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Perhaps I should have regarded it as a bad omen that my borrowed hybrid bicycle somehow punctured its tire the day before the largest cycling relay race of the year, but after getting the tire patched up by Sari at midnight in Cycling Jordan, I thought that everything would be taken care of. We had three bikes (Rami brought his mountain bike as a spare), copious supplies sponsored Red Bull, and a sack of Snickers bars. What we didn’t have, though, was extra tubes for the hybrid. We knew we were walking into possible danger with that carefree disregard of proper safety procedure, but there were simply no hybrid tires to be found in the entire country, as we found out…they needed to be specially imported from the America or Europe.

It was too late to do anything about it now, and we cheerfully piled into our trusty silver Intracom pickup truck. Perhaps it was the copious amounts of sugar in our bloodstream, the onions and garlic from the spaghetti dinner, or merely lack of sleep, but we were in giddy high spirits as we roared down the highway, shouting and waving out the windows at other bike-laden trucks. The twinkling lights of the Palestinian/Israeli towns on the other side of the Jordan River greeted us as we approached the foggy Dead Sea, and after some confusion as to where we were actually supposed to start, we met up with the rest of the starting trucks and exited into the warm night air.

Last year, I was a stranger to the Dead2Red biking groups, but this year, I felt like I knew at least half of the people involved! I found Aaron and Laura with their own biking group and rented mountain bikes, looking doubly determined and in equally high spirits. Rob from choir was ready to head out a half-hour early with the single riders, and I told him about my friends Luay and Kamal from last year who had preceded him in the lonely solo 250 kilometers, the latter on a mountain bike. I high-fived the gregarious Samir, the organizer of the entire event who had accompanied Cycling Jordan’s trip to Beyda last year and he shouted “Free sandwiches for everybody!” while yanking open the back of his pickup truck to reveal a crate-load of turkey sandwiches. All the guys from Cycling Jordan were there, like Sari, Hussein, Sinnan, and Sa’ad and his son. The atmosphere was festive as we unloaded Omar’s sleek 5-kilo racing bike from our truck and we all agreed that the weather was certainly so much warmer and nicer than last year. And what a pleasant breeze!
*cue ominous foreshadowing music*

"This is the bike that's going to win us a trophy!" I roared giddily. "Why does he smell like sugary drinks?" they asked.

"This is the bike that's going to win us a trophy!" I roared giddily. "Why does he smell like sugary drinks?" they asked.

We had already decided on our racing order. Rami would go first, clearing the way to take the lead early. “Don’t be afraid to use your elbows,” we told him. We were joking, mostly. Then, after five kilometers, I’d take over on the hybrid bike, followed by Omar, then Micha, and finally Andrew. After the solo riders left at 3:30 AM, everyone quieted down a little bit, focusing on stretching, testing their bikes, and discussing strategies with friends. As for me, I was trying to help some friends of mine from choir that were on their way down from Amman when their support vehicle got not one but two flat tires, leaving them stranded still 20 kilometers from the start line. They barely made it in time for the start at 4 AM, but they had arrived by the time the pistol cracked, sending the ~20 bikers from the 3 and 5 person flying into the darkness.

Just like last year, our support truck was close behind them, and our four pairs of eyes strained to find Rami in the mass of juking and jiving reflective jerseys. This year, Samir and his team mandated that all runners and cyclists must wear the provided reflective jerseys during the nighttime hours, on pain of disqualification, and it definitely made it harder to pick Rami out of the crowd. After a few minutes, we found him and shouted encouragement as he climbed up the first couple small hills near the large potash factories of the Dead Sea.

It seemed like only a few minutes had passed before Rami called out for me to replace him, and before I even knew what was happening, the car was careening to a halt, and I was leaping out the door. Last year, team DRed Shaheen did 10 kilometer sprints, and this year’s 5 KM’s made things seem a lot more frantic. Rami was already right on me as I grabbed the hybrid out of the truck bed, checked the seat height…and the tires…and then I was off!

Those reflective vests definitely did their job...but made it much harder for cameras with flash!

Those reflective vests definitely did their job...but made it much harder for cameras with flash!

By the time I had started my first stretch last year, we were already 40 kilometers into the race and fifty minutes had already passed, leaving me to enjoy a leisurely and lonely ride for my first ride of the night. Not so in 2010! This time, we were five kilometers in, I was surrounded by cars and other cyclists, and I was on a much lighter hybrid than Rami’s heavy-duty mountain bike of yesteryear. Gritting my teeth, I pounded up the hill in front of me as cyclists whipped past me like buzzing hornets, their own reflectors glowing back at me from the light of my front lamp.

As I crested the first hill, the wind hit me full in the face for the first time and I was immediately rendered blind in my left eye as my contact lens slipped out of place, turning the already-dim world around me into a bizarre kaleidoscope of shifting headlights and reflectors. Blinking furiously and beginning to feel my eyes water, I hunched down as low as I could into the bike seat, turning my face almost parallel to the ground and only chancing glances up every few seconds to ensure I wasn’t about to slam into anyone or anything. The angry wind whistled around me, tearing at my jersey, and I could hear the trucks behind me, and the distant whine of bike chains biting into gears.

Down in the valley once more between hills, my left eye mostly returned to normal and now I could see my chance, both literally and figuratively. There were two cyclists in front of me, drafting off each other. They both had road bikes, and I only a hybrid, but I was high on adrenaline and Red Bull and flitted around them, passing them both easily on the next uphill and maintaining a steadily growing lead past them. Two more bikers on mountain bikes were in front of me, and I was on them in seconds, leaving me with empty clear road ahead and the sounds of the other cars and bikes safely growing more distant behind me.

My five kilometers was over in about six or seven minutes, and I saw the glow of the Intracom truck ahead of me, and Omar unloading his racing bike from the back. As I slid to a halt, Omar darted forward, faster than any of us before, leaving only a dusty breeze which almost dislocated my contact again. Back in the car, Micha, Andrew and Rami congratulated me on my first stretch, but we didn’t have time to talk; at the rate of speed Omar was flying down the road ahead of us, we would need to get in front of him again within minutes to be ready to switch to Micha and the hybrid.

After Micha finished her first stretch and Andrew had started off, she leaned against the truck, breathing heavily. “There are dogs out there!” she gasped, catching her breath. “And they were coming after me!” She explained to Omar, Rami and myself that after the truck pulled ahead to get ready for her finish, dogs had appeared at the side of the road, dashing from the ditches and snapping at her and howling. I had seen one at the bottom of the hill watching her when I got out of the car to help her with the bike, but I hadn’t realized it had been that bad. We apologized to her and resolved to keep a closer eye on each other to make sure that we weren’t inadvertently abandoning anyone to the hounds.

With only 20 kilometers separating each racer from their next round, it didn’t take long before Rami was was out the door, leaving me to hurriedly buckle on my helmet and get my headphones ready. I was only a few minutes into my ride when I realized how much…lighter…I felt, and then looked down with a sinking feeling at my reflector-less body. I had apparently forgotten to put on my reflector jacket after giving it to Andrew to use, and now I was a defenseless and technically rule-breaking biker. I was sincerely glad to be a long way away from any other cyclists who might try to later get me disqualified, but as I pedaled grimly onward in front of the support truck, I heard the awful sound of another car behind me pulling up alongside my team and driving next to them. I chanced a look back under my arm and sure enough, I glimpsed the flashing yellow lights of one of the race official’s cars. I was sure I was going to be pulled off the road at any minute and thoroughly dressed-down for my transgression.

But nothing happened. I looked back again, could see Omar talking to the official, and then the car sped up and disappeared down the road. The extra nervous adrenaline in my system spurred me to go even faster, and after I finished a few minutes later, I collapsed into the passenger truck and wheezed out, “what did the officials want?!?” Someone shrugged (I don’t recall who was driving; memory is a bit hazy) and said, “They were just telling us to keep the hazard blinkers on for safety.” They all teased me for forgetting the safety jacket, but theorized that because I was biking directly in the high-beams of the truck, the bright white of my Intracom jersey was reflective enough that it easily passed a glance inspection. If it had been Rami, wearing his black and silver biking suit with only reflective patches on it, we wouldn’t have been so lucky.

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As we approached That %#$@ Hill, we recalled the Samir’s warnings that there was a little bit of “road work” going on, which in this case meant that all of the asphalt had been torn out. Remembering how Tareef’s Terminator-esque biking team tore past Galen last year, we were now in a position to make up for lost time on any team in front of us. Rami chuckled, “I knew there was a good reason I brought my mountain bike,” and we had to agree – none of us wanted to take the narrow-wheeled hybrid or road bike over that sea of gravel. The stretch of broken road was only about 200 meters long, which Rami easily demolished on his bike; after all, it’s what it was designed to do! Omar was there moments later on his road bike to take over for the rest of the climb – and this time, there were no Tareef cyclists to draft off him and take over. We passed That %#$@ Hill in record time, by now in the full morning sunlight.

The next half hour/hour is kind of hazy for me, because it was around here that my lack of sleep merged with my constant consumption of red bull and I slumped woozily against the car door and passed out. There’s a funny video clip of Rami filming us in the car, first Andrew driving, then Micha in the back, and then me half-unconscious in the backseat. “We’re saving him for the end,” Andrew explains in the video, to which I sleepily grunt, “Yeah, something like that.” I made it up for it, though! – Once I woke up, and got ahold of my Snickers bars again, I felt like I had my second wind.

We passed through many small villages like this...I'm sure that we must have been quite interesting-looking to the locals!

We passed through many small villages like this...I'm sure that we must have been quite interesting-looking to the locals!

It was about this time that the hybrid bike decided that it was finished racing for the day, and promptly decided to get flats and slow leaks every time someone sat down on it. Micha and I were the only ones using it, but I had already started testing out the road bike to switch onto it as soon as possible. It wasn’t Galen’s Italian dream of a bike, of course, but Omar’s Giant-brand bicycle was more than serviceable, even taking into account that the seat was set for people six centimeters shorter than I was, making me feel like an awkwardly large Giant in my own right. Or a bear on a unicycle.

Andrew makes himself comfortable in what will become the usual repair spot for this troublesome bike

Andrew makes himself comfortable in what will become the usual repair spot for this troublesome bike

The hybrid required patching, or refilling, or some sort of maintenance every time we used it. After one such stop, we pulled up at a police checkpoint about 100 kilometers into the ride, where the two police officers gawked at us, fish-like, for several minutes from their office before coming out to poke at the bicycles as we were working and trying to get the front wheel back on. They asked asinine questions for a good five minutes about what we were all doing and why, and then took one of our 2-liter bottles of water from us back into their office. I was simply dumbfounded by their stupidity and complete lack of sense. What kind of police officer would take water away from a biking team? They’re sitting in an office all day with a fan on them! It was simply ridiculous, and although my teammates muttered to me, “let it go, Zach; forget about the water,” I’m sure that my anger showed on my sunburnt face.

Unlike last year, we had companionship from other teams for almost the entire trip. In 2009, we saw nary a single soul after the first few hours until our arrival, but this time, we passed several other solo bikers and three-person teams in the late morning. As we approached one of the Bike Rush company’s trucks, I briefly glimpsed my choir friend Rob’s gleaming road bike, his primary companion for the next six hours. I was in the rear passenger’s seat at the time, and waved to him as we passed. “I love all you guys!” I heard him yell out, and the last I saw of him until the awards ceremony that night was someone leaning out of the window of his support truck to feed him a peeled banana. Now that’s teammate service!

About two-thirds of the way through the race, we came across another Cycling Jordan team, comprised of Sinnan, Osama, and Salaam. As a team of three, we weren’t in competition with each other and as C-J friends and fellow bikers, we cheered each other on and in my case, even gave me some of their sandwiches and a ride when my own team “accidentally” left me behind…of course, that may have been because I was taking a bit too long photographing instead of getting into the truck.

Seconds after I took this picture of Micha, the Intracom truck suddenly peeled away after her. Give me a break, guys!

Seconds after I took this picture of Micha, the Intracom truck suddenly peeled away after her. Give me a break, guys!

Only a few dozen kilometers outside of Aqaba, just when we thought we’d finally catch a break and a climactic downhill after our hours of straining up the side of Wadi Araba, we discovered that in fact the hill we were biking up was actually shielding us from massive windstorms that were now suddenly hitting us full in the face. We were already tired, sweaty, and running out of Snickers and Red Bull, and now this! Our hybrid bike was almost completely out of commission, flattening either its front or its rear tire seemingly at whim, and I had resigned myself to “bear-on-a-unicycle” status with the road bike. Taking the time to adjust the seat on the road bike (requiring an allen key as there was no quick-release) lost us precious time and the C-J team of three had soon pulled ahead of us and was gone over the horizon. At least we had a “pleasant” breeze now.

We were at a quandary now…should we draft off of the truck, or shouldn’t we? Bicyclists had been drafting off each other for the entire journey; we had been doing it with Sinnan’s team just an hour earlier. We knew that it was a gray area to draft off of a vehicle; it was one of the things that Tareef had caught so much flack for last year with their victories. But the wind was quite literally pushing us backwards at times, especially in small uphills, and we decided that we had to take the risk of drafting in some areas – or at least until we got into Aqaba.

The last downhill on the city's outskirts. The wind was at last blocked by the buildings ahead, and Rami could go at full speed!

The last downhill on the city's outskirts. The wind was at last blocked by the buildings ahead, so Rami could go at full speed!

This year, it was Rami who had the nerve-wracking, death-defying experience of biking at high speeds through cars, buses, and absent-minded pedestrians. He had the advantage, of course, of not needing to wait for traffic lights, and we lost him in the city while we were stopped at the first one. Shiookh (Arabic plural form of sheikh) stared at us wide-eyed, and children shrieked and pointed at Andrew and me, hanging out of the windows of the truck in our matching uniforms and taking pictures. We saw the last of the running teams on Aqaba’s sidewalks having an even rougher time of it, dodging around robed men and slow-moving tourists, sprinting as fast as they were able to after almost 22 straight hours of running. To make matters worse for all of us, through bad luck we happened to be going through the city exactly as the noon Call to Prayer had finished, causing the streets to be especially busy and people to be paying more attention to chatting with their fellow congregants instead of what was going on in front of them as they stepped out into the street.

We caught up with Rami on the far side of the city, just in front of the second-to-last huge hill separating us from the Tala Bay hotel and finish line. “That looked pretty dangerous,” I told him as I took the bike from him and started up the hill, but of course I wished it had been me on the streets like last year! The smell of the salty air tickled my nose and the truck followed me slowly up the hill, filled with my hooting and hollering teammates and the faint sounds of Arabic dabkeh music coming from the radio. This last road on the way to the resort was wide, clean, and flanked by palm trees, and I was (almost) sorry to give up the bicycle to Omar, our champion, in the face of the last big hill. Okay, to be honest, I was right next to a giant docked freight ship that was unloading a few thousand sheep at that moment, so I was happy to be back inside the car with the air conditioning and the windows sealed!

Omar gamely chugged on, up the last hills and past the public beaches that I had visited with Haitham a year and a half ago on my first visit to Aqaba. Andrew had the truck pull ahead of him for the last few hundred meters so that we could capture our champion’s breathtaking finish under the gently-waving palm fronds and violently-shaking Red Bull inflatable arch. Samir was there at the arch to greet us, and his fellow officials were immediately on hand with our participation medals.

Third place in 9 hours, 11 minutes!

Third place in 9 hours, 11 minutes!

"Red Bull gives you sponsorshiiiiiiiiiiiip"

"Red Bull gives you sponsorshiiiiiiiiiiiip"

Now, I should point out that Dead 2 Red started out as a fun run, just a bunch of runners like Samir and his friends who wanted to do something big like run from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. Originally, there wasn’t even a bicycle component to the relay – that was only added three years ago. But now, it’s evolved into something much more competitive and serious. There are major sponsors, like Red Bull, Aramex, Total, and the Radisson Hotel chain who provide so many things like these medals, the subsidized dinner, and the hotel rooms at cut-rate prices. And with so many things to vie for, cheating is slowly but surely becoming a problem as the relay suffers its growing pains into becoming an international event. They never really bothered to monitor it before, but several of the biking teams were accused of it this year. Several dropped out, including some Tareef teams and some Cycling Jordan teams, or were disqualified.

We learned that we had gotten our third-place finish specifically because two other teams had been embroiled in some sort of cheating mini-scandal, but had they finished, we would have been in fifth place instead. That diminished some of my personal glee over our victory, but it strengthened my resolve to help Samir out with ways that the bicycle competition might be improved upon. I spoke with him a little bit on the subject after the night’s Awards Dinner, and he requested that bicyclists with suggestions be encouraged to submit them, because the officials were still working out better ways to manage this relatively-new aspect of the race.

Last year, all each team received was one small trophy. This year, everyone got medals and a much larger trophy!

Last year, all each placing team received was a small trophy. This year, everyone got placement medals and a much larger trophy!

It was great to spend the rest of the day and the next relaxing at the Radisson, compliments of Intracom’s wonderful sponsorship. I had experienced the beach last year after the race, but never the comfort of the hotel itself. I got the chance to do a little bit of snorkeling with Rami and Omar, and although I had to leave early to have a business meeting in Aqaba, I heard that they did some exploration of a sunken military tank in the bay later in the afternoon. To my parents: don’t worry, I remembered to wear sunblock this year and I only got a little burned on my upper arms and nose.

Even though our time was an hour slower compared with last year’s 8 hours and change, I’m still pleased with it. Without the powerhouse team of Galen and his amazing bike, we definitely lost ground, especially on the uphills. And then that wind almost knocked us flat. I heard from my choir friends in another team that the winds became even worse later on, eventually turning into a sandstorm that lowered their speed to 10 KPH. So, all things considered, I think we did just fine.

Who knows? Perhaps next year, we’ll have the opportunity to give it yet another try – this time, hopefully, with both bicycles functioning at 100%!