Riding along on a pushbike, honey
A foreigner arriving at the Nachshon junction at 7 A.M. on a Saturday morning would undoubtedly rub his eyes in disbelief: The road is awash with thousands of cyclists, most in their 30s and 40s, full of energy and enthusiasm. These bright-eyed pedal pushers are part of a growing phenomenon that long ago proved itself as more than just a passing fad: Cycling for pleasure has become strongly rooted in Israel's leisure culture.
"This field of sport has been growing at a rapid pace for at least 10 years," says Itzik Hoffman, a teacher by profession and director of the cycling forum at the Tapuz Internet portal. "Cycling became fashionable in the mid-1990s and is now a full-fledged sport that has been developing at an impressive rate - at both the amateur and competitive levels. On weekends, one can now see not just large groups of young men, but also couples, families with children and even older couples aged 50 and over, all out for a ride. Anyone seeing this for the first time simply cannot believe the immense popularity of the sport."
It is hard to argue with the numbers. A study conducted by Business Data Israel (BDI) found that the cycling industry in Israel has sales of approximately NIS 150 million annually. In 2004 alone about 200,000 bicycles were sold here, up 5 percent from 2003, and 25 percent from 2002, when only about 160,000 bicycles were sold.
Cycling is a year-round sport in Israel, with Yom Kippur, when vehicular traffic is extremely light, being the biggest day for the pastime.
BDI's findings indicate that bicycle sales were up by a phenomenal 150 percent in the month preceding Yom Kippur. A survey conducted by the Geocartography Institute for the Rosen & Meents bicycle store chain found that more than 110,000 households planned to buy a bicycle before Yom Kippur, at an average purchase price of NIS 600. BDI said the increase in sales was due both to purchases of bicycles for children and the introduction of a new model of bicycle this year.
A true life cycle
Serious cyclists do not see their activity as just another sport, but rather as a complete culture with its own special characteristics.
"It's a kind of religion with unique language and symbols," says Hoffman. "A cyclist can, for example, recognize another cyclist by the type of tan on his arms and legs."
Cyclists, who view themselves as a community in every way, also have their own institutions. On the Internet, for example, one can find not only a general forum on bicycles, but also forums that focus on specific types of cycling: tour biking, navigating, road biking etc. In these forums, cyclists consult one another on everything from replacement parts to cycling tours in other countries, and post personal stories and photographs.
In addition to the various Internet forums, there is an Israeli Cycling Federation (www.ofanaim.org.il) and a magazine in Hebrew.
"I simply love it," says attorney Hagai Ashlagi, explaining the allure of cycling. "After a week of being cooped up in enclosed spaces, you can cycle around for a few hours in almost total silence, enjoying the landscape and the wind in your face. Since you have to constantly keep an eye on what is happening on the road, cycling also clears your head of all other thoughts."
"This sport attracts people with spare time who want to do something with and for themselves," says Adi Frumkin, head of business development at the Matzman-Merutz bicycle store chain. "Fitness club memberships are perceived as a major expense, swimming is boring and walking is slow, while cycling is fun. Even women are coming out of the spinning rooms and going for nature rides."
Love those brand names
"People spend a lot of money on this hobby," says Hoffman. "In addition to the purchase of the bicycle, there are other basic things such as helmets, pants, shirts, gloves, sunglasses and various bicycle accessories. A bicycle can also be upgraded with better brakes, handlebars, gears etc."
"The price range for bicycle accessories is very broad," says Shuki Godorov of Mega Sport. "Helmets, for example, range from NIS 50-1,500, depending on the materials, design, type of straps and of course the brand. Israelis love brands and whoever spends a lot on his bicycle will usually buy an expensive helmet."
Accessories include special seat covers (NIS 80-200), "breathing" polyester riding shirts (NIS 120-500), and water bottles and brackets (NIS 120-400).
Israelis recognize quality and are willing to pay for the top brands.
"Someone who buys a bicycle for NIS 1,000," says Godorov, "comes back six months later to buy a better one costing NIS 6,000."
Although most people cycle solo, there is growing demand for tandem bicycles.
"We sell about 100 of these a year," says Godorov, "usually to couples in which one member is a stronger cycler than the other. The cost of synchronized cycling: upwards of NIS 3,500."