Sun in December: Riding the Festive 500


Every year since 2010, Rapha, together with Strava, challenge the world of connected cyclists: ride 500km between Christmas Eve and New Year Eve.  As both companies are firmly based in the Northern Hemisphere it is clear what the challenge is all about: get out and ride exactly when family obligations and bad weather are crowding your usual cycling style.  I’m sure that generations of psychologists could study the effect of the challenge on the health of family life and the increase in family pressure on the non-cycling partner.

My non-cycling partner understands very well the need to first and foremost escape Christmas, get some riding and avoid bad weather in as much as possible.  So when I propose to spend Christmas to New Year (and then some) in a land not far from Europe, but with general hospital weather during this time of the year, said non-cycling partner (it’s a transient state that will change come spring) approved the plan and decided to join after the Christmas hoopla is completed.

As the 24th was approaching, and final checks on the general health and readiness of my well traveled Hunter (now with overwholed fork thanks for the Rick himself) were completed, I got excited.  Friends back in Europe were preparing to ride in god-awful weather (snow!  rain!  sub-zero temperatures!) and I was facing blue sky, 22 degrees (Celsius) and was planning on wearing a summer kit.  I felt that this may be cheating, but since quiet a few folks in Australia signed up for the challenge I decided that it was somewhat acceptable – Christmas and New Year happen on the same day even when the weather is nice.

Given plans and family obligations, ironically all happening post-Christmas (well…not so ironic for a family that does not celebrate Christmas), I also decided or rather was compelled to finish the challenge in 4 days.  The biggest challenge for any riding in Israel is actually the fact that the country is tiny and is entirely constructed to satisfy mountain bikers (and cars) and ignore road riders.  I actually knew that before arrival and was planning on abusing some of the many off-road tracks that cross the country, but these turned into lakes of mud due to a few days of heavy rains.  I attempted to ride one of these paths prior to December 24, but after 15 km that took about an hour and created a layer of mud so thick around my tires, I decided to abandon the plan and stick to the roads.

Here again Strava and the tiny road-riders community of Israel (at least from Strava it seemed that way) came to the rescue.  I checked out a few routes and was shocked to discover that they all took major highways.  It became clear that there are no other options.  One have to ride on the side of the highway, on the shoulder if you will.  The good news was that the shoulders were very wide.  The bad news was that you still had to ride on the highways.  I decided to throw all caution to the wind and brave it.  I was also following two friends from Salzburg who were riding and documenting their much less sunny attempts to complete the challenge.  Their blog was a source of inspiration and a certain glee.

Day one took me from Tel Aviv to the north Arab village of Fureidis. There, after 80 km of riding, and quiet a few bad navigation mistakes, I sat down at a local restaurant and ordered hummus, falafel, french fries and a whole jug of lemonade.  The hummus was amazing as were the falafels and fries.  If every ride in Germany had that for an incentive, I may even be riding more. I then continues north for another 10 km before turning around to ride along highway 2 which took me along the sea back to Tel Aviv.

Day two was Christmas day which was a good enough reason to head towards Jerusalem and do some climbing.  As I was riding up the mountains that precede Jerusalem, I was thinking that climbing is a pretty silly way to collect any distance, but the scenery around me was so breathtaking that I quickly stopped this line of thinking, continued sweating and going up.  I was riding in a hilly area, full of pine trees and small valleys.  It seemed that every piece of land was used by farmers and the rest were low-forests with signs indicating that here and there various biblical-events took place.  I got up to a park called “U.S.A. National Park” and there, with climbing reaching silliness level, I decided to turn around and head back towards the beach.  This was also the only route during the 4 days adventures where I actually saw other cyclists.

Day three was split into pre-family meal and post family meal.  I finally realized what it must have been like for my cycling friends who stayed home with their family trying to negotiate rides between lunch with this uncle and dinner with that Aunt.  In my morning ride I circled Tel Aviv, rode by the airport and then came back into the city from the south.  It was amazing to see that a loop of a few hours, practically covered the whole center of the country.  After a huge meal celebrating an uncle’s 70th birthday, I took off, full of guilt at the amount of food that was consumed, towards the north east and then, strategically I might add, rode back along the sea and caught a most excellent sunset in a cloud free sea that merged seamlessly with the sky.

Day four had to be the last day.  Said non-cycling partner was due to arrive the next day, and finishing the challenge in half the time was also appealing.   A small problem arose though as I was told that I was due to another family celebration, in a valley to the North, at about midday.  Initially, this seemed like a disaster, but then a solution arrived.  I plotted a ride to the Kibutz where the celebration took place and agreed with the parental units, that the ride back will be taken in the car with the bike in the trunk.  And so it was that I took off on a crisp Saturday morning (early I should say) on the last 86 km I still needed to finish the challenge.  The ride took me through the city of Hadera and then shot me straight across some hills through several Arab cities (Umm Al-Fahm said the sign).  At the top of that climb with the winds in my face and cars cutting me off left, right and center, I was cursing and shouting, but lets face it, I was wearing shorts and was going through a beautiful area of historical significant (it was also the way to Nazareth for example).  As I dropped into the valley and took a left I realized that I am 8 km away from finishing the challenge and the valley to my right was a perfect way to end.  I arrived to my cousin’s house 45 minutes before I was due, had loads of water and continued with the celebration that in my head, in addition to the multitude of birthdays, also included “you just finished the Festive 500!!!”

I did already make a deal with myself for 2015 – stay at home and ride in the cold.  Bring it on!

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