When Dror Pekatch approaches the starting line tomorrow in the elite men's race of the European Cross Country Mountain Bike Championship, he will enjoy something previous Israeli participants in this competition have not - home-field advantage.
"It's a dream," says the cyclist of the first-ever European cycling championship hosted by Haifa. "All the stars who always competed against me are coming to me," says the 29-year old from Kfar Azar. "Family, friends and my sponsors will be able to get into a car, travel 50 minutes and see me compete at the highest level in the world. The preparations for this championship restored my energy, passion and desire to keep on riding."
Just talking about cycling is enough to get Pekatch revved up. "Let me change shoes and get on the bike now," he says.
The European championships in Haifa arrive at a time when Pekatch could use a boost, having just returned to the form he had three years ago. Pekatch, who has been competing since he was 11, set a national best that still holds early in 2007, when he placed 53 in the world mountain bike rankings. But his bubble burst in March 2008, when a fatty deposit in his left knee swelled up and became infected, causing excruciating pain.
Pekatch had surgery to remove the growth. He recalls that 12 days later he received definitive word that it was just a benign cyst and that while he was relieved his plans to train for the upcoming season went up in smoke. He was sidelined for a month and returned straight to the Israel Championship in a mountain bike marathon.
"I overcame a technical problem and rode well," he says of the comeback. "I was riding like mad and took excessive risks." One ended in a bad fall and fractured ribs.
The cyclist started a new chapter in 2008, under French coach Benoit Nave. The training went well but he was diagnosed with mononucleosis in February 2009. "It's the worst thing to happen to an athlete," he says. "I saw friends in the profession progressing, while I couldn't even get myself into a training routine."
Down fell Pekatch into the neighborhood of 1,000 in the rankings. "Medically I was recovered by September, but personally I feel I only came back during the past two and a half months," he says.
When Pekatch isn't cycling he spends time on cultural pursuits. On the table in his Kfar Azar home lies a binder filled with his writings. "My friend is getting married, and I play some guitar," he explains. "I sat down yesterday and wrote him a song."
He might have had more time to develop his skills as a poet had his father not insisted on getting him a good bike when he was 10. Pekatch says his father, a former catamaran sailing champion in Israel, told him he wouldn't buy him an NIS 400 bike that would fall apart in two weeks and instead spent NIS 900 on a bike with a high-quality gear system.
Eight years later, Pekatch was the men's runner-up in the Israel Championship. After his army service he went to The Netherlands to push himself further. "I loved extremes," he says enthusiastically. "I got into nature biking and the feeling of being cut off. It's just you, the bike and God."
Finishing in the top 10 in races in Belgium did not satisfy his appetite. In November 2006 he became the first Israeli to sign a professional contract when he joined the Subaru Gary Fisher Mountain Bike Team and embarked on a world tour. "No one was used to seeing an Israeli rider," he recalls. "They asked me if in Israel there are cars or camels, and others wondered if cyclists don't get shot while training."
Despite the nightmares of the past two years Pekatch is continuing his fifth year with the American team. "I live a very fulfilling life and feel lucky every day," he says. "I had a lot of second thoughts, but there was always a fire underneath me. I never see myself without the bike. When I call places on the phone, I say 'Hi, this is Dror Pekatch, cyclist, speaking.' If they take that away from me I'd have a serious identity crisis."
In the meantime, Pekatch hopes to earn his first European championship medal tomorrow. He also wants to continue playing music, not just for his marrying friend. "I still feel far from having my fill, and know that whenever I have to retire I won't just go home. My swan song has to be at a high level, and this story has to have a good ending."
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