Yalla yalla ya patata: Riding the holy trails of Israel’s MTB network

Komoot Community Manager Manu is an avid mountain biker who recently used her holidays to explore the desert trails of Israel. This is the inspiring tale of her trip.

Flowing desert trails through picture-book scenery. Technical enduro lines around a world metropolis steeped in history. Impressive rock formations that feel like you’re riding on the moon. Culinary highlights on every corner. A country where hospitality is a top priority. An incredibly motivated local MTB community. And 3 girls from the Alps in the middle of it all. 

My eyes wandered slowly across the unique landscape, it was unreal. We were in the middle of an almost never ending desert with our bikes. The only thing interrupting the desert scenery was an  eternally long flowtrail. 

But let’s rewind to the beginning. In spring Lena, Sabine and I decided to extend our bike season before starting the ski season. We researched some destinations but it was the videos of the desert rides that fascinated us. We decided unanimously on Israel. The Middle East gets some bad press but our experience in Israel gave us a different picture of the country, thanks to the amazing culture, people and  their hospitality, not to mention the epic trails.

Let the Adventure begin!

The adventure truly began when we arrived to pick up our rental car at Tel Aviv airport. We originally booked a VW Caddy – enough space to carry the bikes, but on arrival were offered a limousine! The Caddy wasn’t available and it took two hours of explaining why a limousine was not a suitable upgrade for us! Eventually we found ourselves on the road, weaving through the traffic in a huge 9-seater bus, with cars honking and overtaking on all sides, no matter how tight it was between vehicles!

When we finally reached our destination, we left our bikes at the local bike shop for storage, and spent a day exploring Tel Aviv, before hitting the local MTB trails.

Riding in northern Israel: Misgav, Mishmar HaEmek & Ben Shemen Forest

For our first 3 days of riding we’d decided to dedicate ourselves to the trails in the north of the country. The trail network in Misgav is a cross-country paradise which is also a lot of fun for enduro bikers. Mishmar HaEmek also offers a perfect MTB playground: short climbs and excellent medium-difficulty trails (mainly S1 and S2), some beautiful drops, rock passages and north shores (wooden boardwalks popularised by the mountain bikers in Vancouver’s North Shore area) in remote surroundings make a rider’s heart beat faster!

Before our trip Sabine contacted the Israeli Enduro rider Noga Korem, who gave us plenty of tips, including a heads up about the local bike demo day in Ben Shemen. We paid it a visit and wow! We were  impressed by how big the bike scene is in Israel! The Ben Shemen Bike Festival is the place to be if you want to meet the local MTB community. We couldn’t believe how open and helpful the local scene was – countless tips and offers to show us the best trails in the country. We couldn’t refuse the kind offers but first we wanted to try out the Ben Shemen cross country trails. With the insiders’  tips we made the most of the trails. Conclusion: SO makes XC fun! 

Next stop, Jerusalem!

Exploring Jerusalem with the Locals

Jerusalem represents a sensory overload and invokes plenty of emotions with its incredible blend of religions, cultures, and aromas. Witnessing the Sabbath was one of the most striking experiences for us. The city is loud and colorful, especially around the Mahane Yehuda Market.  But when the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday, all activity suddenly ceases. The bustling city becomes peaceful and quiet – restaurants close and the streets empty. Then come sunset on Saturday, and the whole city springs into life again as if nothing ever stopped. 

The meeting point of different religions was also something we found fascinating. The heart of the old city is surrounded by a wall and divided into individual quarters: Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. The old city is where you’ll find the famous Wailing Wall, which many believers visit daily to say their prayers and leave their wishes on notes stuck between the huge stone blocks. For many Jews, the wall is a symbol of God’s covenant with his people.

Jerusalem’s cultural mix is not the only thing unique about the area. Its technical trail network is special, and with the guys we met at the bike demo day we were able to experience the best of the local trails. At the time we didn’t realize that our new friend, Ofir, is involved in creating and developing new trails around the city and beyond. From then on, each day one highlight would chase the next!

The first day with the locals showed us that Israel not only has XC and flowing desert trails to offer. there are also rocky downhill passages with high drops and crazy views of the city! Some difficult sections we figured out together, discussing the perfect line, and then cheering each other on with “yalla yalla ya patata” (literal translation: “go potato!” But you get the idea ;-). The riding was epic but the cultural side of our visit wasn’t bad either. Ofir and the crew turned out to be the perfect tour guides, helping us get to know not only the best trails, but also the culture and history of Israel. 

A real highlight for us was the night ride through Jerusalem: a suggestion made by another local rider we met, Eliran. We gathered in the evening and he lead us and a huge group of riders through the city, cruising through narrow alleys, up and down hundreds of steps, past all the historic squares, city walls, viewing platforms, church buildings, and market squares. We cheered and whooped exuberantly throughout the ride! This is how everyone should experience Jerusalem!

It was also Eliran who invited us to another desert ride to the Mar Saba Monastery. Mar Saba is a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Kidron Valley in the Judah Desert, 12 km east of Bethlehem. It’s one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world. The trail went along an extremely exposed gorge – no falls allowed! The scenery was awesome – absolutely breathtaking.

On our last day in Jerusalem we met up with our new friends Kobi & Ofir again. Early bird starts had become the norm for us in Jerusalem, and we started at half past seven on this final day. It was sooo worth it! The perfect mixture of flow and technical sections, combined with great views, and of course a great crew, made the day something very special. And the longest trail in Jerusalem was followed by an invitation from the two guys to homemade Shakshuka (an Israeli dish of eggs and tomato) – a dream! 

Sweet, Sweeter, Sugartrail

Every mountain biker who has ever heard of mountain biking in Israel will have heard of the Sugartrail. We had, and were very excited because the next two days we would be guided around the area by Johan from  Saba Bike. 

A native of Sweden, he was so fascinated by Israel that he decided to set up his own bike business here. He is a super funny guy who always has a story up his sleeve. Having heard the stories and watched the videos, the expectations for the Sugartrail were of course high. We weren’t disappointed: eternally long flow descents through impressive desert scenery to the lowest point on earth (428m/1400 feet below sea level) made it hard to wipe the grins off our faces. That said, you should be prepared for “flats” in the desert – we had a total of 4 punctures!

The next day’s to do list ended up as one of our highlights:  the ride from Arad to the Dead Sea. This trail was more technical than the Sugartrail and showcased even more incredible desert scenery. It was amazing to see how deserts differ  in their colors and elevations! The best part of the trail? Ending at the Dead Sea, where you really float weightlessly in the water.

Timna Park & Mitzpe Ramon

Heading further south two more trip highlights awaited us: The Ramon Crater in Mitzpe Ramon and Timna Park.

The Ramon Crater, the largest erosion crater in Israel, is one of the most impressive natural phenomena in the Negev Desert. The route through the Makhtesh Ramon is marked with the blue logo of the path and consists of some wide gravel roads, but mostly beautiful easy single trails. The route leads mostly along the crater edge, so views of the enormous deep crater are guaranteed!

Finally we headed to Timna Park, a national park near Eilat in southern Israel, and a real gem. It’s a rocky landscape in the middle of the desert where extended bike trails led us to some artistic geological formations. The so-called “Mushroom”, for example is the result of years of erosion. If you look closely, you can see the grains of sand the form these shapes, and the minerals which hold them together. Impressive!

Sababa (or why we loved Israel)!

Israel is an interesting, multi-faceted country but there was one thing that made our trip very special: incredibly helpful people. We’ll remember the unconditional hospitality we experienced in this country forever. In Israel we not only experienced extremely beautiful landscapes, incredibly flowing and fun trails, but an incredibly motivated MTB community like we’ve never experienced before. The fun on the trails, the stories they shared with us, the culture they brought us closer to, and the many laughs they gave us were priceless! Thank you so much for the great time! 

Words by Manu Pichler

Photos by Lena Koller and Manu Pichler