When talk turns to cycling, the Israeli-occupied West Bank is not a venue that springs to mind.
Yet in 2016, a small group of cyclists in Palestine’s West Bank town of Ramallah, six miles north of Jerusalem, began meeting up for regular rides.
Fast forward four years, and Cycling Palestine boasts 3000 members from the wider West Bank area.
“Bicycling is a tool for change,” says Malak Hasan, who co-founded Cycling Palestine with Palestinian paramedic Sohaib Samara. “For youth in particular, there is so much happening in Palestine that it is easy to lose faith in and appreciation of the place around them,” she observes.
Weekly rides – sometimes starting with a bus ride to reach new venues - take participants from village to village on journeys of discovery: “It is an educational and empowering experience that cycling — with its freedom of movement — provides,” enthuses Hasan.
Nevertheless, their bike rides are punctuated by Israeli military checkpoints and mobile patrols. Women – including Hasan – face the added disapproval from people convinced that a good female Muslim should not showcase herself in cycling attire. But this does little to dampen the spirits of those on two wheels, who also brave the West Bank’s hilly and hot – for much of the year - conditions.
Extended organised rides have included a four-day, 480km ride from the Qalandiya refugee camp near Ramallah to the coastal city of Aqaba, in Jordan, in 2017. More recently, 7 cyclists joined a tour of several days following the full length of the 700km Israeli West Bank barrier.
The other side of the Israeli West Bank barrier
Meanwhile, just over that barrier in Israel – which boasts a velodrome and hosted the Giro d’Italia Grand Depart in 2018 - approximately 20% of the citizens are Arabs, many of whom consider themselves Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Despite tensions between the country’s Jewish and Arab populations, cycling plays its part in encouraging cooperation and integration in daily life.
Yarden Gazit, co-CEO of the Israel Cycling Federation explains: “Fourteen of the 74 clubs affiliated to our Federation are based in Arab towns and villages.”
One of these, Shfaram Riders, based in the Arab city of Shfaram in the Galilee mountains in northern Israel, is one of the largest, with 139 licensed riders. It recently became the first club based in an Arab city to be awarded the hosting rights of an Israeli National Championship: the 2020 Mountain bike XCO National Championships, scheduled for June 5th (but likely to be postponed due to the current coronavirus pandemic).
The country’s national men’s road team includes Arab cyclists, not least Saned abu Fares from the Druze town of Dalyat al Carmel and member of UCI Continental Team Israel Cycling Academy.
On a more popular level, the Israeli Federation has hosted Palestinian cyclists living in the Palestinian Territories to participate in cycling for all events.
A multi-cultural school for young talent
Meanwhile, young talents from all walks of Israeli society come together at the Gino Bartali Youth Leadership School, established in memory of the Italian cycling legend of the same name, the only athlete to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, before and after WWII. During the war, Bartali smuggled fake documents, hidden inside his bicycle tubes, for Italy’s Jews. He spoke little of his exploits, sticking to his philosophy: “Good is something you do. Not something you talk about.”
At the Gino Bartali school, students from different religions and cultures are challenged both on and off the bike. The school prides itself in instilling students with a “common passion to bring together youth from different cultures and create social leadership.”
While cycling in Palestine and Israel develops with different means and at different rates, all can surely identify with the words of Gino Bartali:
"Everyone in their life has his own particular way of expressing life's purpose. I have my bicycle."