Pushing pedals, raising morale in Israel

FIDF supporters Jonathan Markowitz of Evanston, Ill.; Jacob Dunn of San Francisco; Steve Derringer of Chicago; Ruth Wegner of Evanston, Ill.; and Steve Diamond of San Diego. (Photo: Different View Photography)

FIDF supporters Jonathan Markowitz of Evanston, Ill.; Jacob Dunn of San Francisco; Steve Derringer of Chicago; Ruth Wenger of Evanston, Ill.; and Steve Diamond of San Diego. (Photo: Different View Photography)


By Steve Diamond

Steve Diamond

Steve Diamond (Photo: Different View Photography)

SAN DIEGO — The email ad for the first annual Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Cycling Tour of Israel appeared in my inbox in early August – and immediately caught my eye.

I’m a retired U.S. Navy senior officer, and my daughter, Rami, just finished her service as a Lone Soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), having served in the world’s only all-female special forces combat unit. I’ve been to Israel many times, I hope to make Aliyah, and I’ve always had a special interest in the IDF.

I’m also a competitive cyclist, and have been nationally ranked on both the road and the velodrome. I was on the U.S. Navy Triathlon Team, and I still compete and train other cyclists.

So, when I saw that email ad, I could hardly believe that here was an opportunity to combine three of my greatest passions: Israel, the IDF, and cycling!

I signed up immediately. While the trip involved a challenging expense, I wanted to make this sacrifice to have what I knew would be an awesome experience – and for a good cause.

On the trip, scheduled for October, we would cycle alongside wounded IDF veterans, and the group was to visit several IDF bases to meet the soldiers and show them that America stands with them. As a veteran combat officer, cyclist, and lover of Israel, I could not pass this up!

A trip of this logistical magnitude involved taking my own bike and gear (bike rentals were available in Israel) and a great deal of planning and preparation. Fortunately, I’ve traveled with my bike before in Europe. This trip would take me two months of preparation for a route that would cover about 400 miles, with nearly 35,000 feet of climbing.  After planning for every contingency – and with tremendous help from FIDF’s professional staff – I arrived in Israel. B’’H, my bike and luggage all arrived on time – and intact.

Most of the group arrived on Shabbat, but I arrived prior to Shabbat. I met the other riders and trip organizers, and we all checked our gear and prepared for cycling to start. Sunday morning, as would be the pattern for the week, we had the bus loaded, breakfast eaten, and bikes mounted by 7 a.m.

As with all large groups, skill level varied, but, regardless of ability, each rider was able to complete the route every day – an outstanding accomplishment, and a testament to the FIDF Cycling Tour organizers’ work. And truly, one of the greatest aspects of this trip was the number of friends I made. So many great people, so many wonderful men and women.

Cycling in Israel is a stunning experience. The natural beauty is incredible, and, since we toured the entire country, the environment spanned a few different ecosystems: we traversed forests and mountains in the north, valleys and plains further south, and desert and craters in the south – and we climbed the massive Mt. Hermon and descended to the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea.

We experienced rain, warm sun, calm breezes, and the most severe cross winds any of us had ever felt. Speaking as a cyclist, this tour trumped all others – including my many tours across Tuscany.

In addition to its natural beauty, Israel has extraordinary historical significance – and cycling across this historical landscape inspired images of battles fought, such as King Saul and his sons fighting the Philistines on Mt. Gilboa – which we climbed – or the Jewish battle against the Roman Legio X Fretensis (10th Legion) at Masada.

On each day (save for the last), we stopped at an IDF military base or outpost – meeting the soldiers and posing for photos with them, receiving briefings from the commanding officers, and seeing first-hand the incredible recreational facilities that FIDF has contributed – for which the soldiers all expressed the utmost gratitude. As a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, it was particularly fun to visit the Israeli Air Force F-16 base at Ramon.

Israeli veterans of modest means whose college tuitions are financed by the FIDF IMPACT! Scholarship Program joined us for dinner one night in the Galilee, where, for the first time, they met the FIDF supporters who sponsor their educations.

FIDF Cycling Tour leader Dany Saar of West Bloomfield, Mich., riding in front of wounded IDF veteran and FIDF Strides Program participant Col. Itzik Gabai. (Photo: Different View Photography)

FIDF Cycling Tour leader Dany Saar of West Bloomfield, Mich., riding in front of wounded IDF veteran and FIDF Strides Program participant Col. Itzik Gabai. (Photo: Different View Photography)

Seeing these young men and women united briefly with their American benefactors was one of the most moving moments of the trip. The most inspiring part of the Cycling Tour, however, was the phenomenal experience of riding alongside wounded IDF veterans, all of whom participate in FIDF’s Strides Program, which provides advanced athletic prosthetics to wounded IDF veterans so they can enjoy sports activities.

Some of these wounded warriors joined us for a day, some for more than one day, and some for the entire tour – and every one of them was kick-butt strong, staying among the front group of riders despite the challenging gradients.

Ronen, a 53-year-old veteran, could not wear a prosthetic while cycling because his amputation was so high – but he rode single-legged with us for two full climbing days, including the 12 mile, eight percent gradient climb out from the Dead Sea toward Arad! It’s hard to convey how incredible that feat really is. He’s a quiet, humble, unassuming man. And he’s married to a woman who is paralyzed from the chest down. And they’ve successfully raised two daughters.

I cannot stress enough how important it was to ride with these heroes – and the sense of accomplishment we all felt while making the final descent to Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat. We were in Israel, at the Source, among the shadows of our ancestors and the echoes of our storied history…and on our bikes. It doesn’t get any better than that!

*
Diamond is a retired U.S. Navy fighter pilot and former member of the U.S. Navy Triathlon Team, the owner and operator of stevediamondtraining.com, an FIDF supporter and the proud father of former IDF Lone Soldier Rami Diamond.

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Copyright 2015 San Diego Jewish World

One Response to “Pushing pedals, raising morale in Israel”

  1. Lee Schwimmer says:

    Great article and so inspiring. I’d love to go next year!! By the way, I know Steve and he is an amazing coach/trainer –the BEST.

    –Lee Schwimmer, San Diego

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