High Wheeler Dealer: Israeli Man Showcases Kooky Bike Collection in Turkey Coop-turned-museum

With 120 items on display, Alon Woolfe's bicycle museum is the first of its kind in Israel.

Four years ago, in the middle of the night, a voice came to Alon Woolfe in a dream. It told him, of all things, to build a bicycle museum.

So what did he do the next morning? He got down to work, running between moshavim, kibbutzim, towns and cities collecting the most interesting, wacky and unique bicycles he could find.

He gathered all of them into an enormous bicycle repair workshop in a former turkey coop on Moshav Hervev Le'et in Israel's Hefer Valley. Today, the space has been converted into Israel's first bicycle museum.

Collecting comes naturally to Woolfe, who says he has been avid gatherer and hoarder for as long as he can remember.

"It's something you're born with," he admits. "I collect everything I can – cameras, stamps, but my most satisfying collection is of bicycles.”

A few years ago Woolfe was invited to participate in Israel’s first bicycle expo at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds, where he introduced his new project to Israel’s rapidly growing cycling fraternity. The collection then entailed 12 bicycles, each with its own special story.

“People have childhood memories of bikes and that’s what moves them,” he says.

One of the bikes in Woolfe's collection is a 100-year-old German relic with wooden rims, brought to Israel by German immigrants many years ago. "I traveled to Jerusalem one rainy night to get it," Woolfe says. "I don't know of an older bicycle in Israel."

Where does the money come from?

“These days I don't pay if I see a bicycle I'm interested in, but I used to spend a lot. Some people have a gambling problem. At least my addiction is a positive one. Now I have about 120 bicycles in my museum, divided into eight different display sections."

The museum’s crowning glory, attracting the most visitors, is Israel’s only surviving original High Wheeler, produced in Britain in 1880. “I personally imported it to Israel, just like others import vintage cars. This is the most valuable item in the collection," Woolfe says. "There aren’t any others in Israel and few in the world. It was made by the Singer company, better known for sewing machines.”

So what doesn't he have yet that he would kill to get his hands on?

“My dream is to bring an old walking bike – one of the first bikes manufactured in 1817. It’s really difficult to get your hands on one, so I’m considering making my own based on the original. The principle behind the bike is very simple: two wheels with a rod connecting them,” Woolfe explains.

One section of the museum is dedicated to road bikes. There you can find the machines ridden by Israel’s first cyclists, including Eli Samocha, who formed the “Wooden Wheels” cycling club in Givatayim. That club donated the rare bikes and a genuine wooden wheel to the museum. The family of the cyclist Yitzhak (“Jacky”) Ben David also donated many items to the museum, including his trophies from national championships and the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.

“Former Olympic cyclists Henri Ohayon and Ben David made aliyah from Morocco in the early 1950s, rode Bertin bicycles and were national champions in the 1950s and 1960s. They were the only Israelis to appear in the Olympic road bike competition,” Woolfe explains.

Hearing Woolfe speak about bicycles, one gets an inside look at a special track of Israeli immigration history.

You have Mario Cipollini’s bike. Are you sure it’s his?

“I know it’s the frame of the road bike that Mario Cipollini, the crazy Italian pro tour rider, because Cannondale prepared the frame especially for him with the special paint work for the Sydney Olympic Games. This is no production-line bicycle.”

In the champion’s section Woolfe has the bicycle used by Amos Levy, the former Israeli cyclist who established the Hapoel Tel Aviv riding club and was national team coach.

“Amos made aliyah from Egypt and won the King Farouk Cup, a most prestigious prize there. His Bianchi bicycle has been maintained since the 1970s,” he proudly explains.

From a tour of the museum we learned that there used to be at least six Israeli manufacturers of blue-and-white bicycles. For example, Israel Cycling Manufacture of Kibbutz Tzor’a, whose logo was a camel, made bikes with 28-inch diameter wheels.

Wheel of fortune

The influx of immigrants from all over the world brought not only a cacophony of tastes, languages and pastimes to Israel, but also personal belongings. Many immigrants brought their bicycles with them, which is why Woolfe managed to gather so many models from different parts of the world: Bikes from Persia, Syria, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada are only a few examples. Woolfe renovated almost all of them himself in the workshop he built alongside the museum.

One category that brought back memories was, of course, children’s bikes, especially the Raleigh bikes that were once the classic birthday present. Appearing alongside them in the museum is the “rocket bike” that Woolfe’s parents kept since he was a youngster, and also the “donkey” bike – a sort-of stunt bike.

Nearby, you can find the magnificent mountain bikes of Gary Fisher, considered the inventor of modern mountain biking, and Marin bikes named after Marin County where the pastime first became popular in the 1980s. On one wall hangs the masterpiece of the Klein company: a bicycle with most unique and interesting geometry.

Another section shows folding bicycles, which have seen a resurgence of popularity as the green revolution has spread in recent days. But it turns out that these bendy bikes, so useful for riding around town and then hopping on public transport, have been around since the 1960s. Woolfe has an original model, and he says the jointed two-wheeler came to Israel with immigrants from the former Soviet Union. "Apparently they were very popular there," he adds.

What type of bike do you like to ride?

“I really like 29-inch wheels because they are so big. My favorite bike is a specialized self-built model. I also have a Titus Racer X mountain bike and a few road bikes. For special occasions like riding around Lake Kinneret I take one bike from the museum to ride on. People always point at me and say ‘Look – it’s got gears like bikes used to.’ I’ve become used to such comments.”

And your dream?

“I want one day to have a trailer on which there will be examples from the development of bicycles, so that I can travel from place to place and lecture on the subject. Another dream of mine is to set up a museum for motorbikes – I’ve already begun collecting a few interesting models.”

Ofer Vaknin