The King’s Way: Establishing the Jordan Bike Trail Record
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Ultra endurance riders Jonas Deichmann and Axel Carion recently returned from setting a record time on the Jordan Bike Trail, traversing the spectacular 730km route from Umm Qais to Aqaba in just 120 hours. Find their story and an expansive gallery of photos here…
There’s something beautiful about exploring a place during the worst period of the year. Riding alongside Jonas Deichmann leaves no room to see the world on bikes under ideal conditions. Sometimes we face the dilemma of postponing an expedition because of other commitments, or because the timing isn’t quite right. But most of the time, we just have to go, as was the case with Jordan.
As I’m writing these lines, Jordan is now closed to French and German tourists due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and I’m glad that we decided to fly to this amazing country to attempt another crazy ultra bikepacking journey: cycling the Jordan Bike Trail (JBT) in record time.
Jordan had been on my mind for a few years, ever since I discovered that the country had opened a hiking route called the Jordan Trail, linking Umm Qais on the northern border and Aqaba on the southern border, following the ancient trade road. Umm Qais was built on the location of the ancient city of Gadara, which was part of Decapolis during the Roman Empire. Aqaba has been a strategic city for its position on the shores of the Red Sea for thousands of years.
The Jordan Bike Trail (JBT) is a 730-kilometer cycling route with 20,000 meters of climbing on mixed surfaces, inspired by the hiking trail. It was cycled and mapped for the first time by the English adventurer Matt Loveland, who then worked hard to share his experience with maps and advice on the official Jordan Bike Trail website.
After our Peruvian expedition last year (read more about that here), I invited Jonas to attempt the JBT, following in the footsteps of the ancient trade route. Based on our experience in Peru, the gravel bikes we built were a bit more aggressive, with thinner tires (47mm on 650B for me and 40mm on 700c for Jonas) and lighter bikepacking bags to travel closer to the speed of light.
Working on the maps and reading the testimonials of travelers who rode the JBT before us, I ended up collecting a significant amount of encouraging information, but I learned very quickly that this route can seriously bite your legs off.
Jordan’s geography can be divided in three main zones:
- The Jordan Valley, which follows the course of the Jordan River, from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead and Red Seas.
- The central mountainous region, with all major mountains and the famous paved King’s Highway, which crosses the entire country.
- The eastern desert plateau, part of the Arabian desert, which is undoubtedly a “no bike’s land.”
The JBT mainly avoids the King’s Highway and Jordan Valley’s paved roads, connecting the two borders of the country by way of quiet backroads and trails. But man, what a ride! It was the steepest cycling experience I’ve had with Jonas to date. The trail takes everything from you, with incredibly hard hills, rugged trails, and mandatory hike-a-bikes. The merchants along the old route were crossing Jordan from north to south and east to west with camel trains. They were mostly following the Jordan Rift Valley, and we understood why, the hard way, with our gravel bikes.
Zig-zagging between the high mountains and the Jordan Valley is something that looks fairly easy on paper. Once you’re out there, though, bike puashing, cursing, and praying with your bike are all mandatory, and not just because Jerusalem and Bethlehem are sometimes in sight. The terrain is relentless. Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you otherwise: the JBT is steep and hard!
Ultra bikepacking implies riding light and sacrificing all but the essentials. I’m coming from the bike touring world where carrying 40kg of equipment means great freedom in terms of equipment options. I fell in love with the harsh choices of ultra bikepacking as it’s impossible to avoid making mistakes. Carrying no rain kit proved to be a very bad choice for Jonas and me. From day one until the end of day two, we experienced severe rain and had to stop several times to avoid hypothermia. It did feel like a religious test on these first two days, with incredibly tough mixed conditions of rain, cold, mud, and wind. You might end up a believer if you strictly follow the Jordan Bike Trail route.
Providential encounters on the trail made the experience with Jordanian people an unforgettable one, too. We spent three nights (out of four total) power napping in unusual places offered by the great kindness of guests we met on the road. From an empty warehouse to a Bedouin camp, our hosts always supported our journey with delicious warm tea and a peculiar light in their eyes when we tried to communicate our goal to reach Aqaba. You can’t cross Jordan without feeling the powerful influence of the migrations that animated these trails for centuries.
So many times, we were tempted to take alternate routes along the way. It felt like the route had been chosen to feature all the steepest hills of this country! The JBT has 57 climbs in total and I remember every single one of them. In Jordan, an easy climb is 10% gradient, a hard one is 20%, and a terrible one forces you to walk. We were really happy to ride our super light gravel bikes (under 15kg with equipment) and felt sorry for the people who embark on this trail with fully loaded touring bikes.
Jonas admitted one day that he had never walked that many kilometers with his bike. I laughed and never told him that it was the case for me too. The JBT is like a pilgrimage and it transforms you along the way. It’s impossible to finish the route unchanged: reaching Aqaba will definitely take something out of you.
The gigantic Wadi Mujib was definitely one of the highlights of the route with its endless canyon and mind-blowing landscapes. I was moved by what I saw, and was distracted enough to crash several times. I don’t believe in god, but in Jordan I did, and not just because I managed to bend my derailleur hanger without breaking it on multiple occasions. A powerful force wanted me to reach the Red Sea.
Reaching the famed city of Petra motivated us since the start of our journey, as did the thought of the countless merchants who used to rest and trade in what’s now a UNESCO archeological site. Walking among the deep canyon walls at sunrise without a single tourist around vanished the pain in our legs and the fatigue in our minds. We stood there, facing the spectacular Treasury, the meticulously sculpted sandstone cliff, for several minutes without sharing a single word. The only burning feeling I had was a desire to explore the forbidden room where merchants used to sleep for centuries.
But Petra is far from Aqaba and we still had a big challenge ahead of us: the desert crossing of Wadi Rum. Despite our efforts to push and make it through that difficult segment of the JBT, we couldn’t make it before dark. After a few hours of sleep, we decided we’d attempt to cross the desert by night.
The lights of Rum Village were fading into the distance and our progress was very slow. The sand was deep and treacherous. Following the jeep tracks by night was almost impossible. Eventually, the desert takes your soul and reveals who you are. Either you scream or you push. So, we pushed, until dawn finally came out. The night’s shadows finally cleared as sunrise filled the spectacular Valley of the Moon with beautiful light. I wiped away tears and felt immensely grateful to finally reach the pavement of road number 47, heading down to the seaside town of Aqaba.
It took us 120 hours to complete the JBT, but it might take forever to process what happened on the infinite hills and the desert crossing of Wadi Rum. Riding across Jordan does something magical to your soul over a relatively short distance. Whether you ride fast or you ride slow, you won’t arrive in Aqaba the same.
Jordan Bike Trail Kit List
For those interested in knowing exactly what Jonas and Axel carried on their trip across Jordan, they put together this short video that runs though their respective kit lists in detail. Find an overview of what they carried, bike and gear highlights, and more below:
Learn more about the Jordan Bike Trail bikepacking route here.
About Axel Carion
Axel Carion is an explorer based on the French Riviera. He shares his adventures through stories, talks, films, and also with BikingMan: the first exploration cycling series that he founded in 2016 after cycle-crossing the Andes Mountains from Colombia to Argentina. He loves exploring new cultures on his bicycle and has a passion for high-altitude cycling. Find Axel on Instagram @axel_carion.