The eastern part of Route 31 is packed with hairpin turns – just like in a mystery series, where you need to go through all the twists in the plot before reaching the climax: the Dead Sea. The lowest point on earth is what drew the international Hard Enduro off-road motorcycle world championship tour to hold the first of its eight races in 2022 in Israel, at the beginning of April. The “Minus 400 – Extreme Desert Race” was the first of its kind to be held in Israel and brought with it the best off-road motorcyclists in the world.
For children such as Omer, 10, from Moshav Avigdor, Mario Roman Serrano is like Lionel Messi. When Roman, one of the greatest riders in the world, starts off in the first cluster – Omer and his father Rotem stare in amazement.
Many Israelis are hooked in the same way – the Enduro community here is no longer just a small group wandering throughout Israel looking for a few hills to climb with their bikes. They are thousands, from all over, who run training programs and regular activities for children from age 6 and up along with competitions and trips abroad together – and a competitive Israeli national team. “You need unbelievable physical fitness,” said Rotem about the Enduro riders. “There’s not a single muscle in your body that isn’t working. You look at it and it looks easy. After 10 minutes, anyone who’s not at peak fitness falls.”
This time, what could bring down the bikers is the weather. “I think that because I’m from South Africa, I’m used to the heat more than others,” said 26-year-old Wade Young. At 7:55 A.M., he looks relaxed with his heavy outfit – but a short time later, with all the effort and the warming temperature, it's a different story.
The official race site lists 174 participants, 30 of whom are in the “Gold” category of professionals. Others come just to participate, said Tami – the grandmother of 13-year-old Noam Bialy, the youngest competitor in the race. She has been waiting for over two hours at the minus-100 viewpoint – signifying how far below sea level it is. This is the only place where spectators can watch the riders in action, except for the starting and finish lines. After hours of watching in the hot sun of the southern Dead Sea region, with the thermometer showing 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade – but your body feels as if it’s 64 degrees Celsius in the sun – the first rider flashes from the edge of the mountain. He rides down the ridge and the crowd feels the excitement. Motor sports fans in general – and especially Hard Enduro fans – get up early, and some even spent the last two days here to see their heroes. So who cares about two hours in the dry heat of the Judean Desert for just a few seconds of pleasure?
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With hundreds watching this wondrous event, it’s impossible not to wonder about the conflict between, on the one hand, the incredible desert landscape spread out before you and, on the other, that this race is about a victory of the body and machine over nature. “So a rock moves a bit from here to there,” says Rotem, dismissing concerns about harm to nature. “We bring the motorcycles to places we wouldn’t reach on foot.”
The dispute over holding the race in these unique conditions in the Judean Desert and the dry streams leading to the southern Dead Sea has led to confrontations between environmental groups and the company that organized the race. The route of the race was changed at the last minute to reduce the harm to nature – at least according to the announcement from the Sports Ministry.
The environmental organizations were not satisfied, of course. They hope that the event will not become a regular thing and tried until the very last moment to prevent it from being held at the location. “It’s a tempest in a teacup,” said one of the organizers. “In the end, nature belongs to everyone.”
Ronny, who came all the way from Kibbutz Ein Harod Ihud in the north to watch his son Ofir compete, thinks that nothing can be done. “Even when they go to hike on Mount Gilboa they destroy nature. It’s impossible to stop living. Look at what a festival there is here.”
And it truly was a festival. North of the Leonardo Club Dead Sea Hotel, near Neve Zohar, a motor sport village was set up with all the obstacles, looking as if it had been taken from a construction site on a highway interchange. After three hours and 48 minutes of exhausting riding up and down for 90 kilometers (56 miles), the first rider arrives. As expected – it is “Super Mario,” who for some reason pops out of a concrete pipe and smile as he crosses the finish line and stops. Young comes in fifth and won’t be on the podium.