If you ask the average European cyclist if he/she is still racing in December you will generally get no further than a Zwift race or a muddy CX race. Certainly for a gran fondo rider, who normally uses this period to resume training when the weather permits, there will be no race on the schedule. That one would rather go and figure out his or her goals for next season.
How different is our program: a gran fondo in Israel, through the desert, with start and finish in Eilat, located on the Red Sea. With sunshine and a temperature of 25 degrees. On the weekend before Christmas, we will be in Eilat to participate in the Gran Fondo Tour Eilat. The big man behind the Tour Eilat is Harel Nahmani, who as an avid cyclist in the past has himself traveled to Europe, more precisely Italy, to participate in several gran fondos and stage races, including the TOUR Transalp.
He realized that no gran fondos for cyclists were being organized in Israel and started his company Gran Fondo Israel to organize international gran fondos, including the Gran Fondo Dead Sea, Tour Arad, Tour and Gran Fondo Arava. The main event, however, is the Tour Eilat.
It quite clear that Harel has extensive experience in organizing races and is applying this to the organization of the Tour Eilat. The race has a unique character, with a prologue of 3.5 km on Friday afternoon and a gran fondo on Saturday of 139 km and 1,400 meters of elevation (the weekend in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday). There will be rankings for each day, so there will be winners for both the prologue and the gran fondo, but what ultimately matters is the overall ranking: time over both days. The race is under the supervision of the Israeli Cycling Federation and will be ridden with the familiar race chips from MyLaps. No handlebar signs, but a frame plate and two bib numbers for the riders, chase cars for provisioning and completely closed roads: we know of no European gran fondo that comes so close to a 'real' race. As a cyclist this is pure enjoyment, especially since there are several professionals from Israel Premier Tech - Start Up Nation at the start.
Every cyclist faces a maximum effort, and with only a few weeks of training left in the legs, the prologue will be quite a physical and mental task. Limiting the damage for the next day seems to be the best strategy. The first half of the prologue there is a strong headwind and it is old-fashioned pedal pushing. After the turning point, that same strong wind is now a tail wind. This means trying with all your might to maintain the same power as on the way out, but with a high cadence. In practice, this means the first part goes around 30 to 35 kph while we're flying back at over 60 kph. All at the highest possible heart rate and with the acid deep in our legs. A feeling we never missed.... The strategy worked though and we finished second (Nicolien) and fifth (Pieter) in the day's results. With a limited gap, this offers a chance for the general classification.
Photo: Pieter on the far right, in orange.
It is early as usual when the alarm goes off, the start of the gran fondo is scheduled around 7:00. The time when the sun rises, but it can still be chilly in the desert. After all, that is where we will be racing today! Just to be sure, we put a plastic bag under our race shirt as a wind jacket for the first hour. The first fifty kilometers we ride north to Ketura junction, from where the climb to Eagle Mountain begins. Also today the wind blows from the north and the race is expected to remain closed until the climb to Eagle Mountain. In a nice peloton we ride out of Eilat on a major road and as soon as the neutralization is lifted it starts raining attacks. The road is actually perfect for a real echelon race in the desert, as seen more often in the UAE Tour. Unfortunately for us, but probably a great fortune for most, there are no crosswinds. At a few points it goes on the side and it is hard work to keep your place in the peloton, but for the most part it is mainly saving up for the climb.
Wednesday, July 5 to Monday, July 10, 2023.
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The climb to Eagle Mountain, which is very likely to be decisive, looks good on paper: 5 km at 6.5%. From the moment we turn off the main road, the throttle opens as expected. The men of Israel Start up Nation lead the peloton which immediately splits apart. Also on the climb the wind blows freely which is not helpful.
Pieter: I soon see my competitors in trouble and follow two elite riders. It's going hard and it's thirteen minutes all out effort, but it's not disappointing. Certainly not when I come to the top in a group of six, and there are only about ten elite riders in front of us.
At the top there is still 85 km to go, the last 15 km of which are downhill to Eilat. Until this descent you ride over rolling hills, but still mainly slightly uphill. The wind which should now be at your back helps a little, but it does not always feel like a tailwind.
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Nicolien: On the climb, everything falls apart. Small groups are formed, but even these split quickly. Eventually I get to the top alone. I know that the first lady is far ahead, and that another lady is not far behind me. I decide not to wait for groups behind me, but to go out on my own. A long individual time trial.
In the meantime, it's also time to enjoy the scenery. The race setting is beautiful, the desert is not boring at all! At kilometer 115 there are two more climbs, not the most difficult on paper, but the legs are tired.
Pieter: It's full speed ahead, six men riding head to head almost constantly at 43 km per hour. On the long, stretched road we see the first group riding consistently, at a minute and a half lead. It is only December, but my body is digesting this effort reasonably well. The riders in my group have a follow car with them, and from the car we are supplied with drinks.
Photo: Nicolien Luijsterburg (right, with the white helmet)
Nicolien: From the race control car, I am told what my lead is over the number 3. It has increased from forty seconds to one minute. I enter the final descent with confidence.
After the final climb, it's a 15 km descent to Eilat. A wide road, perfect asphalt and fairly few turns. But concentration is necessary because the descent is super fast. What a great descent!
In the last 25 km of the gran fondo, Pieter overtakes another rider in his category. He wins the gran fondo and the overall classification in the Tour Eilat, and would have finished 11th in the elite race. Nicolien comes second in the elite race, both in the gran fondo and the overall classification. Of course we are happy these results, at such an unusual time in the preparation for next season. But above all, we enjoyed this race very much. The organization is professional, there is great attention to safety of the riders and the course feeling is unsurpassed. This gran fondo is a wonderful goal for anyone who wants to race one more time in winter, and also enjoy good weather and delicious food!