Editor Mike Blewitt takes on the Jordan stage race with Justin Morris.
Words: Mike Blewitt
Photos: Arabian Epic Series, Mike Blewitt
I've spent much of my adult life riding, racing and travelling. Riding feeds racing, racing feeds travelling, and travelling creates the desire to ride more. This cycle built year on year to the point that I was very much used to putting my life in Australia on hold for months on end, while jamming the essentials to ride, race, eat, sleep and repeat into a backpack and bike box for a few months of travel.
While I can tick off so many epic riding destinations and events through Europe and North America, my travel in anywhere like the Middle East, Asia or South America was nearly non-existent. I'd been to the Cape Epic a few times, ventured to Sri Lanka and traipsed across the steppe in Mongolia. In 2018 I noticed the Arabian Epic Series was being created, with stage races and marathons being hosted across Jordan, The United Arab Emirates and Oman. I've always had a keen interest in marathons and stage races, and when the offer to visit Jordan for the 4-day Arabian Epic Series Jordan Stage Race came up, I contacted my team mate Justin Morris and we started planning our visit to the Middle East.
Fast forward a few months, and I was on a plane to Jordan in early February 2020. The world had started to change, and on the flight to Dubai and then on to Queen Alia International Airport south of Amman, Jordan, I had a whole row of seats to myself.
This was the second year the Arabian Epic Series Jordan Stage Race had run, so I had some basic ideas of what to expect from the event. Firstly, it would be low in competitor numbers, but high in competitor support. So as I stepped off the flight and walked towards customs with my passport and travel visas at the ready, I saw a woman holding a sign with my name on it.
“Mr Blewitt? This way please, I will guide you through customs. Mr Morris is already at the hotel with head wife Morgan.” Oh yeah, polygamy.
I was fast tracked through customs and guided to a driver and car to take me into Amman. This was a similar approach to landing for events in Sri Lanka and Mongolia. Mountain bike events act as small, but important, tourism opportunities to showcase the places they go, and local government agencies. Funnily enough it does allow you to switch off a little, look around, and take everything in, spotting the small and large changes that make each country and their culture unique.
Arrival in Amman:
As far as locations to start a stage race, Amman would be one of the least likely settings if you're used to Australian events. This is not Cape to Cape, and you aren't based right where the trails will start. With about 30 competitors signed up for the event and experience, we all arrived at the event hotel depending on our travel schedules, and were quick to build bikes and see some sights.
Jordan is at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, so there are far more historical sights to see than you might find at the start of an Australian stage race or mountain bike event. We jumped in a taxi to the citdael, to take a look through the Roman ruins and Umayyad Palace. The location of the palace (predominantly ruins) sits high on a hill, overlooking a huge Roman amphitheatre, with s stack of houses covering the hillside behind it.
It's warm in the winter sun, and sitting on the steps of the amphitheatre it is hard to grasp just how long this imposing structure has been in place and how many people have sat there. The amphitheatre is said to have been built in honour of Emporer Antonious Pius, which dates it to the 2nd century.
We have a rich indigenous history in Australia that often isn't as understood as it should be. But sitting in a bustling city, on the steps of an amphitheatre nearly 2000 years old, in a country that borders areas with so much ongoing turmoil, it was wild to think we were just there to ride our bikes. Of course, I think travel is about much more than that, and each day that followed would not only deliver some hard bike racing, but also discoveries and experiences in ancient sites around Jordan.
The following morning, we took the coach to the prologue location in Wasfi Al Tal Forrest just outside Amman. We spotted the Redbull start arch as we turned off the motorway, and parked alongside the start area complete with barista and music. The forest is named after Jordan's 15th prime minister, Wasfi Tal, the son of one of Jordan's most prominent poets. He was assassinated in Egypt in 1971.
The forest is still in a desert, but the high location afforded views across the surrounding areas. In time trial start sequences, we took off one by one, tackling the wind, the dirt and the clock. There was singletrack winding under the strees and over rock ledges, and long stretches of dirt roads through the forest. The climb back to the start was unrelenting and steep, accompanied by the usual chorus in developing nations – barking dogs.
While my result was less than impressive, the finish was like almost any other bike race. Refreshments thrust into your hands, photos, high fives with others, and of course recounting different challenges thast were presented. We all ended up back on the coach and later went out for a sumptuous traditional meal a mere 500m bus ride from the hotel. Tomorrow we would race to the Dead Sea.
Stage One – the race to the Dead Sea:
We loaded on the bus the next morning, before unpacking at a restaurant on the outskirts of Amman. Amman is atop a rolling plateau, so while we descended out of the city to start the race, this stage would still have a lot of downhill considering we would start at 1000m be finishing near the Dead Sea, which is 200m below sea level.
A cold start turned hot as we sped up the hill, despite rolling out neutral behind the race director's car. I flatted as we descended into some small fields along a creek bed, not fussed as there would be a proper re-start on the outskirts of town. But maybe something got lost in translation, as when I got moving again, along with some Italians we went the wrong way out of a river crossing, and then were left to chase once back on course!
Leaving the smaller villages, the roads turned to dirt and we entered rolling hills. The red dirt started to resemble a moonscape, and the scattered farms were a glimpse into what eeking out a living in this environment entailed. Every piece of dirt was shaped to catch water and keep it where it needed to be near crops, and rudimentary enclosures for goats were created from whatever would keep them in.
The road climbed up and over ridgelines, with a vast moonscape infront. One by one I would catch some other riders, but I knew those I was close to on general classification were long gone.
The descent to the sea was fast, with lots of high speed corners on loose, red dirt. Rough sand lead to the finish arch near the top of the Dead Sea, with what I'd grown accustomed to seeing – the barista, packets of hummus and breadsticks to dip them in, and of course some of the local riders practicing their wheelies.
Of course, the day wasn't done. We packed into the coach, and visited the site where Jesus was baptised, looking across the river to Israel. Living in a country where a vast ocean is our border makes a line in the sand, or river, a difficult prospect for a border, and one that can cause so much conflict.
We moved on to the Holiday Inn Dead Sea Resort, which seemed a world away from where we had been racing. We could take a dip in the Dead Sea, scrub down afterwards and enjoy the comforts (and buffet!) of the restaurant. The long walk down to the water's edge to float around in the saline water was a stark reminder that this body of water is in crisis.
Stage two – Climbing Mt Nebo:
Funnily enough, I live at the foot of another Mt Nebo here in Queensland. But on this stage we started right in the resort, crossed a major road under police escort, and climbed high into the hills of biblical stories.
By now, we knew the Belgian rider Jan was the strongest in the race. He values diamonds in Dubai but he's still Belgian, he loves bike racing. A couple of the Jordanian national team were also very, very strong. But their support is limited. They frequently suffered flat tyres from pinch flats to tubes, and one rider's Cannondale Scalpel was a hardtail due to no access to suspension servicing. The rear shock had been replaced by a length of pipe.
Still, he and Jan put us to the sword as we climbed upwards towards Mt Nebo, in a ferocious katabatic wind that swept of the high peak. At times, it was like riding on another planet. We followed the GPS route on our computers, verified by pink paint on red rocks. I was grateful for my team mate Justin's experience as a professional road racer as he was consistent in the winds. We climbed upwards through tiny valley fire roads carved into steep rock. At times we would dip into a small farm, get chased by dogs, or gazed at by curious locals, all while trying to keep the race leaders in sight.
Justin and I were joined by Christoph from Germany. We would edge away on the rocky descents thanks to the benefits afforded by dual suspension. But he would claw his way back on his hardtail, in an unending display of perseverence. Justin and I descended out of the high Mt Nebo village and through some rough, barely there double tracks in desert farmland. We would take turns leading, dodging roosters, dogs, deep wheel depth wash outs or steel reo sticking out of the ground. This is typical of bike racing in developing countries, the challenges that lie ahead are not what you might expect when riding on groomed trails. You need to be on high alert the whole time, while still racing at your limit.
With the wind now sweeping up the valleys, we had a cruel headwind across the rocky, barren landscape. The shells of old buildings were the husks of farms that haven't survived. Be that for environmental reasons or otherwise, I couldn't be sure. While Jordan is a remarkably stable element of the Middle East, the region has had a long, turbulent history.
We fought tooth and nail to the finish within the resort battling each other, the terrain and the wind. Howling brakes over the finish line causing many holiday-makers to look around in wonder. With the expanse of the Dead Sea in front of us, the difference between the finish line and race route could not have been more stark.
We were on the move again this evening, after another soak and scrub down in the Dead Sea – and of course a big meal at the buffet! Our long drive took us to a hotel on a high plain – but the location didn't reveal itself until the following morning.
Stage 3 – Crusaders and the city of rock:
If I'm honest, I was a little dismayed to leave the 5 star Holiday Inn Dead Sea Resort and bundle into a coach for a few hours, to jam open the tin door of my hotel room. We ate a late dinner in Bedouin tent below the hotel, and breakfast was in the same place. Of course, now we could see Shoubak Castle that sat opposite us. The 12th Centruy castle was built by crusaders, one of many in the Middle East. Many outer walls are gone, however the castle has never been fully excavated. Their are tunnels that go to spring fed cisterns, and apparantly more that are escape routes to other valleys.
Our traditional breakfast of tea, breads and hummus needed to kickstart our legs for one last stage, racing over the ridgeline and descending to Petra.
The fertile plateau delivered winds and decisive conditions, with a lead group of two riding away from us. Jan de Henau had attacked, with Ameen Saed in tow. Like the previous day, we traversed villages and remote terrain, occasionally passing through towns. I spent much of the day alone, but some with Christoph as well, as we climbed high in the desert and even past remnant patches of snow.
The whole time, we had an expanse to our right, as the deep valley where Petra lies lay waiting. We had around 1500m to descend, which was done on rough double track, dirt roads and even an expanse of highway.
We tore into Wadi Musa, the village that serves as a base for the ancient city of Petra, with views over the rocky monoliths beyond. Our finish was up the valley, near the back entrance to Petra. We passed cave dwellings and turned hard left towards a vertical wall of red rock, with the familiar Red Bull finish arch. Ameen had won the stage, Jan won overall, and Justin was 2nd overall while Christoph was 3rd and I was 4th. We shared laughter, hummus and breadsticks and some fresh coffee while cheering on the other riders.
But of course – the day was not done. We packed our bikes and pulled on some clothes, to go and buy tickets for a visit to Petra. Our guide for the whole event took us down the long, winding path into Petra. Past the horse farms. Past the cave houses. We studied in awe at how the Nabatean civilisation had sourced water for the city, but also controlled it to prevent flooding. There were covered aquaducts dug into the steep walls of the entry gorge, channeling water to the city. A huge bypass had been dug by the Nabateans right at the city gates, to prevent catastrophic flooding.
The gorge is so narrow above us as we walk down, we can barely see the twilight sky above us. As The Treasury reveals itself infront of us, no one speaks. Sure, it wasn't actually a treasury, but the scale of Petra is hard to understand until you're there. Of course, it is actually a mausoleum, but was assumed to be a treasury given how ornate the facade is. Each facade is carved top down, and the work required to get the proportions right is amazing.
Up and down the valley you can see similar facades, some are less elaborate, some or more decayed. There's a Roman amphitheatre, high set 'apartments' and hiking trails that traverse the rocky buttresses above. With my flight out of Amman booked for that very evening, I already knew I was leaving too soon.
I'm really lucky that the entirety of my adult life has revolved around bikes. From the people I meet, the work I do, the memories I hold and the places I go – bikes are at the core. And again, riding bikes took me to Jordan, but at the same time I was able to get just a small glimpse into the history of another part of the world. I didn't rail a single berm, take a corner around a tree or ride any flow trails over the 4-days of racing in Jordan. But travelling there for the Arabian Epic Series Jordan Stage Race is something I will never forget, for the experiences on the bike and off it.
All about riding in Jordan:
Many of the events in the Arabian Epic Series are currently in limbo, but Cycling Jordan were the company on the ground who made the event happen. When our borders open, they can assist your discovery of Jordan by bike.
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