Sometimes not even bicycles and good intentions can bridge political fracture lines.
Gerhard Schönbacher, a former Austrian pro who rode the Tour de France in the late 1970s and early 1980s, dreamed of creating a cycling event that would link Israel, Jordan, and Palestine with bicycles and passion.
His dream of a pan-Middle East gran fondo slated for March crashed straight into the grim reality of politics. Just a few months before the inaugural event, increasing tensions in the region forced Schönbacher’s hand.
“We finally said, ‘Better safe than sorry,’” Schönbacher said. “We put everything into this goal, but I am also a realist. We were all so passionate about this project, but we also had to face the situation as it was.”
Dubbed the Middle East Peace Tour, Schönbacher wanted to try something no one else had done before. He hoped to stitch together a gran fondo route across some of the world’s most disputed borders in a weeklong event from Amman to Jerusalem.
Crazy? Maybe, but Schönbacher wanted to put his belief in the overriding idealism of the persuasive power of sport into action.
Work on the project started five years ago. Last fall, he brought over a group of journalists and friends to ride the route. It was all-systems-go for a first-year event with about 100 participants. Then they weren’t.
Despite having support from governments and officials across the region, events took a turn for the worse when U.S. president Donald Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. That controversial move triggered a series of disturbances and retaliations that continue to rock the region.
“Things changed after Trump moved the embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem,” Schönbacher said. “The whole mood in the area changed. We could feel it. We knew we were walking on thin ice. We only had one choice.”
Schönbacher and a few associates huddled in Vienna in December on a cold wintry morning. They made the only call they could. Protests had erupted across the Middle East. The Gaza Strip and other areas were engulfed with violent demonstrations. It would seem irresponsible to thrust cyclists into such uncertainty, and Schönbacher knew it.
“I was sleepless for three or four nights,” he said in a telephone interview. “The security of the event was paramount. If something happened, how could you live the rest of your life? You bring these people to a peace race, and someone gets hurt? No one wanted to live with that.”
‘We didn’t want this to be political’
What was Schönbacher thinking in the first place? A bike tour across the Middle East?
Schönbacher is a former Tour de France pro and not shy about thinking outside the box. He once strapped himself into skis mounted on top of car and barrel down the road at 220kph, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
He worked on the Tour of Austria and is now the organizer of such events as the Crocodile Trophy across Australia’s Outback and the Alpen Trophy Tour multi-day mountain bike race across the Austrian Alps. During his racing career, he earned the dubious distinction of finishing last in the 1979 and 1980 editions of the Tour de France. He knows bikes and he knows how to run events.
The first kernel was planted more than five years ago. Through mutual skiing buddies, Schönbacher was invited to cycle in Israel. Like many who’ve pedaled through the region, he was immediately enthralled and saw endless possibilities with the diversity of terrain, the Mediterranean weather, and the historical backdrop. With his event-organizing background, Schönbacher’s imagination soon began to spin.
The Middle East remains a cauldron of conflict that has stymied peace negotiations and fueled wars for decades. Despite the never-ending cycle of violence, there’s a burgeoning cycling scene in Israel. Jordanian officials want to promote the sport.
Schönbacher was also encouraged by the success of the “big start” of last year’s Giro d’Italia and hoped to tap into the scene. He saw an opening and dared to dream.
They organized meetings with embassy officials in Vienna from Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. They plotted out a route, taking in some of the iconic sites at Petra, Jerusalem, and the Negev Desert. The focus was on bikes.
“It went straight to the highest levels of government,” he said. “We didn’t want this to be political. We wanted this to be a sporting event that anyone could take part.”
Schönbacher said he had institutional support from Jordanian and Israeli officials. Streets in the center of Amman were set to be closed off to accommodate an opening prologue. They had even worked out logistics to cross between Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, no easy feat even in the best of times.
Schönbacher threw himself into the project and read more than 200 books on the history, politics, and religion of the tumultuous region. He at least wanted to have a better understanding of what he was getting into.
“Sport can often build bridges when politics and religion fail,” he said. “What happens when we build walls? We end up being prisoners in our own jails.”
Schönbacher said he discovered that most people in the region are tired of the seemingly endless cycle of violence. People want peace, not perpetual war. He believed a bike tour could help foster that side of the argument.
“The majority of people want peace,” he said. “We had to stay neutral and we wanted to focus on the event. Bikes can be ambassadors.”
The route would have run from Amman to Jerusalem, intersecting with the Dead Sea, Jericho, the Negev Desert, Petra, Aqaba, and ending on the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. As a bike route, it would have been stunning.
“We knew it was going to be a big challenge,” he said. “Seeing what happened in the Giro only encouraged us.”
Hotels were booked, the route was laid out and logistics were in place. About 100 or so riders had signed on, a good number for a first-year event. They had financial backing to run the event for at least five years. All systems were go. Until they weren’t.
“Everything was finalized and we were ready to go,” Schönbacher said. “Never say never, and maybe someday we can come back
“I have no regrets, but you have to face reality,” he said. “We came close to achieving this dream. We can maybe begin again some day. Things might change. I am an optimist. I believe sport can change the world.”