Uneasy Riders

Three cyclists - Hilit Levy, Liron Cohen and Hadas Weiss - set out recently on a bicycle trip on Route 70. Only two survived. Friends are mourning, but they are already back on the road.

From a distance, they looked like a long yellow snake crawling along the road, maintaining regular contact between head and tail. From up close, they were huffing and puffing. Fifteen men and women, dressed in tight-fitting cycling outfits, were riding their bicycles on the road, inside the yellow line on the shoulder, with small black ribbons tied to the back of their seats.

Their body language broadcast self-confidence. Their black ribbons broadcast remembrance and defiance. Remembrance, because the group of bicycle riders from the Megiddo Regional Council cycling club set out last Friday on a 20-kilometer journey as a tribute to Hilit Levy - a 24-year-old cyclist from Haifa who was killed a few days earlier on Route 70 near the Ha'amakim junction. Defiance, because speeding motorists who passed them honked their horns in irritation, but the team of riders ignored them, as though to say: "Let's see you run us over now, when we're together." They were accompanied by parents and family members in cars, who formed a protective wall between them and the busy traffic.

For Hadas Weiss, 27, who is studying for a master's degree in biomedical engineering at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, this was her first bicycle trip since the accident in which her two friends were hurt: Levy, who died later of her injuries, and Liron Cohen, a 16-year-old girl from Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, who is still hospitalized at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. Weiss, who was lucky to come out of the accident without a scratch, tried for two days to avoid training. She said it was hard for her to go back to cycling, that she was still hesitating about whether to return at all. On Friday, Yair Ben-Ami, the trainer of the Megiddo club of which Weiss and Cohen are members, decided that the best way to overcome trauma is to re-experience it.

Weiss agreed to try. At 3 P.M., members of the club met in their usual place, the parking lot at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, and started out. Weiss put on her helmet, slipped her special shoes into the bike pedals and forgot about the world. At the end, when the riders began to scatter, she asked: "Can we continue a little more?" "Enough for today, tomorrow is another day," decided her mother, quickly putting the bike into the trunk of the car.

No time for tears

On Tuesday, August 13, three bicycle riders set out early in the morning from their homes in the north, Weiss from the student dormitories at the Technion, Cohen from Ramat Yohanan, and Levy from Haifa's Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood. They were supposed to meet at 6:45 A.M. at the Yagur junction, and from there to continue riding together in the direction of the Megiddo junction - a 60-kilometer round trip in two-and-a-half hours, an ordinary morning workout. A few minutes after they began cycling, they were hit by a Volvo truck driven by Ali Majdub, 23, of Kfar Yasif. Fatal accident No. 20, and fatality No. 20, were added to the statistics of cycling accidents since the beginning of the year.

Weiss: "I rode last and was still busy getting organized and wasn't paying much attention to what was happening around me, when suddenly I heard a terrible boom, and looked ahead and saw the two of them flying. I didn't hear anything, neither a horn nor brakes, I only saw them: Hilit flew straight onto the right shoulder, and Liron was dragged a little behind the truck that hit them and finally stopped.

"I threw my bike to the ground and ran to Hilit. I checked her pulse and breathing, and saw that there was a pulse. Her leg was completely torn open, really horrible; her clothes were torn, her eyes were open and she making weak humming sounds. I tried to talk to her, but she didn't react. I left her, quickly ran to Liron, saw that her teeth had been broken, and she was saying, `It hurts, it hurts.' I understood that she was in better shape, so I returned to Hilit, and meanwhile people stopped and helped Liron, and I remained with Hilit. There was a doctor who helped me to hold her, because she started to move and we were afraid that she would hurt herself, and then I started to look for telephone numbers."

Liron's father was in the kibbutz when Weiss called him and told him what had happened, that Liron looked all right and that he should come fast. Hilit's husband, Ran Levy, who works for Intel in Haifa, has no mobile phone. "I left him a message with security," says Weiss, "and went back to Hilit. The doctor was with her, and someone else with a stethoscope was checking her heartbeat." Ran phoned after the ambulances had already arrived, and Weiss told him to go to Rambam, that the situation was serious. "The moment he heard that he said: `Ooof, what did she need it for.' He meant cycling."

"In principle, I was strongly opposed to cycling on the highways," says Ran Levy, "but I didn't object forcefully. I didn't believe it would happen to me, and I didn't use all my power [to prevent it]. Even if I had, I don't know if it would have been the right thing to do. We should do everything possible so that people won't ride on the highways in their present state, when the government doesn't lift a finger. I am not deluding myself and I don't believe that the cyclists will stop, but that's what we should do, because it's clear that in a few months, I'll hear about another such accident. Hilit was partially aware of the dangers, we talked about it, she knew that her mother and I opposed it. But she didn't listen."

Asked who he thinks is to blame for her death, Levy replies: "I blame mainly the courts for the light punishment meted out to drivers who run people over. I think that this is part of the general responsibility of the state for what is happening and will continue to happen to bicycle riders."

Weiss says that a traffic inspector interrogated her at the scene of the accident. "I asked him `who did this to us?' and he pointed to a young man sitting on the guard rail on the other side of the highway. "He wasn't at all agitated and afterward, I heard him say to the inspector: `Nu, I'm in a hurry to get to work.'"

Maybe he himself was in shock?

Weiss: "If he was in shock, then he got over it very quickly, because he seemed completely calm."

Did you function calmly, too?

"It wasn't hard. What I most wanted at that moment was for Hilit to start talking to me, for her to say, `Hadas, I'll be OK.' That's what I wanted. The second it all happened, I felt that I couldn't lose my wits, and if I wanted them to live, I had to help in any way I could. It wasn't the time for emotion, only afterward did I have time to cry. At that moment, I functioned like an automaton."

Special relationship

The community of cyclists in Israel numbers 35,000 to 40,000 people, the majority of them amateur riders of off-road (mountain) bikes, with about 1,500 amateur road-bike riders. The Israel Cycling Federation has about 500 registered professional riders in the two categories. About 150 road cyclists and between 1,000 and 2,000 off-road cyclists participate in local major competitions. Road cyclists regard the off-roaders with the same disdain that racing car drivers feel toward drivers of jeeps.

Israeli cyclists are still far from winning the respect enjoyed by their colleagues all over the world - in Europe, cycling is the second most important sport after soccer - although there is a great deal of interest in it, especially among women.

"Women go uphill nowadays like panthers," says Dr. Yoni Yaron, chair of the Israel Cycling Federation. "Many are getting into it. It's a fun sport, you meet nice people, the level of the people is relatively high, good friendships are formed. And in Israel there are now two world-class woman cyclists. A Jerusalem woman is ranked in 50th place in the world in mountain biking, and Shani Bloch from the Haifa area this week completed the Tour de France for women in 18th place."

Weiss, a native of Kiryat Yam, says that she became interested in cycling during her army service because she was overweight: "I remember that I cycled to Acre and back, 20 kilometers in all. Today that's only a warm-up, but then, I would get tired and stop on the way, and eat and drink."

Even before she was discharged, she participated in the Israel Defense Forces triathlon championship, which combines swimming 1,500 meters, running 10 kilometers and cycling 40 kilometers. "I finished in last place, but I was the happiest person in the world that I had made it."

Since then, Weiss has developed a close relationship with her bike, now a slender metal road bike, and has continued with the running, swimming and cycling. Three years ago, she met Kobi Porat, head of the Masters Haifa Cycling Club and the Israeli champion in cycling against the clock. She joined the club, began to train every day, met new people and was totally captivated. Her bicycle turned into the axis around which her life revolved. She married Eran, a mechanical engineer, completed her bachelor's degree in biology and went on to a master's in biomedical engineering, continuing to train and losing 15 excess kilograms in the process.

The friendship with Levy - who finished her studies in landscape architecture at the Technion two weeks ago - began about two years ago, through a mutual love of sports and bikes. From that time, the two trained together two to three times a week.

"It's not an ordinary friendship between people, it's a way of life," explains Weiss. "There's training together and a real understanding of the mutual effort, which means getting up early every morning, getting out of the house and leaving one's husband in bed, and that's in addition to all the chores as students and married women. This mutual experience and the fun we had together led to a very special connection between us that is hard to explain. It came down to the fine points of knowing exactly what her heartbeat would be when she was cycling uphill. Something like a `heartbeat relationship.'"

Kobi Porat tried to convey the unique relationship formed among cyclists in the eulogy he wrote for Levy: "I knew her only as a cyclist. It's a different kind of friendship. A first name, an occupation and that's it. Without additional personal details. Acquaintance on a bike, beneath a helmet. We talk without looking into one another's eyes, but are strongly attached by axle and chain, in a type of brotherhood of cyclists that an outsider can't understand. I'm not sure I would have been able to recognize her face-to-face, but I was able to identify her on a bike from a distance of hundreds of meters by the way she sat and by her cycling style."

Most of Weiss' friends today are athletes. "My old girlfriends, I don't have much to talk to them about. When I start to talk about bike models, cycling clothes and vitamin supplements, they think I have a screw loose. My good fortune, and that of Hilit and of most of the women who engage in sports, is that we have an understanding and supportive husband, otherwise it wouldn't work. A jealous husband is impossible, because we walk around wearing tight-fitting clothes, with men who are dressed in tight-fitting clothes. And aside from the time and considerable ongoing expenses [about NIS 500 a month] involved, we need real help as well, to be taken to competitions, or to be given a massage when we return home and our whole body hurts."

Eran Weiss: "Each of us has his own life, and cycling makes her happier and more relaxed. Since she has been training intensively, she has become gentler. I don't know what she would have done if she hadn't become a cyclist. Now, after the accident, when she says that maybe she won't continue, I don't see her living without it. It's a way of life, which I don't understand, but as long as it's good for her, it's good for me, too."

Painful memories

Liron Cohen, who finished 10th grade this year at the Kibbutz Yagur high school, is lying in the vascular ward in the Rambam Medical Center, bruised and bandaged, with three broken front teeth, surrounded by teddy bears, family and friends. She didn't know Levy until that morning, but remembers the accident clearly. A few minutes earlier, she recalls, "I looked at her, and she was small and had very strong legs. And then Hadas, who was busy with her seat, said `go on,' and I rode first. After half a minute, I felt something pushing me hard. I saw darkness and that's all. I was lying crumpled up, my feet over the dividing rail and my body on the other side of it."

She saw Weiss standing next to Levy. "I shouted to her `Hadas, Hadas,' but she didn't hear me, and then someone came and held my head and started to talk to me and then Hadas came, looked at my teeth and said: `You're prettier this way.'"

Will you continue to ride when you get better?

Cohen: "I think it will take a while, but I think I will."

Weiss: "Of course, she'll come back. I can't train without her."

Cohen is a triathlete. The person who pushed her to engage in sports was her father, Eyal. "You could say that I'm Liron's entrepreneur for the triathlon," he says. "She was a swimmer for years, and after she said she was bored with swimming - and I know that she needs a framework, because our family has a tendency to get fat - I suggested that she try the triathlon."

Since the accident, he hasn't stopped asking questions: "Just today I asked [Liron] if she has had an opportunity to think about what happened and about the future, and she said that she hasn't managed to think about anything yet."

So how do you live with the fact that she cycles on main highways?

Eyal Cohen: "Today, I met a friend who asked how she was doing, and after I told him she'll be OK, he asked me: `How can you let her do the triathlon?' I looked at him and didn't answer. I thought that just as I don't ask him why he is letting his son join a combat unit, he has no right to ask me that question. And if, God forbid, something happens to his son, will I ask him why he allowed him to be a combat soldier? Or why he allows his wife to jog on the highways?"

Especially with women

Trainer Ben-Ami, 38, who used to live in Kibbutz Dalia, treats "his girls" like a mother hen. In other words, for him everything is personal. He knows exactly when each of his trainees goes to sleep, and for how long and with whom he or she rides. Until three years ago, he was a professional triathlete, but he had to stop swimming and running because of a bike accident in which his hand was crushed after being hit by a car.

Ben-Ami is aware of the risk involved in sending his flock to cycle on the highway, a risk that is almost intolerable here: "Israeli drivers injure one another and themselves and pedestrians, and not only cyclists. In that area, we are a Third World country. But if we check how many pedestrians are hit each year, we will have to stop crossing roads. On the other hand, I will never tell a parent who tells me that he's afraid to let his child get on the highway that he has nothing to fear."

His pride in the achievements of Shani Bloch - his 23-year-old student, the Israeli champion who completed the Tour de France in 18th place overall and "in third place for female cyclists under 25" - is also mixed with a constant educational and cultural struggle (which includes writing about cycling in the Ha'aretz sports section).

"Shani is ahead of world champions, [yet] we have to work so hard for every newspaper headline for an achievement other than soccer, and I have to convince her mother that it's an amazing breakthrough, and that Shani is guaranteeing her economic future here. We suffer from a terrible cultural lacuna," he says.

"The Tel Aviv marathon was canceled because the drivers didn't want to get stuck in a traffic jam. Last year, I was at the Tour de France and in every village I visited, I asked whether it didn't bother them that their town was closed for an entire day, and one 85-year-old woman said in amazement: `Disturb us? I proudly tell my grandchildren that the Tour de France passed through my town.' Every town and village pays a lot of money so the race will pass through their city limits."

Is there a difference between men and women in cycling?

Ben-Ami: "In terms of athletic ability, there is no difference between men and women, and if there were social equality, the women would tear us to pieces in the aerobic sports. Only at the last world championship in Japan did women begin to swim 1,500 meters. Why? I think that out of fear, the men limited the women all these years, and didn't want to give them an equal starting point.

"For me, personally, it's more fun to work with women, they're nicer and more serious about their work. In terms of sports, I think that the true challenge is to find champions among the women, and I believe that in the coming years, it will be the women who will take us further ahead."

At the end of the commemorative ride, the cyclists stopped on the shoulder of the road exactly at the spot where the accident occurred. Bloodstains were still in evidence on the burning asphalt, along with fragments of glass and metal. Several candles were lit. The group stood around, bent forward all along the guard rail, each one by himself. Weiss and Ben-Ami embraced and cried, and family members took pictures. n

`Cynical' cyclists' publicity

"No one claims that there is no need for marked bicycle paths, or that it is superfluous," says a spokesman for the Transportation Ministry, Avner Ovadia, in response to the claims of the cyclists, "but what is happening now is simply a cynical publicity campaign under the aegis of the accident, in order to promote the private issues of cylists."

What private issues? Twenty cyclists have been killed this year.

Ovadia: "Where were they killed? On main highways. Now we are trying to find any available land to provide additional space for public transportation and a special path for cyclists. There isn't always room for that, and it's not so simple. You know the driving culture here, this thing is not so practical in the State of Israel."

So what should we tell cyclists, that they should stop riding?

"To cycle in the places designated for that purpose. Mayors are more aware of it, and especially the Tel Aviv municipality, which provides bicycle paths. It's a correct and vital plan, on condition that there is a special path, but if it's combined with cars on intercity roads, it can be even more dangerous."

The dreamland of all cyclists is Italy, which is considered a second homeland for cycling pilgrims from all over the world. In that country, there aren't any marked paths or wide shoulders, and in some places, the roads are as narrow as goat paths. The difference is that Italian drivers, who drive no less recklessly than our own, treat cyclists with respect. No one will pass a group of cyclists on a hill until he has a wide field of vision, and it is completely clear that the cyclists are in no danger of being hit.

"Cyclists want to ride here, too, and there's no place, so they ride where they can," says Dr. Yoni Yaron. "Many cyclists are killed on the main highways because those are the only really good roads, with wide shoulders, so everyone goes out there to ride. Most of the accidents are a result of mistakes by drivers."

In 1999, the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport established the Aloni Commission to find a solution for cyclists on the main highways. The commission, headed by retired justice Shaul Aloni, researched the subject and reached the conclusion that there should be defined areas in the country where the roads will be improved and special warning signs for drivers will be installed, as well as road bumps that will warn them about going onto the shoulder. To date, none of this has been implemented, says Yaron. "The Ma'atz public works authority says that they should get off the road, and the Transportation Ministry doesn't interfere. At least, the Ministry of Sport, because of last week's accident, has once again decided to get involved in the issue."