Friday, June 24, 2016

Not Riding Around the Sea of Galilee

Our family recently took a trip to Israel. In addition to seeing the usual sites, my older son, who organized the trip, had the idea that we should bicycle around the Sea of Galilee. This "sea" is actually a lake, also known as Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret, or Lake Tiberias (among other names.) It is famous among Christians as a site where many of the important events in Jesus' life took place, lending significant cultural color to the ride. This ride, about 35 miles long, was recommended to my older son by a friend of his who had ridden it a few years before, and gets good reviews on travel websites. Four of us decided to "attempt" this ride; me, my wife, my older son, and my younger son. I put the word "attempt" in quotes as none of us had any doubt but that the attempt would be successful; the distance was short enough that my wife, the weakest rider in the group, should have been able to complete it with no problem. Hah!

The four of us, me, my wife, my older son, and my younger son, in front of the hostel where we rented the bikes.

The travel websites described a traffic-free bike path that covered about 70% of the distance around the lake, with the remaining 30% being ridden on the road, and promised many places where bicycles could be rented. When we arrived in Tiberias, the largest city on the lake, we easily found a bicycle rental place, picked up four rather old and beat-up mountain bikes (all they had), purchased a trail map, and asked the guy who rented us the bikes about the trail. "Just ride down to the lake" he said, "follow the lake, no problem. But be sure to ride it clockwise!" Wrong in every respect, as it happened; he either didn't know what he was talking about and/or didn't care. We did look at the map before we left, and it did show a path along the lake. Getting to the lake was a bit more of a challenge than expected, compounded by completely wrong directions given by various people along the way; it seems Israelis love giving advice whether or not they know anything about the subject at hand. Despite that, we eventually found our way to the lake, and rather than a bicycle path, found beaches, hotels, fast food stalls, boat rentals, and the like. We did our best, travelling on streets and sidewalks next to the lake, until these all led us unavoidably back onto the main highway. That highway features high speed traffic heavy on the trucks, so that riding on it was not entirely pleasant and we kept looking for the promised path.

Eventually my older son found a path which seemed to match what the bike rental guy had told us to expect. It was clearly a designated path, with color coded trail markers. Once we got on it, however, we found it to be more of a hiking than a biking path. Some parts of it were OK, basically dirt roads, but other parts had impassible obstacles (at least to mountain bike novices like us) or loose dirt and sand which brought us to a complete stop, forcing us to walk the bikes. With practice, I got to where I could power my way through these stretches, but only at great expenditure of energy. My wife never could make it through them. Thus, a small number of miles ended up taking us way more hours than we had budgeted and left us a lot more tired than expected. At this point, the path ended. It is possible that, as before, we would be able to rejoin it after a brief ride on the highway. However, the day was already very hot and we were getting tired, so we finally did what we should have done much earlier, we looked at the map carefully. When we did so, we found that there was a completely different path around the lake, one which appeared to be the designated bike path all the travel websites had been talking about. In complete conflict with what the bike renter had told us, this path was some distance from the lake, up in the surrounding hills. To get to it from where we rented the bikes, we would have ridden, not towards but away from the lake, up into the surrounding hills. Realizing this, we crossed the highway, headed off through some farms into the hills, and after a bit of searching, found this other path, also well marked and color coded.

A portion of the map whose cover is at the top of the post. If you look just below the green number 1, you can see a blue highlighted route. That is what we think the correct bike route is. The red line along the shore is the highway which most people ride. Near the top of the picture, just to the left of the highway, you can just see a dotted route. That is the hiking trail on which we attempted to bike.

This was the moment of truth. So far, we had only completed an insignificant fraction of the distance around the lake. Should we turn right, and continue the journey, or turn left, and head back home with our tails between our legs? We chose the latter. Although some of us may have made it around, it was unlikely, given the heat and our exhaustion, that all four of us could. As fate would have it, this new trail was much better than the old; although dirt, it was hard packed and lacked the "beyond technical" features of our previous route. Would we have been able to complete the ride had we taken this path in the first place? This is uncertain at best. The main problem was that this trail travels some distance from the lake and weaves back and forth much more than the highway, so the 35 mile trip around the lake on the highway turns into an 88 mile trip around the lake on the trail. In the second place, even high quality dirt roads are more tiring to ride than pavement. Thirdly, being up in the hills, this route would have inevitably involved significant climbing. We were, however, able manage to drag ourselves home by refueling along the way with many glasses of the delicious, mint-rich Israeli lemonade.

Here we are, stopped by loose dirt and sand.

When we got back, my older son immediately emailed his friend, asking him to comment on our difficulties. His reply: "I rode the highway, dude." Riding the highway would have been somewhat unpleasant and perhaps even a bit dangerous due to the traffic, but on a road bike, the ride would have been the piece of cake we had anticipated, especially if we had started at dawn to avoid some of the heat and traffic. In my judgement, the inner route where we started riding is not a usable bike trail. The little we rode of the outer ride through the hills seemed doable but is very long and may contain unexpected challenges.

How did we mess up this ride so badly? In the first place, I believe that if I don't occasionally underestimate a ride, I am not being adventurous enough in my ride selection. In the second place, we all had a lovely time, saw the Sea of Galilee from an interesting perspective, and got plenty of exercise. Having said all these things, here are what I think to be the reasons:

  1. We unknowingly conflated the advice of my son's friend and the travel websites so as to apply the friends endorsement not the the roads on which he rode, but on trails.
  2. The travel websites seemed more informative than they were. They implied, at least to us, an easy to find, unambiguous, trail system. In fact, the trail system required some significant detective work to use, something which we were lulled into not doing.
  3. The guy who rented us the bikes did us a huge disservice by confidently and insistently giving us advice that could not have been more wrong in every way. Because we believed his advice, we did not do our own due diligence.
  4. None of us are experienced mountain bikers. It is my impression that mountain biking is considerably more difficult per mile than road biking. Because we did not have mountain biking experience, we did not correct for that difficulty.
If we had not made these mistakes, I am not sure what we would have done. We certainly would not have attempted 88 miles on dirt roads with the group we had. If we had studied the map ourselves, would we have nonetheless attempted the inner route? I would like to think we would not have, the map never suggested it as a viable route. Might we have attempted the roads? Perhaps. My son's friend rode them successfully, and there are lots of blog posts and the like on the internet of people doing so. And that makes an interesting point. The bike trail everyone raves about is not really an alternative to the road, but an entirely different ride; much longer, and much farther away from the lake. One can debate the relative virtues of lake vistas from the hills vs riding along the lakeshore, but one cannot say they are the same thing. To be perfectly honest, I suspect if we knew then what we know now, we might have never attempted the ride, and so perhaps we were well served by our ignorance.

I am going to try an experiment with this post, I am going to try including a movie. Here is the our group, heading down the trail:

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