By Stephen Schulman
These times are troubled and turbulent with the Covid-19 Virus taking its toll, reaping illnesses and deaths and like the rest of the planet, Israel has not been immune. There have been and still are lockdowns with businesses closed, people losing their livelihoods, being confined to homes, and much attendant suffering.
Nevertheless, in spite of restrictions on movement and being limited to a certain radius from their homes, Israeli citizens have been allowed a respite; to leave their domiciles for sporting activities and exercise provided that it is not done in groups. Throughout the length and breadth of the country many people have taken advantage of this proviso and with gusto, have filled the paths and trails from Kiryat Shmona in the north down to southerly Eilat.
Alongside their pedestrian paths, many cities and local councils with a growing awareness and appreciation of this sport have also paved parallel cycle lanes and Tel Aviv and its metropolis is no exception to the rule. Moreover, possessing a cosmopolitan ambience with a round the clock activity, with its flat topography, large parks, seaside promenade, multitude of cycling lanes and many hire bike stations, the city has become a Mecca for cyclists. In this difficult period, there has been a two wheeled renaissance as many Israelis have discovered and rediscovered the joys of cycling. Bicycle shops are bustling, the demand is great and many disappointed customers have found that cycles are in short supply.
Tel Aviv boasts a great cycling path that runs alongside the sea. It starts from the Old City of Jaffa, continues along the Herbert Samuel beach promenade to the Old Port of Tel Aviv, then turning north via Reading power station stretches until the Tel Baruch beach and then goes even further, ending at the marina in Herzlia. This picturesque route is daily thronged with cyclists of all ages and all sizes riding a wide variety of bikes ranging from folding models with small 20 inch wheels and laid back balloon tired boulevard cruisers to expensive top range mountain and road bikes. It has become so popular that on Friday and Saturday mornings there is something akin to a traffic jam!
Tel Aviv off-road pedallers wishing to be closer to nature and get away ‘far from the madding crowd‘ do not lack for choice. The Yarkon River that runs through Tel Aviv with its effluence at the Old Port has single tracks aplenty. In many places, the path winds through bamboo growing along its banks and it is an inimitable experience speeding down tunnels created by their leaves and stems growing together over your head.
To their credit, the mayor and the city council identify with and encourage sport. In addition to the annual marathon, there is the Tel Aviv Rondo – the largest cycling event in the country. Every September, (except for lockdown 2020!) on an early Friday morning, well over 10,000 pre-registered cyclists assemble at the Exhibition Grounds to complete a well organized, closed off 20 km loop in the city. Experienced riders are permitted 3 circuits and even the young are well catered for with an 8km route. Nothing can compare to the experience of riding down the freeway with the wind at your back and before you, a colorful phalanx of thousands of joyful pedallers stretching far into the distance!
There are many other organized cycling events throughout the country ranging from off-road charity rides to pelotons for serious ‘roadies’. Even hilly Jerusalem has its devoted riders and hosts both off and on road events. Possibly the biggest and most traditional is the annual Ride around the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) where, on a November Saturday morning, with the sea on their right, thousands of cyclists, both young and old, from all over the country congregate to complete the more demanding 65 km circuit to then relax and picnic with family and friends on the large lawns beside the lake.
Israel offers a great choice of well mapped and marked cycling routes, many of which have been planned and executed by the local and regional authorities together with a growing number of volunteer enthusiasts. A Trans-Israel cycling path is also under development.
In the Holy Land, the range and variety of landscape is unparalleled. My cycling buddy and I have been on challenging descents on the Golan Heights, climbed single tracks in the verdant and wooded Galilee and bounced over rocks in the arid and dusty Negev Desert. But what gives us even greater pleasure is watching the growing number of keen cyclists. In our well over two decades of pedaling, we have been witnesses to how once limited to a relatively small number of groupies; the sport has mushroomed into a national pastime.
Cycling has also become firmly ensconced within the national consciousness. We now proudly possess a national cycling team – Israel Start-Up Nation – that has successfully competed in many prestigious international events including the Giro d’Italia and the legendary and grueling Tour de France. About two years ago, the team, dressed in their blue and white jerseys – the color of the Israeli flag – rode in a peloton across Israel and was greeted by enthusiastic and cheering crowds along the way. How do I know? I was among them!
With the aid of mass vaccinations and some public cooperation, Israel is now slowly emerging from the lockdown and attempting to return to a normalcy.
Hopefully, the road to full recovery will not only lead upward but also be full of fellow cyclists!
About the writer:
Stephen Schulman is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist youth movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. He was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.
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