The ocean of tragedies, horror stories, and unimaginable cruelty during the “Black Sabbath Massacre” did not spare the cycling community in Israel. Not one bit.
There was the triathlete who was murdered alongside his whole family, the mountain bikers ambushed and killed on their way to training, the cyclists who hid for hours under bushes to escape the hovering terrorists, the 15-year-old rider who saved his dad’s life in a close escape, and others still missing, their fate unknown. And all the others who survived but will carry the scars of that Saturday morning to the end of their lives.
“It’s such a trauma to all of us that I don’t think we’re ever going to be the same again. Not as a country and not as individuals,” lamented Guy Niv, our first Israeli to ride the Tour de France. Guy spent the last 24 hours going from one funeral of a lost friend to another. Now, he was at the Wolfson hospital, visiting two young wounded cyclists and assuring both that he would ride with them as soon as they recovered. “They are the heroes. I told them that and I meant every word.”
Rafi Shitrit is still struggling to cope with the loss. He’s a chief firefighter in the Western Negev and an avid road and mountain cyclist, one of a close-knit group of 15 to 20 friends in his small, nameless biking club. They were all planning to meet Saturday at 06:30 near Kibbutz Be’eri for their last training before the EPIC ISRAEL mountain biking race. “I guess you can now call it ‘The Last Ride,’” he says dryly, counting the names of his dead friends. One of them was Tomer Shpirer (37). “Tomer was so enthusiastic and excited about the upcoming race,” recalled Shitrit. Tomer was one of the riders who arrived early and as they were preparing for the ride, the first wave of rockets began to explode. They started to disperse. Some made it to safety, but Tomer was ambushed and shot by the Hamas terrorists who were turning the area into a killing field. Another rider, Evgeny Galsky was ambushed and killed not far away. The fate of others would not be known for days to come. “Only today we were told of two others that are confirmed dead,” said Shitrit. “And I am afraid it’s not the end of the list including cyclists that were out there riding who I don’t even know”.
Other cyclists went through nightmarish hours before reaching safety. Such was the terrifying ordeal that Aya Meydan endured on her road bike on the way to join her cycling mate Lior Weizman when hell broke loose. Realizing the terrorists were all around, she hid in a shelter but quickly decided to get rid of her cycling shoes and hide under a bush, hardly breathing for hours. Both decisions saved her life as later she discovered everyone was murdered in that shelter.
She recalled the hours of sheer terror in her story written to the Israeli Bike Panel site yesterday: “I told the guys who were with me that there was no escape, and we should hide in the thorny bushes. As we cared little about the thorns, silently, barely able to breathe. We heard the terrorists on the road; they were riding motorcycles, cars, quads, tractors with plows… all the thoughts in the world raced through my mind at that moment, but I tried to calm myself and not give in to stress. I wore my bike helmet for protection, and removed the shades to prevent the glare from giving my position away…”
Even when she was eventually saved many hours later, there was no real happy ending to be found: “I collapsed on the ground. I couldn’t stand up and just cried… At this point, I had already made contact with my brothers. I was told that my cousin and my nephew were killed. My brother and my niece were wounded and were taken to the hospital. I also managed to talk to my mom at this stage and then completely fell apart. I sat and cried endlessly, tears of a shattered heart that still couldn’t grasp the magnitude of the disaster and how fortunate I had been.”
The tragic news continued to unfold. Lior Weizman, who Aya was on her way to meet, was later found dead. Unlike Aya, he was ambushed and shot dead by the terrorists, adding to the heart-wrenching losses of that dark day.
Within the tragedy, there were unbelievable displays of courage. Zohar Shahar and Itay Cohen, 15-year-old cyclists who had just started their Saturday training ride and hastily got into Zohar’s dad’s support car after the rockets hit, soon encountered a bunch of men with guns. Zohar was the first one to realize that they were terrorists and urged his dad to turn away and escape. They were all hit by a spray of bullets and went through surgeries. “We will do everything to support them and many others who will need our hand,” said Ron Baron, IPT founder, during an emotional visit to Itay’s hospital bed today after the youngster went through a complex surgery on his eye.
The Israel Cycling Federation has written an emotional letter to the UCI, the world cycling governing body, describing the enormity of the devastation and asking for solidarity. “We will stand back on our feet,” it vowed.
Shitrit echoed the sentiment. The tragedy that hit him and his cycling teammates will not turn them away from their bikes: “We are struggling to keep our sanity amidst all this, but we will get over it and will be back on our bikes sooner than later.”