Gran Fondo Tour Eilat: race like a pro through the desert

If you ask the average European cyclist if he/she is still racing in December, you will generally get no further than a Zwift race or a muddy cyclocross race. Especially for a Gran Fondo rider, who normally uses this period to resume training when the weather permits, there will be no race on the schedule. The Gran Fondo competitor would rather use this period to determine his or her goals for next season. How different is our, Girona-based Gran Fondo-riders Pieter Frolichs and Nicolien Luijsterburg, program this time around. 

Visit also for more stories from Pieter and Nicolien. 

We are in Eilat, located next to the Red Sea in Israel, with plenty of sunshine and a temperature of 25 degrees. During the weekend before Christmas, we participate in the Gran Fondo Tour Eilat. The main man behind the Tour Eilat is Harel Nahmani, who is a passionate cyclist and has travelled many times to Europe – more precisely Italy – to participate in several Gran Fondos and stage races, including the Tour Transalp.

Gran Fondo Israel

He realized that no Gran Fondos were being organized in Israel and started his company Gran Fondo Israel to organize international Fondos, including the Gran Fondo Dead Sea, Tour Arad, Tour and Gran Fondo Arava. The main event, however, is the Tour Eilat.

It is obvious that Harel has extensive experience in organizing races and is applying his knowledge to the organization of the Tour Eilat. The race has a unique character, with a prologue of 3.5 kilometers on Friday afternoon and a race day of 139 km and 1,400 meters of elevation on Saturday (Israelis tend to celebrate their weekends on these two days).

There are classifications for each day, so there will be winners for both the prologue and the Gran Fondo, but what ultimately matters is the overall ranking: the accumulated time over both days. The race is under the supervision of the Israeli Cycling Federation and will be ridden with the familiar race chips from MyLaps. No handlebar signs, but a frame plate and two bib numbers for the riders, support vehicles for provisioning and completely closed roads: we don’t know any European Gran Fondo that comes so close to a ‘real’ race. As a cyclist, this is pure joy, especially since there are several professional cyclists at the start.

Prologue: Damage control and recovery on the beach

Each cyclist is going to face a maximum effort, and with only a few weeks of training in the legs, the prologue will be quite a physical and mental task. Limiting the damage for the next day seems to be the best strategy. There is a strong headwind during the first half of the prologue, resulting in old-fashioned pedal pushing. After the turning point, that same strong breeze is now a tailwind. This means trying to do your utmost best with everything you have to maintain the same power as on the way out, but with a high cadence. In practice, this means the first part goes around 30 to 35 kilometers per hour, while we’re travelling back with more than 60 kilometers per hour, all at the highest possible heart rate and with our legs full of acid. A feeling we did not miss.

The strategy worked out and we finished second (Nicolien) and fifth (Pieter) in the stage results. With a limited gap between the winners, this score could lead to a good result in the overall classification.

Wind, but no echelons

As usual with Gran Fondos, it is early when the alarm goes off. The start of the race in Eilat is scheduled for around 7:00 AM. The sun rises when we approach the start line, and it is still pretty chilly in the desert.

Under the flag ‘better safe than sorry’, we put a plastic bag under our race jerseys, that serves as a wind jacket for the first hour of racing. For the first fifty kilometers, we ride north to the Ketura junction, from where the climb to Eagle Mountain begins. It is windy, just like yesterday, and today the wind blows from the north. Therefore, the race is expected to remain closed until the climb to Eagle Mountain.

In a nice peloton, we ride out of Eilat. After the neutralization, plenty of attacks follow. The road is perfect for echelons in the desert, as seen more often in the UAE Tour. Unfortunately for us, but probably a great fortune for most riders, there are no crosswinds. The peloton does stretch out numerous times, but the real echelons do not happen.

Racing in the desert

On paper, the climb to Eagle Mountain, which is very likely to be decisive, looks interesting: 5 kilometers at 6.5%. From the moment we get off the main road, it is, as expected, race on. The peloton immediately explodes.

Pieter: Soon I see my competitors in trouble and follow two elite riders. It’s going super-fast and it’s a thirteen minutes all-out effort. When I arrive at the top of the climb in a group of six, I am not disappointed. There are only about ten elite riders in front of us.

At the summit, it is still 85 kilometers to go, of which the last 15 km are descending to Eilat. Until this descent remains to be ever so slightly uphill. The wind, which should now be coming from the back, helps a little, but it does not always feel like a tailwind.

Nicolien: On the climb, small groups are formed, but even those small groups split quickly. Eventually, I get to the top alone. I know that the first lady is far ahead and that another lady is not far behind me. I decide not to wait for groups behind me but to continue on my own. I am off for a long individual time trial.

In the meantime, it’s also time to enjoy the scenery: the desert is not boring at all! At kilometer 115 there are two more climbs, not the most difficult on paper, but the legs are tired after the continuous efforts.

Pieter: It’s full speed ahead, six men pulling almost constantly at 43 kilometers per hour. On the long, stretched road we continuously see the first group riding, at a minute and a half ahead of us. It is only December, but my body is digesting this effort reasonably well. The riders in my group have a car that follows them, and from the vehicle, we are supplied with drinks.

Nicolien: From the race control car, I am told what my lead is over the number 3. It has increased from forty seconds to one minute. I enter the final descent with confidence.

The long descent into Eilat is pleasing. It’s a wide road, perfect asphalt with only a few turns. Concentration is necessary because the descent is very fast. It is amazing to do it on these closed roads.

Last minute top results in 2022

In the last 25 kilometers of the race, Pieter overtakes another rider in his category. He wins the Gran Fondo and the overall classification in the Tour Eilat, and would have finished eleventh in the elite race. Nicolien comes across the line second in the elite race and gets silver in the general classification as well.

The feeling that remains is how close this Gran Fondo gets to a professional race. The organization is professional, there is great attention to the safety of the riders and the race feeling is unsurpassed. This Gran Fondo is a wonderful goal for those who want to race in the winter, on closed roads, and also enjoy good weather and delicious cuisine.

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