Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tour de Tel-Aviv

When you think bicycles, you probably think ‘Tour de France’. Well, think again. Tel Aviv has its own bike tour, called ‘סובב תל-אביב’ (i.e. Around Tel Aviv). And true to Tel Aviv style, it is a grand happening: major streets are turned into bike lanes (including ‘Ayalon’ highway), and thousands of bicycle riders gush the streets.

Bicycles on 'Ayalon' highway
My wife, daughter and I joined the crowds and road the 22km track around Tel Aviv. The starting line was at the ‘Rabin square’ next to the city hall building. Energizing music filled the air, and thousands of riders waited in line for their turn to start the ride. We rode north first, then headed east and then got on the ‘Ayalon’ highway heading south. It was surreal to see thousands of cyclists riding on what is typically the busiest highway in Israel… We then turned west and rode back north along the beach, finally returning to the Rabin square.

It was our longest bike ride since we returned to Israel from California. Each weekend California roads fill with thousands of bicycle riders, dressed in colorful shirts and wearing bright helmets. For a while we resisted the urge to join the crowds, but in the last several years we learned that climbing and sweating can indeed be a pleasure. We used to ride over 30 miles each weekend, with steep hill climbing mixed in the middle. Compared to those rides, the Tel Aviv tour was a breeze. But it certainly left us with a taste for more…

The 22km track around Tel Aviv
Bicycles and streets do not mix well in Israel. There are few bike lanes around, and car drivers do not always pay attention to bicycle riders. You can spot some brave (or crazy) bicycle riders on the highways shoulders, especially during early weekend mornings when there are few cars around. But this is the exception rather than the norm.  

Another major exception is ‘Yom Kippur’. This Jewish High Holiday, known mostly for fasting and repenting, has become an unofficial ‘national bicycles day’. Virtually no cars or busses travel the streets of Israel during Yom Kippur. For those who do not spend the day at the synagogue, it is a rare opportunity to enjoy safe road bicycling. The days before Yom Kippur are the busiest days for bike shops, as they help thousands of people (mostly kids) prepare for their “ride of the year”.

I hear there is a thriving ‘off-road’ bicycle community in Israel, where cars cannot interfere with the joy of bicycling. Maybe I should look into that. But with respect to off-road biking, there is a certain feeling of speed and fluency that you only get on a road bike.

We are looking for safe ways to enjoy road biking in Israel. If you have suggestions – do tell…

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