It started in sometime around 2006 or 2007. Up until that point, going to Israel never crossed my mind. I’d never seen anything BMX-related from there, plus all I’d really ever heard about this Middle Eastern country was through periodic news stories, and that wasn’t very positive. Israel had always sounded kind of like a war zone, where dodging sporadic incoming missiles was a normal daily routine, like eating breakfast. While I may have the occasional attraction for potentially deleterious scenarios that keep me on my toes, a recipe that includes mixing in worrying about incoming explosives with feeble grinding a ledge does not make an appetizer I want on my travel plate.
Then I stumbled across some skate magazine article about a trip to Israel. Included was a photo of one of the most amazing-looking quarterpipe structures I’d ever laid eyes on, situated in front of a building located in Tel Aviv. From that point on, all I needed to know was that a visit to this unfamiliar land was mandatory, and sooner rather than later, even if it was just to locate and experience that one gem. A trans-Atlantic journey motivated primarily by the prospect of riding one spot? Yep, not the first time a harebrained trip like that has come about.
About a year later, in early 2008, Tom White, Nigel Sylvester, Dave Belcher and Chester Blacksmith came along on a blind date with a city and country none of us knew a damn thing about, nor did we know any natives. I did have a quick email conversation with a rider who lived there, but none of us knew him, or even knew anyone who had met him. Despite a little confusion with that guy once we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, right away we ended up meeting two of the most legit dudes ever: Tal Mazar and, as Tal calls him, the original loose cannon of Israel, Itamar Bavli, a.k.a Jesus. And Tel Aviv turned out to be all that and more.
That trip turned out better than any of us ever could have imagined. There were a number of reasons why. For one, any random eatery around the country serves the undisputed best falafel and hummus on the planet. And two, it was instantly apparent Tel Aviv was just a normal modern city like anywhere else, stacked with countless relatively untouched gems all over the city. Not to mention the entire city is situated on a beach, with beautiful California-esque weather.
And that quarter. In person, it was all it had looked like, and more. The only real downside was that due to being located at the front entrance of the then-Motorola headquarters, it was basically impossible to ride during the day; the only chance of getting two wheels on it was late into the night, while still dodging security, no less. I think we got in one solid night there. There were so many other unique spots we had ridden at that point in the trip, it seemed like everyone else wasn’t as enamored by it as me, though.
When we boarded the plane back home, everyone vowed to come back as soon as humanly possible.The next year, Tom, Nigel and Belcher returned with Navaz to film for Animal’s "Cuts", and Chet organized a WTP trip a year or so after. It seemed like every other month I'd hear of dudes talking about embarking on a journey to what some began referring to as "the new Barcelona." I kept telling Tal and Jesus, “I’m coming back soon; I miss Israel.” They visited the U.S. a few years later, and I said the same thing again. But it didn’t happen. I started sounding like broken record in my periodic email conversations, and I wondered if the right time and opportunity would ever happen again.
This past spring, the stars aligned and a second visit went from a half-baked dream to actual reality—almost six years to the day since that first trip. Finally. This time around, I went with two longtime travel buddies and first time visitors, Jeff Kocsis and Conall Keenan. Following our arrival, while peering out the passenger-side window of Tal’s van, I could see central Tel Aviv still looked like the same awesome city I remembered. There continues to be numerous tower cranes poking out above the skyline, a symbol of the continual growth and upwards-expansion of the city. A few more skyscrapers now dot the skyline. Tal’s small shop called Nightrider, which was tucked away on the second floor of a building in a warehouse district six years prior, is now a legit storefront located a few blocks from the concrete park that was just constructed before I visited the first time. The riding scene has a lot of new faces. Some familiar faces have grown up, but not outgrown their love for cruising on two 20-inch wheels. The influx of Russian riders staying in Tel Aviv has only helped increase the talent pool’s level to new depths. I don’t even remember meeting Itamar and Tal’s prodigy Sar Levi back in ’08, since he was a random young kid just learning to ride. Today “The Baby” absolutely slays it on the streets and is arguably the most talented rider in Israel right now. (Wait until you see his part in the upcoming Nightrider full-length video, “The Great Outdoors”)
Back to that quarter. It’s still there. Only now Motorola relocated its Israel headquarters elsewhere, leaving an abandoned building in its wake. I had also missed the whole planters-intalled-at-the-base-of-the-quarter era (thanks to Itamar and Matt Roe brazenly demolishing them almost three years ago). It’s a full-on free-for-all, as long as it’s not rush hour on the adjoining streets and sidewalks. The rails down the steps are gone too; it’s now better than ever. How long this will last? Who knows. I’m just glad we got our share in on such an unintentional amazing work of art for two wheels.
This time around, there was a lot more to revisiting Israel for me then just that quarter; that was more of a byproduct of the trip than a main focus. We went to new cities I didn’t go to previously, from going an hour north up along the Mediterranean Sea from Tel Aviv to traveling all the way down to the southern tip in Eilat to a mission beyond the Israel border (article on the Egyptian experience dropping in the future). This time I got to see the culture and atmosphere with even more clarity, without the sometimes overwhelming experience of going somewhere for the first time clouding the view.
Of course, Tel Aviv isn’t Pleasantville 100% of the time, since there are still the occasional warning sirens blaring to alert of potential wayward missiles that may have made it past the Iron Dome, like the false alarm we heard while in Be’er Sheva. The consistent conflict between Israel and the Palestinian state has been going on for decades and doesn’t look like it’s ending any time soon, especially with suspended peace talks since last year. I’m not about to get into politics, since as an outsider, I have no place stating anything related to the situation. One thing I do know that all the riders I’ve met and ridden with from Israel are the coolest cats. And I can honestly say I have lifelong friendships with Tal and Itamar, who are a great reflection of the Israeli BMX community, in my opinion. In one of the many conversations during our travels, Itamar stated his view on the situation succinctly: “As an Israeli citizen, I can’t go to Egypt. You can’t go east, north, south. I don’t care about politics; I just care about riding."
At this point in time, bad things can happen pretty much anywhere in the world. No one is “safe.” There are pissed-off people in almost every country these days, though obviously in some more than others. If it’s not a missile coming to hit you, it could be a person coming to hit you. Come across someone in a less than friendly state of mind at the wrong time and shit can go down. It’s the game of odds, something Tal knows well: “Many times, people won’t come to Israel because they think it’s a dangerous place. It’s not dangerous here. Other places are more dangerous. There always could be a suicide bomber, but the chances are low. When the alarm goes off, it can be scary. I feel safe though.” In some areas in the world, the odds of something negative happening can be a lot higher than others. Even with the ebb and flow of rising tension relating to the conflict in Israel, I don’t consider Tel Aviv to be one of those areas. I’m glad I stumbled upon that one photo eight years ago, which helped dissolve whatever preconceived notions I might have had before, and which motivated me to go explore. -RD
Google a list of top countries to visit for skateboarding or BMX, and Israel still probably won't crack the top 20 (even despite all the coverage in recent years). Don't believe everything you read on the web; Gaza strip static, missile strikes and middle east wars that go back to biblical times make going to the middle east seem scary to normal people. We're not normal, we're BMX'ers, we're out for adventure. BMX is the best way experience a new culture and the perfect vehicle to travel with. When I told friends and family I was going to the Israel on a bike trip, they thought I was crazy. I was asked, "What are you going to do, wall ride on the Western Wall?” As with almost all places, don't believe (all) the fear mongering hype. Israel was an absolute treat. I was in a giddy frenzy every time we rolled up to a new spot. It's not just the holy land for Christianity, Judaism and Muslims but soon will be for BMX'ers as well.
The scene is small but growing. Tal at Nightrider Bmx Shop and others throwing events keeps the scene flourishing and innovating. I hope they appreciate and cultivate the amazing scene they've manifested. I started getting depressed that I'd have to leave when I still had 5 days left in the trip. All the locals were very relaxed, friendly and open. The riders welcomed us like old friends. I cannot thank them enough for everything they did. I've been riding longer than Justin Bieber has been alive but I've never seen a BMX scene exist with such a lack of ego. Everyone just encouraged each other. The level of riding by locals was insane. I saw probably 5 tricks at the Nightrider BMX jam at the Tel Aviv skatepark that I had never seen before. The world will see soon enough.
While we were in Israel, we spent most of the time in the city of Tel Aviv. 42% of Israel's population lives in Tel Aviv. It's hard to explain what makes some cities have more spots than others but Tel Aviv got the spot knob turned to 11 and the knob broke off. It was my first time being shocked by the amount of spots in one place. I was shaking my head in disbelief. Barcelona is famous for amazing architecture and an abundance of spots but if you just show up with no clue where to begin to look you're going to have a hard time. Tel Aviv is like a level from a video game. We never used public transport and rode to probably 25 unique and outrageous spots everyday. I don't mean cool curbs and a wobbly rail; I mean street quarter pipes, hips, buttery ledges of every size and shape. Perfect everything, pristine everything, it doesn't even feel like riding street. It seems too easy. You can ride all day unnoticed by the authorities and even try to chat up a hot Army girl with a machine gun around her shoulders. Security is tight in large public areas like shopping malls and train stations, but it's not mall cop or TSA minimum wage bullies. They're respectful and not just on a power trip. They're not out to hassle people enjoying themselves doing what they love. It actually made me feel safer.
All I can say is, go to Israel. Get a stomach ache from laughing so hard with the awesome local riders. Eat awesome street meat or falafel on the cheap. Wink at a beautiful 19 year-old girl with a giant gun. Impress your religious grandma by telling her you went to Israel. Get kid Christmas excited because you never knew such spots this good existed outside of a video game. Drink strong gritty coffee and eat sticky honey baklava after riding all day. Make a pilgrimage. Blessed be thy BMX. -Conall Keenan