Words by Avi Fried (@avi_fried_), photos by Avi Fried, Itai Halevi, and Vlad Ramkovich
The HLC (Holyland Challenge) is a 1,460km unsupported bikepacking race through the Golan Heights and down the length of Israel. It starts at the base of Mt. Hermon, one of the tallest mountains in the north, and ends in Eilat, at the Red Sea, Israel’s southernmost point. The route is by no means direct, as the country is only 550km long, and by no means flat, accumulating 24,000 meters of elevation throughout.
You get to experience the Golan Heights by following the “Golan Trail,” riding through volcanic landscapes and navigating the plethora of cattle ranches and fences, down to the Sea of Galilee. You then follow the “Israel National Trail” across the country, visiting the old city of Nazareth and climbing all of its stairs, riding through the forests of the Carmel Mountains, enjoying the singletrack available there. You visit the coastal plain with amazing views of the beach before reaching the halfway point after a climb to Jerusalem. After riding through the streets of Jerusalem, you descend towards the Judean desert, riding ancient roman pathways, visiting the Dead Sea, massive erosion craters, and sprawling networks of dry riverbeds, all on the “Israel National Bike Trail.” Although scenic, the route is in no way easy. There’s plenty of hike-a-bike, rough singletrack, rocky descents, big climbs, high temperatures, and endless sections of almost unrideable loose rocky paths.
This was my first bikepacking race, and actually my first ever bike race in general. I just recently discovered biking last year. I had been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and following an injury three months in, decided to buy a second-hand bike and ride to Canada. By the time I reached the border, I was hooked. I heard about bikepacking and bikepacking races and went all in, buying a mountain bike, learning technical skills, training, buying gear, and reading up all I could online. I pretty much spent a year preparing myself for a bikepacking race from scratch, so when the HLC came around I was obviously pretty excited (and nervous).
This year’s race, like everything else, was affected by COVID-19. No one was sure the race was going to go ahead until about a week out, as the local restrictions were ever changing. No foreigners were able to enter the country to race, and with the final restrictions, solitary sport was allowed, so on October 15th at 7 a.m., 18 riders lined up to tackle the ride, 11 of whom planned on riding the full route to Eilat. We were well fed, having met up the previous night for a local Druze feast, and spent the night at a campsite right by the start line.
Setting off, I tried hard to be at the front of the pack, keeping up for a bit with Chanoch Reidlich, who holds the route record, and Vlad Ramkovitch, who had ridden the route on a single speed in 2016. Fearing I would burn myself out I slowed down a bit, settling in at third place. By the end of the day, Chanoch had scratched, leaving me in 2nd place, a position I managed to hold for the rest of the race.
The first day was a rude awakening, providing a taste of what I would experience during the race. I hit the first serious climb at the hottest time of the day. A hill too steep to ride with no shade, one of many to follow, given the accumulated elevation of the race. The descents weren’t forgiving either, as by the end of summer here, the paths become rocky and dusty, leaving you struggling to find the right line where your brakes would still have enough traction to stop your fully loaded bike.
Given the low numbers participating in the race this year and the COVID restrictions in place, it was a lonely race. Once the pack spread out, we were mostly racing alone. Other than some dot watchers who popped up from time to time, I spent the whole race riding by myself. Shops were closed and streets were empty. My main source of company was the gas station attendants when I was restocking, as gas stations had the fastest available food, and plenty of snack bars. I think I averaged seven Snickers bars per day.
I did pretty well for the first half of the race, arriving in Jerusalem just a little bit past four days into the race. The second half of the race was where I left my comfort zone, as it was all desert and I had never ridden in the desert before. Fearing the heat and dehydration, I tried to time my sleep so I hit the climbs in the cooler hours of the day. This meant riding longer into the night and sleeping less, but no matter what I did, I kept hitting the climbs at the hottest hour. One time I almost ran out of water before the climb, on a 100km dry section of the race. I was carrying seven liters of water. My frustration with the heat and my bad timing was only made worse by the fact that Vlad, the leader of the race, kept hitting the climbs earlier in the morning, as he was four hours ahead of me.
Did I mention what the climbs looked like? The lead up to them was usually a couple of hours riding in loose riverbeds deep in a canyon, where every few minutes your tires would dig in, forcing you to get off the bike and walk until the ground was solid enough to continue. This was followed by a steep climb out of the canyon, no shade, blazing hot sun, and 35 degrees celsius. The backside was another descent into a new canyon. Luckily, the Israel Bike Trail has some amazing flowy sections, allowing you to rip through the desert and cool down a bit before the next climb.
Nearing the end of the race, I tried to make a push for the win. I rode hard through the night, giving it all I had, forgoing sleep. My dynamo light called in quits at some point, but by asking around with some locals I was able to find a new flashlight to buy off someone. In the morning, Vlad had gotten held up at the only resupply point around, waiting for it to open, and was now only 2.5 hours ahead of me. I kept on pushing, narrowing the distance between us the closer we got to the finish line, I had first place in sight and I wasn’t going to give it up. By this point I was running on low energy reserves, having slept only an hour in the last 40 hours.
Two and a half hours away from the finish line, the fatigue started to fight back. The light I bought the previous night ran out of battery and I was navigating solely with my headlamp, which was low on batteries. I could only see two meters ahead, staring as hard as I could at the hypnotising circular beam of light. Pretty quickly I found myself falling asleep and falling off my bike. I decided to take a short nap only to wake up more than an hour later. I quickly got going but something was wrong: I was hallucinating, couldn’t find my bearings, and although I was following the course on my GPS, I could not for the life of me remember why I was doing so. I spent about an hour moving at a snail’s pace, on and off the bike, trying to power through the stupor. A lucky phone call from my girlfriend snapped me out of it and I managed the last 20km to the beach, arriving at the finish line 8 days, 17 hours and 29 minutes after the start, 5 hours after Vlad, still in second place.
The race was tough. Far tougher than I could ever imagine, and that just made it so much more rewarding to finish it. As with any adventure lover, this one is barely over and I’ve already got my eyes set on the next adventure. I’ll see you all at the 2021 Silk Road Mountain Race.
Vlad Ramkovitch finished first with a time of 8 days, 12 hours, 29 minutes. Of the 11 who started, 5 made it in time for the cutoff of 11 days. Adi Eyal kept riding and became the first Israeli woman to ever complete the full route, arriving in Eilat after 15 days, 11 hours. Congrats to everyone who participated!
Find details for the 2021 Holyland Challenge here.