This is another guest post by Oren Hirsch, an urban planner and avid cyclist currently living and working in Jerusalem and riding throughout the country wherever and whenever he can. He has ridden to Eilat on the Arava Institute/Hazon Israel Ride twice, in 2009 and 2011.
On your last trip to Israel, how did you get around primarily? If you came with a group, you were probably on a chartered bus. If you were on your own, you probably relied on Egged and Israel Railways, or if you were a bit more adventurous and willing to discover your inner Israeli driver, you took to the roads in a rental car (let’s admit it, we’ve all wanted to drive in a country where we can honk and flash our high beams at other cars as much as we want while never signaling or following the speed limit). And regardless of whether you were with a group or not, you probably walked extensively in cities such as Jerusalem, Tzfat, and Tel Aviv. But on your next trip (or first trip, if you have yet to come here), consider using a different form of transportation for some of the time, because it might allow you to see Israel from a totally different perspective.
Cycling in Israel is becoming more popular, among both locals and tourists. Tel Aviv has over 100 kilometers of “bike lanes” and a municipal bikesharing program. Certain roads are so popular with riders on the weekend that there are large signs along these roads warning drivers to be alert and mindful that bicyclists are likely to be present. El Al even allows passengers to bring along their bike for free. However, this isn’t to say that biking in Israel is as easy as it would be in, say, the Netherlands. Israeli drivers must be contended with, there isn’t much bike infrastructure in urban areas other than Tel Aviv, and even the Tel Aviv bike infrastructure would be considered to be unimpressive compared to what exists in many American and European cities. But don’t let these sorts of issues deter you from having a bicycle adventure on your next trip here. Here are some of the advantages and incentives to biking instead of taking buses or driving:
• Biking gives you connections with the land that you cannot have while in a car or bus. You’ll have far more time to take in the scenery if you are trudging along up a hill at 5 MPH or cruising along the side of the road at 15 MPH than if you are in a car or bus going as much as 60 MPH. You also don’t have a pane of glass separating you from your surroundings, so you can take in the smells of the kibbutzim (pleasant or not) that you pass or feel the sea breeze against your face as you approach the Mediterranean. Israel has many distinct geographical and topographical regions and features within an area about the size of New Jersey, and the transitions are much starker when you ride through them on a bike. For example, when riding from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, it is almost impossible to miss the boundary between each of the three geographical regions along the ride. Finally, no matter what you think of the authenticity of the accounts in the Tanach, the geography described within those texts is very accurate, and biking is a great way to develop a better understanding of that geography. Let’s say you are biking in the Negev and looking for a shady spot to have a rest. When you do find a single tree to rest under, you might recall Genesis 18:8, which states Abraham sat under the tree while hosting the three angels at the beginning of Parashat Vayera, and realize that finding a shady spot in the wilderness isn’t any easier today than it was in Abraham’s time. Other than walking or traveling by camelback, I can’t think of a mode of transportation that would allow you to have an experience traveling across the land similar to the way the Biblical figures we read and learn about did.
• Biking will take you to places you probably wouldn’t necessarily go by car or bus. Chances are if you are driving, you’ll stick to the highways and if you are on a bus, the bus route will stick to the main roads as well. On the other hand, most bicyclists would rather take the road less traveled, primarily due to safety concerns. That usually results in winding up on roads and traveling to places you probably wouldn’t see otherwise. Many people associate Lod with Ben Gurion Airport, since the latter is located within the boundaries of the former. However, I had never been in the city of Lod itself where its residents live, work, and shop until a biking route took me through the center of the city.
• Nearly the entire country is bikeable and biking is a year-round sport. While you might not want to ride to the Dead Sea or through the Negev in the middle of August or in Jerusalem in February, you can always ride a bike somewhere. In two and a half years, I’ve been on a bicycle seat within miles (and feet in some cases) of the Lebanese, Egyptian, and Jordanian borders, as well as in Jerusalem, Tzfat, the Hula Valley, the Kinneret, Har Gilboa, Mitpze Ramon, Sde Boker, the Arava Valley, Eilat, Tel Aviv, Mevaseret, and other places as well. I reached some of those places for the first time in my life by bike and I have now been to some of them multiple times only by bicycle. When I do go somewhere by car or bus with someone else, there are many points along the way where I can point out the window and say, “I’ve biked here!”
• The challenge of riding leaves you with a sense of accomplishment once the trip is over. Although making sure you and a rental car make it through your Israeli road trip in one piece might seem like enough of a challenge, no matter how many or how few miles you ride on a regular basis, it simply feels good to accomplish a goal. Biking up a seemingly endless hill might be frustrating in the moment, but you will always remember the sense of accomplishment and pride that you felt when you reached the top and started coasting down the next long descent. To top it off, Israelis will likely cheer you on as you go, most likely by honking their car horn at you as you pass. But I’ve also had passing drivers roll down their window to shout out “kol hakavod” (literally “well done”) as I’m making my way up hills, and once, a taxi pulled up alongside a group of us during the Israel Ride and blasted the music playing on his radio to encourage us as we biked along the Kinneret.
Here are some suggestions for how to incorporate some time on a bicycle into your next trip to Israel, either by working out the logistics on your own or as part of an organized group ride such as the Arava Institute/Hazon ride. I’ve also added some additional information based on my own experiences where applicable. Happy cycling!
Before Starting Out
• You should always ride with a helmet, and take plenty of water, sunscreen, some bike tools in the event of maintenance issues and flat tires, ID, and a cell phone and cash for emergencies. Write out a cue sheet before you start out and/or take a map with you.
• Make sure you lock your bike up if you leave it unattended.
• Bikes can be brought on any Egged bus with a luggage compartment underneath the bus provided there is room, but not on board intracity buses with no luggage compartment, the Israel Railways trains, or the Jerusalem Light Rail.
• There are many bicycle stores in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and if you are staying in Israel for an extended period of time, decent secondhand bikes can be found on websites such as Janglo. Recommended bike stores in Jerusalem include Pedalim in Talpiot and Bilu Bikes in Katamon. An outfit called Cycle Trading Company, Ltd. (CTC) imports and markets Trek products in Israel, they have stores in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Beer Sheva and several other locations.
• If you need to rent a bike, many stores will rent you a bike for the day for a fee. Tel Aviv has a bikesharing system called Tel-O-Fun that offers daily and weekly memberships (as well as annual memberships if you are in the city long-term).
Bike share in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is probably Israel’s most bike-friendly city. It is flat (unlike Jerusalem and Haifa), has over 70 kilometers of bike lanes and paths, and there are probably enough riders on the road at this point that both pedestrians and drivers are hopefully somewhat aware of the two wheeled travelers in their midst. The municipality prints a bike map that shows you suggested routes, including a bike path that extends from Jaffa along the beach to the municipal boundary with Herzliya. But if there isn’t a path along your route or the idea of swerving in and out of pedestrians in the bike lanes painted on the sidewalks doesn’t appeal to you, if you have any experience riding with traffic in a major American city, you should get by just fine. If you don’t have a bike of your own, you can use the new bikesharing program, Tel-O-Fun. A single-day membership costs just 14 NIS (20 NIS on Shabbat and holidays) and a weekly membership costs just 60 NIS. You then pay based on how long you take out the bike for; rides under 30 minutes are free. Currently, Tel-O-Fun only has stations within Tel Aviv, but hopefully they’ll expand to other municipalities in Gush Dan in the future. For another perspective on riding in Tel Aviv, click here.
Jerusalem Midnight Riding
I haven’t done this one myself, but if you are comfortable on a bike, don’t mind some hills, but don’t want to have to worry about navigating through Jerusalem’s winding and varying terrain, this might be a good option. A bike rental is included in the tour cost. Check out their website.
A Bit More Adventurous
Around the Kinneret
I did this ride with seven friends during Sukkot 2009, and it was an experience that we all look back on fondly. It is about 40 miles to do the complete loop around the Kinneret starting from Tiberias, so it could be done in a day, or split up into two by camping out on the far side of the lake overnight (we opted for the latter). Bikes can be rented from the Aviv Hostel in Tiberias and for an extra fee, the hostel staff will also bring your camping gear to you (if you have any) so you don’t have to carry it, and SAG you if need be. We camped out on the beach at Ein Gev, about 14 miles from Tiberias (biking counterclockwise around the lake), and did the remaining 25 miles the next morning. The route itself is mostly rolling hills with one particularly steep climb near Capernaum, and the highway shoulders are wide enough that there is plenty of room to ride safely on the side of the road. There is a paved asphalt path that parallels the road along the east side of the Kinneret, but finding it is probably more trouble than it is worth. You’ll pass by several kibbutzim along your way, including Degania, Israel’s first Kibbutz. Additionally, you can also stop off and tour at the various Christian tourist sites along the north side of the lake. If you don’t want to do the entire 40-mile loop, you can also start out from Tiberias, ride some distance, and then double back the way you came (you probably want to go south from Tiberias if you do this; it is flatter in this direction).
If you can get your hands on a bike and are willing to put up with some urban riding at the beginning and end of each ride, there are some very nice rides in the Jerusalem area that go to and through areas of town that visitors aren’t necessarily familiar with and that are very popular among the local cyclists. Just know that any ride in Jerusalem is going to involve hills and there is simply no way around it, but knowing which routes are “easier” to climb (due to the hills being more gradual and/or the traffic being more bearable) is invaluable. I highly recommend the loop through the Jerusalem Forest or riding out to Yad Kennedy. If you have more time and like climbing, the ride out to Bar Giora is also highly recommended and the views are phenomenal. To see these routes (all shown as starting from Kikar Tzarfat near the center of Jerusalem but they can be picked up anywhere along their routes or mixed and matched together to fit your needs), click here. The Jerusalem Municipality opened new, paved, off-road bike paths in the Arazim Valley and in Baka in the past two years, and there are plans to construct additional ones, so hopefully the biking conditions in Jerusalem could improve significantly in the coming years.
Jerusalem to Tel Aviv
If you thought the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv was the slowest way to get between the two cities (it takes about 90 minutes to make the trip one way), think again. While biking on parts of Highway 1 is legal (although not recommended), a far safer and more scenic option is to ride along a route similar to the historic “Burma Road” route that was used prior to the construction of Highway 1 between the two cities. The route itself is just under 50 miles one way, with some steep uphills and downhills over the first 16 miles mostly along back roads, and then is rolling terrain the rest of the way to the sea. It is also a great way to experience the transitions from the Judean Hills to the Shephelah and from the Shephelah to the Coastal Plain and Gush Dan metropolis in a more pronounced way than one sees them if driving on the highway. There are several gas stations along the way if you need to refill on water or use the facilities, only a few miles on busy roads (aside from navigating the streets of Jerusalem at the beginning and Jaffa at the end of the ride) and wide shoulders on routes frequently used by riders most of the way across the Shephelah. Make sure you enjoy some time on the beach once you get there. To get back to Jerusalem, since you can take your bike on board any Egged bus with a luggage compartment underneath at no extra charge, just ride to the Arlozorov Bus Terminal and take the 480 (departs frequently all day long) back to Jerusalem.
The Lowest Ride on Earth
Another route I have yet to do, but know people who have done it, is to ride from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea. The entire ride is on a highway with a shoulder, and there is a pull-off where you could stop for photos at sea level. Keep in mind that if you ride out this way, there are only two gas stations (fairly close together) between Ma’ale Adumim and Ein Gedi, and that it can be very hot, even if it isn’t so warm when you start out in Jerusalem, so be prepared. It is just over 20 miles from Jerusalem to Kalya, about 45 miles to Ein Gedi, and a bit under 70 miles to Ein Bokek and the Dead Sea Hotels. This is another route where you’ll probably want to take the bus back to Jerusalem instead of returning by bike. After all, the only direction you can go once you are at the Dead Sea is up. You can take the 486, 487, or 421, but check the schedule because they each only run a few times a day.
Organized Group Rides
There are several advantages to going on a fully supported, organized group ride instead of trying to go at it yourself. Two of the best known organized group rides that take place each year a few weeks after Sukkot (usually in late October or early November) are the Wheels of Love Ride, which supports the Alyn Children’s Hospital in Jerusalem, and the Israel Ride, which supports the Arava Institute and Hazon (I’ve done the latter ride twice). Each ride includes 5 days of riding. Wheels of Love starts on a Sunday and rides for five consecutive days ending on a Thursday (there is also an option to only participate on the last day). Meanwhile, the Israel Ride starts on a Wednesday and ends on a Monday, and includes programming for Shabbat when everyone takes a day off from riding. On each of these rides, you pay a registration fee and are responsible for raising additional money to support the costs of your ride and to benefit the charities for which you are fundraising. In return for your fundraising, all the costs that you would incur on the ride itself, such as hotels, food, and ride support, are covered by the ride. You don’t need to worry about the route, replenishing water, and all the other logistics that might seem very daunting in preparing a bike trip on your own; the ride staff really does take care of virtually everything. Organized rides also have the benefit of being a great way to meet other riders and become part of a close-knit community not only for the duration of the ride but also afterwards. Finally, an organized ride can further enhance your connections to the land as you ride; the Israel Ride staff includes tour guides who present on the sites that are included as part of the route at rest stops. Many riders both on the Israel Ride and Wheels of Love return to do the ride multiple times, and some ride every year. The two Israel Rides I’ve done are without question the highlight of my time in Israel thus far, and many of the reasons listed above about why one should consider a bike trip in Israel come directly from my own feelings and emotions during each ride and the presentations about the areas we were passing through along the way.
Metula to Eilat
I haven’t done either one of these and probably never will, but I’ve heard there are people who bike from Metula to Eilat on Route 90, a distance of just under 300 miles. Some do it over 3 days by biking about 100 miles a day. There are others who only stop for food and to use the bathroom but don’t make overnight stops, and they complete the trip in about 26 hours or so.