so we smashed out of the start line. I just embraced it and talked myself out of a sleepy, sick feeling that was brewing. If there’s a lesson to learn it’s nutrition. Both Ico and I are strong and fit riders, but our issues were mainly around a lack of hydration and instant refuelling. I’d been so distracted by ankle dramas I knew i’d missed some vital resources.

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Dust and dirt was flying and the first 10 km throws some mean and punchy climbs to kick you down. I love this though and again we gained a strong position as we worked our way further up the field. Ico was at full gas this time, so it was my turn to stare at his behind as we flowed through more singletrack trails until the first feed station. I was on an instant sugar hit only and sucked down various flavours of GU gel and nostalgic jelly sweets before taking off up the road climb. There’s still some hefty ascents involved and whilst they are tarmac in the main, you’re biting your bars on most of them. There’s little let up either and as we climbed further most riders were again reduced to a walk and a push of their bikes as the terrain was terribly loose. Heat was also not helping and the sun gods had thrown some extra rays at us for good measure!  At this point though, it’s worth to look out over the Hahula valley, which was stunning and delivered the best views of the race.

My head was down and focusing for the most part though, until some revelrous supporters stood at the top of one road climb, brandishing bottles of beer! Nimi, one of the race organisers who i’d been in contact with, chased me with a cup of beer and playfully insisting I have some. Once I qualified it was him, I took a few sips and actually started to pick up pace! After the final feed station there’s still work to do. Local singletrack put a smile on our faces and I tried my fastest to keep up with the speedy South African. Winding through the Kfar Giladi, we loved the route and with additional riders on that day too, I was chatting and laughing most of the way. In the final stages, you’ll welcome a dropper post as it gets insanely steep, sketching and mighty loose! We were in a tag team with another mixed pair, a fantastic female downhiller who was helping push my limits and ride the rough stuff. That’s why I love the element of competition; I find other riders really inspire me to ride sections I might not, or at least push my pace and my heart rate. Sadly her team mate had punctured so we didn’t get our friendly sprint to the finish, but once over the line for the final time, we all met and congratulated each other on our efforts.

Standing inline, the relief and revelation that it was complete brewed a party atmosphere and we chatted to other riders we’d met along the way as we waited for our honoured shirts. Epic Israel was a true eye opener to the terrain on offer in Israel, so distant to my usual trails. As a place steeped in history and conflict, it really is a fascinating change to the usual destinations that spring to mind for stage racing and well worthy of a visit so long as you take time to eat your weight back in Israeli delights!

Thanks to The Ministry of Tourism and Monarch Airlines. For more information about Israel, you can visit uk.thinkisrael.com

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