December training camps often include cross-training and team-building experiences that reach well outside of cycling, but the Cycling Academy riders in Israel over the past 10 days have been combining training for the 2017 season with a daily dose of site-seeing and cultural education about the Middle Eastern country that is rich in history and religious significance for people around the world.
The team visited a Bedouin village to sample a traditional dinner and try out the local four-legged means of transportation. Riders, management and staff visited Masada, site of an ancient Jewish fortress city that was besieged by Romans in the First Century and ended with a mass suicide of nearly 1,000 inhabitants. Riders then swam in the nearby Dead Sea, where the extreme salt and mineral content allows people to float on the surface like an air mattress.
Riders also visited the ancient city of Akka, a former crusaders' fortress that was at one time the largest port in the world and is still inhabited by a religious mix of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Near the end of the camp the team started a ride from the Church of Beatitude, a Catholic house of worship that sits on the edge of the Sea of Galilee on the holy site where Christians believe Jesus walked on water and delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The team ended the camp with a tour of historic Jerusalem and a team presentation in the old city.
The daily excursions serve multiple purposes within the camp, according to team manager Ran Margaliot.
"We want then to have a little fun," Margaliot told Cyclingnews. "They're here in the country, and I think it's important that they experience more than just getting into Facebook after training and stuff. It is important to improve your mind a little bit. They can experience this stuff. They can feel it and taste it."
But the daily trips also played a more important role for riders on Israel's first professional cycling team. Margaliot said he hopes the cultural experience helps his riders understand his home country better and allows the riders to form their own opinions about what the team they're on stands for.
"They will be asked," he said. "One of these guys is going to make an enormous effort one of these days and get an amazing result and will be asked, 'Why do you choose to represent this Israeli team? What does it stand for?' And he needs to know for himself. He needs to establish his own opinion."
New recruit Krists Nielands, a 22-year-old Latvian who ride with Axeon Hagens Berman in 2016, said the Cycling Academy camp was the most unique he's ever experienced.
"We've spent a lot of time on the bikes, but at the same time we are doing a lot of interesting stuff," he said. "We saw desert and we've been hiking and everything. Riding a camel, that was one of the best parts of the camp. So, yeah, it's been a really interesting camp."
"I think what is the most interesting thing in Israel is that this part of Israel looks like Europe, but if you go 100km in the other direction there is just desert. That was a surprise. It's like two countries."