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In-depth
2 Mar 2018
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Words James Spender | Photography Mike Massaro

Vast. For a short word, it describes so much. Vast are the oceans, vast are the mountains, vast are the skies. And here, vast, so incredibly vast, is the Negev desert.

Quite how the cloud has managed to mask the Negev all this time is a mystery, but as our aeroplane cuts through the last wisps of cirrus, it seems impossible that there is anything more to Israel than the golden sands of the desert below. And yet there is.

To Israel’s north lie mountains, snow-capped in winter and covered in swathes of wild flowers come spring. To the west are beaches famed for surf and white sands; to the east a land mass stretching all the way to China and, in its heart, a sprawling patchwork of vineyards, groves and lush farmland.

All this in a country little bigger than Wales. No wonder its history is so storied.

We were spoiled for choice when planning this ride, but what cropped up time and again was the Dead Sea and, in particular, highway 90, which runs tip-to-toe from Metula, near the northern border with Lebanon, to Eilat, where the Red Sea washes against the shores of Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

At 480km it is too long for a Big Ride, however there was one stretch that set our cycling nerves aquiver. About halfway down the western flank of the Dead Sea, highway 90 dips nearly 400m below sea level.

We cyclists often seek the highest roads we can find, but what might it be like to cycle the lowest? In this case the lowest road on Earth. 

Official welcome

We land in Ovda, a military-come-commercial airport in the middle of the Negev, which from the sky resembles the kind of place Elon Musk might land interstellar craft, but from the ground looks more like where Indiana Jones goes duty free shopping.

Army uniforms mingle with sun-scorched flip-flop wearers, and as we exit the airport it becomes clear why. Even with dusk on the approach the air has a devilishly warm lick.

We’re met by Maurice Franco, a man with a maverick laugh, impressively bald head and piercing eyes, who has been charged with being our guide for the trip.

By the time we load the van with our luggage the sun has long since retreated behind distant mountain silhouettes, so the only view to speak of on the way to the town of Mitzpe Ramon is the onrushing patch grey of road illuminated by the van’s headlights. Except for us and the stars, there doesn’t seem to be much out here.

Arriving somewhere at night has its advantages. While last night Mitzpe Ramon resembled little more than a cluster of artificial lights, this morning it is revealed as a metropolis, delicately perched on the edge of a huge crater that rises like a gargantuan barnacle out of the desert floor.

At breakfast Maurice explains this is the Ramon Crater, ‘although it’s not actually a crater as it wasn’t formed by a volcano or meteor strike but from erosion’.

Given the aridity of our locale it is incredible to think this whole area was once covered by an ocean, but 220 million years, it would seem, can do that to a place.

We made a sizeable climb in the van yesterday, so although we have our ‘official’ Big Ride route pegged for two days’ time, Maurice suggests that I might want to get some miles in by soloing down the crater (or for the geologists out there, the ‘erosion cirque’ or ‘makhtesh’).

Apparently there’s an excellent pundak – the Hebrew for ‘inn’ – about 90 clicks from here where we can stop for lunch. When my expression gives away my uncertainty about the distance involved, Maurice adds that it’s almost all downhill.

As we pedal out of town it is so quiet it’s almost eerie. From time to time a circling falcon interrupts with an echoing, Jurassic caw, but otherwise the desert is silent.

I stop for some moments to soak it in, and were it not for the uncoiling road below I could quite imagine what it must have been like to step foot on the Moon. Except for the sand, the rock and the sky, there is nothing.

For miles and miles the Ramon crater is a desolate, pan-flat nothing, as unchanging as a photograph. For a moment it feels like the world has been frozen, but as I point my bike downhill and begin to pick up speed, everything restarts in a rush of sound and colour.

In no time the Colnago’s freewheel is whining, I can smell my brakes and the dotted white line in the middle of the road has become one unbroken blur.

The switchbacks wouldn’t look out of place on a racetrack, and by the time I reach the crater floor 350m below I’ve already notched up 10km in a little over 12 minutes.

The entire rest of the way I see only one other vehicle: a tank, casually parked by the side of the road. Maurice explains this area of the desert is home to an Israeli army tank academy, so I surmise it must be nearby.

Regardless, the sight of the tank is both awe-inspiring and unnerving, and it only adds to a burgeoning sense of incongruity. Lone road cyclists in polystyrene hats typically have no place here, yet that just adds to the adventure and the incredible sense of place. Where else could you do this sort of thing?

By the time I roll to a halt in the car park of the Pundak Neot Smadar I’ve covered 86km at an average speed of 36kmh, well and truly eclipsing my fastest time for such a distance anywhere else in the world.

Yet as we tuck into stuffed vine leaves and dips too innumerable to list, a cursory leg audit suggests I wasn’t going that hard. Maurice was right. That was one exceptionally fast road thanks to a net loss of 568 vertical metres. 

Sea and sky

The following morning I have just enough time for a few blasts back up the hairpins to Mitzpe Ramon before we set off – by motor vehicle this time – for the Dead Sea.

It seems my legs are more leaden than I first thought, so the chance to sit in a van for a few hours is welcome.

The desert flashes by on the other side of the glass, unchanging as yesterday, enchanting with an inhospitable edge. It’s this indifference that strikes me as the desert’s pull, existing in an otherworldly realm unlike anything I’ve experienced when riding a bike in Europe.

Those are places where you’re never really that far from food, water and refuge, but here it feels there’s no hiding. Plan things badly and you could end up in some serious bother.

We pass Bedouin settlements, a ragtag of trucks and wind-wasted structures that for a nomadic people look like they’ve been here for some time.

Maurice points at distant tracks cut into the sandstone and explains these were trod millennia ago by men, women and livestock transporting spices and incense from Egypt to Mesopotamia. It’s all still desert, but slowly I can see the road ahead descending into a hazy blue.

It takes a while for the penny to drop, but as we near it becomes apparent I’ve been staring at the Dead Sea for a good few minutes. What looked like a tawny-blue band of cloud is in fact Jordan, perfectly reflected in the sea’s milky waters.

To add to this ethereal scene, a road sign drifts past proclaiming that we have just dropped below sea level. The opportunity is too good to miss, so I ask Maurice to pull over so I can cover the last few kilometres to the Dead Sea by bike, with the wind at my back and gravity in my corner.

The next day I meet Yariv Heller in the lobby of our hotel in Ein Bokek, which like every other resort in this area is a stone’s throw from the Dead Sea.

There is a Las Vegas-like quality to the resort, with a dozen or so monolithic hotels oozing chutzpah and holiday-making relish. Just like me in my cycling gear, these luxurious hotels seem juxtaposed with the spartan wilderness of their surroundings.

Yariv is a marketing executive for Nike who very much lives his industry. Two weeks ago he competed in an ultra-Ironman –  a 10km swim, 420km bike ride and 84km run set over three days (total moving time: 30 hours) – and on Friday he ran a marathon. Today is Tuesday, and I wonder at the man’s stamina.

The route we’ll be following is very similar to the Dead Sea Gran Fondo, which takes place in spring each year. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say, but at the same time there aren’t many roads to choose from in the desert.

This fact is why we’re staring down the barrel of 173km, longer than I would generally like to ride given the choice, but necessary to turn today into a loop that encompasses the area’s queen climb, the Scorpion Road. 

We set off along the Dead Sea’s shore and soon the hotels give way to unspoilt views across the water to Jordan. The sea is still, but in the way syrup looks still. It looks gloopy and thick.

Yariv says a friend of his once swam 7km across to Jordan, ‘and it was one of the worst experiences in his life, like swimming in battery acid’. That might seem odd given the Dead Sea’s reputed restorative properties, but having taken a dip late yesterday evening I can attest to water ingestion or eye-splashing being definite no-nos. Feeling like an astronaut floating in zero gravity is a fair trade-off however.

Yesterday I also withdrew money from what Maurice reckons is the world’s lowest cash machine, stationed outside a small supermarket at -421m, and since then I’ve been somewhat obsessed with our relative height.

Hotel room on 21st floor, -313m. Dinner eaten at -358m. Bath taken at -312m. Now my Garmin is registering a low of -394m, and given the road looks to be climbing and swinging inland, it would appear we have finally found it: the lowest paved road on Earth.

Yet Yariv doesn’t seem to share my joy. He explains that when he used to visit here as a boy, some 40 years ago, there was no road here as the land was submerged, but over the years the Dead Sea has receded dramatically, and is continuing to do so.

Multiple theories have been bandied around, but the most likely explanation is that a pumping station built in the 1960s on the shore of the Sea of Galilee interrupted the flow of water to the Jordan River, which is the Dead Sea’s primary source.

This was compounded when one of the Jordan’s major lower tributaries, the Yarmouk, was diverted in the 1970s. When the Dead Sea was measured in the 1950s it was 80km long; today it is just 48km.

The knock-on effects are enough to fill a book, the plans to make amends, another. We pedal onwards in a more sombre mood. 

The desert rises

Ma’ale Akrabim – or the Scorpion Road – is a 34km pass initially built by the Romans in 1st century BC as a means of linking north to south. It became an integral trade route, with various camel exchanges along the way, which one can only assume operated a bit like Clacket Lane Services but with significantly better coffee.

With Israel still under British rule the road was upgraded in 1927 to link two desert police stations, one in Mamshit, an ancient city north of Dimona and now a recognised UNESCO site, the other in Hatzeva, a type of Israeli settlement known as a moshav, built upon the site of an ancient fortress.

It wasn’t paved until 1950, but in 1954 it was the scene of the Ma’ale Akrabim massacre, when a civilian bus from Eilat was ambushed and 11 people shot dead. This prompted the construction of an alternative route, meaning that today the Scorpion Road is all but left to its own devices.

Statistically the Scorpion doesn’t sound fierce. Our introductory section is a shallow, relatively well-surfaced 1% drag, and even when things get steeper we shouldn’t be averaging more than a 5% incline.

But when a sign entitled ‘Aqrabbim Ascent’ points us right at a fork in the road, things get somewhat more hairy.

The asphalt is rutted and cracked from decades of searing sun and the only thing separating us from vertigo-inducing drops are a series of rusted, sand-filled barrels spaced roughly every few metres.

I’m relieved we’re climbing, not descending, and doubly so we’re not in a vehicle with four wheels. I fancy my chances jumping off my Colnago far better than I do trying to eject myself from a speeding car.

After wresting our bars through the umpteenth hairpin, we finally come to a stop at the summit, the vast yellow desert reaching into the distance in all directions, enveloping every inch of everything we can see.

Yariv claps me on the back. ‘You’re on the top of the world.’

It’s baffling to feel like we’ve ascended so far yet seeing elevation numbers that one could find in the UK. The road spikes again before it begins a meandering plunge back towards the Dead Sea, but even so we don’t exceed 600m.

It’s proof, if needed, that all things are relative, and as we descend on a more tame road, it seems colour fits that remit too.

Coarse scrub springs defiantly from the sandy floor, which at another juncture would appear a dull mottle of greens, but for eyes attuned to the yellow of the desert interior these plants are a luminous feast in the fading light.

The quality of the air has changed too, as if a Mediterranean spring has been unleashed into the Negev, battling against the heat and bringing something altogether much cooler.

This momentary dream cannot last, however, as we’re soon ripping past a sign declaring we have just returned to sea level. Even then there’s a while to go until we start our Dead Sea re-entry, but that suits me just fine.

I prefer the magnificence of the desert anyway.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

Sands of time

Head out for a few hours in the desert

To download these routes to go cyclist.co.uk/70israel. The desert can be a challenging environment, but given the relative scarcity of roads, navigation is a cinch.

The first ride could not be simpler. Roll out of Mitzpe Ramon, down the hairpins and ride south on highway 40 for 85km to Neot Smadar, where the excellent roadside pundak of the same name awaits.

Our second ride in Negev starts from Ein Bokek on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Follow highway 90 out of town heading south. Just after 50km, take a right at the junction with signs for Be’er Sheva and Iddan onto route 227, towards Yeroham.

Follow route 227 for 35km and up and over the Scorpion Road – signed Aqrabbim Ascent – and on to where it merges into route 206. After 2km, take a right at the T-junction and follow route 225 to Yeroham.

From Yeroham – a good place to stop for a coffee – take route 204 north towards Dimona, which finishes at a junction for route 25. Head east on route 25 for 20km, then north on route 258 towards the Nahal Abuv Nature Reserve.

From there it’s just a case of descending route 31 southeast back to Ein Bokek and a float in the Dead Sea.  

The rider’s ride

Colnago Concept | £7,499 (£3,500 frameset) | windwave.co.uk

To be historically accurate, this is actually the Colnago Concept 2.0. The original, a carbon fibre concept bike, made in collaboration with Ferrari, debuted in 1986 and weighed 13kg. Happily this Concept weighs 7.48kg.

This is Colnago’s first true stab at an aero road bike, and it has done a rather fine job. The handling is refined but racy, assured yet never sluggish.

In strict wind-slicing terms there are faster bikes, but there is still a palpable difference between the Concept and something like the V1-r and V2-r, Colnago’s halfway-house aero bikes.

A lot of that free speed may be down to the wheels. The Vision Metrons, at 55mm deep, are very slippery and their snub-nosed profile makes them relatively predictable in gusty conditions.

How we did it

Travel

At the time of writing there are no direct flights to Ovda, but there are regular flights from London to Tel Aviv, with prices around £140 return.

Although Israel is relatively small there’s a huge amount to explore, so a hire car is all-but essential. 

Accomodation

We stayed at the Ramon Inn in Mitzpe Ramon (isrotel.co.il, from £95pn), the Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem (mountzion.co.il, from £129pn), the Isrotel Dead Sea hotel (isrotel.co.il, from £99pn) and the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Eilat (crowneplaza.com, from £65pn). All were bike-friendly and all had some quite exceptional food. 

Thanks

Our warmest thanks to Maurice Franco, a knowledgeable guide, expert driver and all-round top bloke, and Yariv Heller, who stepped in at the last minute to ride with us around the Dead Sea, and who courteously refrained from ripping our legs off, and to Sara Dagan from the Israel Tourist Board (new.goisrael.com), whose meticulous planning made the trip possible.