Religiously observant cyclists cannot compete in road races held on Shabbat.
Religiously observant cyclists cannot compete in road races held on Shabbat. Photo by AP
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When Ron Shimon, 28, began observing Shabbat, he was nine years old. Since then, the Jewish day of rest has become an integral part of the Haifa resident's life. Another thing he discovered in his childhood was cycling, and a newspaper article about a local cycling club ignited the youngster's interest.

"I wanted to be just like the people in the article," he recalls. "I was drawn to the hard work on the bicycle - and to the competitiveness. Also, I always wanted to see how far I could push my body."

Fourteen years later, Shimon is a full-time competitive cyclist in every respect. He has already realized his dream of becoming one of the country's top riders. Now he spends much of his time pedaling along Route 4, fighting every incline, rounding every hill with one goal in mind, one he has forfeited for seven consecutive years: competing in the national road cycling championships.

The reason he has never competed is that the race is held on Shabbat, when the religiously observant Shimon will not compete. Next Shabbat the annual race will be held in his home city, Haifa. What stands in the way of Shimon and other religious cyclists is the Israel Cycling Federation, the state-authorized body that organizes cycling races. From the federation's perspective, the reasons are purely practical: Most local council heads and mayors refuse to close roads for the races on weekdays.

Another reason, according to the Culture and Sports Ministry, is the police's objection to holding road races on work days. "The police are not prepared to close roads for bicycle races except on Shabbat," Uri Sheffer, director of the ministry's Sports Administration, wrote to the head of the Haifa religious council, Avraham Weitzman, about the race to be held in Haifa.

"We will consider the issue and whether there is a critical mass of [religious] riders," a federation source said.

Which brings up a crucial issue: If the police are prepared to close a city center street for grandiose marathon races, why shouldn't it for an annual cycling race that includes fewer than 300 participants?

Shimon says he's not interested in hearing the same excuses again. He just wants to compete and says that if given the chance he can win.

Two years ago, he launched a campaign to get the race day changed that reached the desks of Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat. Shimon hoped that a legal precedent, which banned the Israel Fencing Association from holding its national championship on Shabbat, would hold in his case. But nothing helped. The cycling federation refused to budge, even after Livnat appealed personally for a change of attitude.

Occasionally Shimon gets accused of religious coercion. He quietly recounts how he served in a front-line IDF unit in the West Bank and fought during the Second Lebanon War, "just like everyone." "I give my soul to the army and serve over 40 days a year in the reserves," he says. "But still nobody cares about me and I still haven't received an official reply to my request [to reschedule the race]."

Bicycling before career

Shimon is traditional, but certainly not ultra-Orthodox. He often goes without a kippa and tzitziot (ritual fringes ). He simply believes that some things should not be changed: "Everyone brings a rabbi to his wedding, hangs a mezuzah next to the front door and circumcises their sons. For me, Shabbat is as fundamental as those things. It's a matter of belief for me."

And do you believe that this year, you'll finally be able to compete in the national championships?

"I've missed this race for seven years now, and every year I hope for that to end. Unfortunately, this whole story has caused me to feel stuck in place. I go training without hope and without anything to aspire to. When you have low motivation it's harder to concentrate on the little things, like nutrition. Even the federation's director [Emilio Roitman] told me that I'm wasting my time."

When Shimon says he is stuck, he is referring to his life after his demobilization from the army. While most of his fellow soldiers landed good jobs, he chose to wash stairwells "so that I could carry on cycling as much as I could."

Instead of studying full-time at the Technion, he opted for a local engineering college so he would have time to spend on his bike. "The bicycle is what keeps me going," he says. "It gives me optimism in my life."

It looks as though Shimon will again sit out the national championships at home. At the end of the interview he sounded despondent. He has come to realize that what was done for Israeli soccer, basketball and other sports with mass appeal, no one will do for Israeli cycling.

"It's so sad for me that one of the fastest developing sports in Israel closes its doors to an entire segment of the population," he says.

The Culture and Sports Ministry stated: "The ministry attaches great importance to bringing religious athletes into sporting competitions. The ministry's position in recent years has been that every sporting federation should make every effort to include religious sportsmen and women while allowing them religious freedom in a way that would not limit their participation because of attire, food, or observing the Jewish festivals."

It should be pointed out that the sporting organizations are independent, non-affiliated bodies with full autonomy over their sports, and the Culture and Sports Ministry has no mandate to force them to act according to its directives.