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Escaping somewhere warm is an annual pilgrimage for many cyclists in the winter. And for a large percentage, that means heading to the Canaries or Balearic Islands. But how many people have considered Israel as the perfect destination for a week or two of warm weather training?
The Middle Eastern nation is reachable in under five hours from London, with air fares starting at around £140 return. For that travel time and expenditure, cyclists are treated to a country rich in diverse landscapes, challenging climbs and rewarding relaxation options.
The ‘Land of Milk and Honey’ presents a north-to-south tour achievable in around a week. Along the way, there is ample opportunity to scale great heights and take in the view.
In the north of the country the likes of Mount Hermon – the highest peak in the country – may not be scaleable in the middle of winter due to snow, but there are plenty of other top climbs to enjoy along the way. The ‘Holy Climb’ takes riders from the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, along a route of biblical proportions to the city of Jerusalem.
Take in the ruins of the Euthymius Monastery, build in around 428AD as you head towards Israel’s largest city, before tackling Mount Scopus on the settlement’s outskirts to gaze down on the bustling landscape. The total journey should take most riders around three hours.
Things get more wild and sparse as you head further south. Experience a clash of colours as you swap the lush green vegetation that intersperses the whites and greys of Jerusalem’s buildings for the reds and browns of the expansive, arid desert.
For a climb amid the sands, consider tackling the gruelling (and potentially terrifying) Scorpion’s Ascent. This winding section of Route 227 that negotiates its way through the Negev Desert towards the border with Jordan features numerous switchbacks with little to halt your momentum should you overshoot the corner. And with the highest point of the climb reaching 403m above sea level, it’s probably a good idea to keep to the road!
The area takes riders past a macabre landmark of Israel’s past. Back in 1954, a busload of passengers were attacked by gunmen, with 12 killed in what became known as the Ma’ale Akrabim Massacre. A memorial to those murdered stands at the foot of the Ascent, acting as a reminder of the dangers that have, and still do, face many in the region.
Getting off-road is probably the best way to experience the Negev Desert. The volcanic craters that form the other-worldly landscapes deliver a series of rocky trails for cyclists to explore areas that are normally, at best tricky to get to, and at worst, downright inaccessible.
The Makhtesh Ramon is the most famous of the craters within the Negev region. Many organised rides take tourists around the rim of the crater, enjoying the views of some pretty spectacular ancient geological formations along the way.
Explore the Zin Valley within the Sde Boker National Park or enjoy the creations left exposed to the elements in Mitzbe Ramon as you wind your way south towards Eilat. Amid the seemingly inhospitable landscape of the Negev Desert you might be surprised to come across the vineyards of Sde Boker Winery. Popping in for a glass of their Merlot is certainly a pleasant way to break up a long ride.
Heading further south towards the city of Eilat, cyclists will begin to eye the finish line in this particular journey. Those looking for more off-roading opportunities might opt to explore the mountains that run parallel to Route 90 that heads towards Israel’s southern-most city.
Nature lovers can spot hyenas, wolves, foxes and rock hyrax within the Eilat Mountains Nature Reserve which also provides great views of the city of the same name.
Located around 15 miles north of town, the Red Canyon, with its rich colours of sandstone that glisten in the desert heat is best explored by foot. Climb down into the deep gorge to follow the riverbed of the dry Nahal Shani river on an exploration of one of Israel’s ancient wonders. Unlike popular tourist attractions elsewhere, there has been little done to cash-in on the popularity of the Canyon. No buildings or ticket offices, no entrance fee and almost no restrictions. Just make sure you’re out before nightfall and you’re free to explore to your heart’s content.
Once you reach Eilat, it’s all about rest and relaxation. Situated on the Red Sea, the tourist hub is great for scuba diving, snorkelling or kite surfing. For those looking for another sport to enjoy other than cycling, you’re in luck.
With a great mix of terrains, challenges and sights, Israel certainly provides a great alternative for a winter cycling break. Temperatures in all but the highest peaks will generally stay in double figures in the day time, so there’s every reason to swap the cold of the UK for a Middle Eastern adventure.
If you’re tempted to see what country has to offer for yourself, make sure you’re fully covered. Sports Travel Insurance will ensure that not only are you protected for lost baggage, cancellation and flight delays, but also any medical expenses you may require as a result of a cycling injury.