Ammanis are bad drivers. In what appears to be an effort to outdo the British urban car user, who is never without a phone in one hand, residents of Jordan’s capital city tend to carry a minimum of two phones – so neither hand is unencumbered. Ammani drivers also turn without looking and consider the number of lanes painted on a given stretch of road to be more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast law. Don’t get me started on their habit of driving on motorways at night without their lights on.
So cycling in Jordan is a no-no, then? Not at all. But it’s wise to wait until you’re out of town before hopping on the saddle. Luckily there are companies like Cycling Jordan that can provide a vehicle support service for both one-off rides or extended multi-day trips. Their guides will carry your kit in a car or pickup truck, bring water and snacks along, and show you the best routes – all with a cheery smile and a genuine enthusiasm for showing off their country.
Downhill all the way
Mountain biking from the outskirts of Amman to the Dead Sea is one of the country’s showpiece routes. Covering 60 kilometres (40 miles), the ride uses mostly quieter roads, riverside footpaths and car-width back-country gravel tracks, before a short unavoidable section of main road to finish.
The fact that the ride is almost entirely downhill will be music to most ears – and is fairly unsurprising too, given that Amman sits at 700m above sea level and the finish point is around 300m below.
Starting at the King Hussein Ben Talal Mosque, we quickly escaped the confines of the city on little-used back streets, before dropping down to follow the path of a small stream. We dismounted to splash through the water, and paused to help a lorry driver lift a gigantic spare tyre onto the roof of his truck, before our first scheduled stop, the ancient ruin of Qasr al-Abd. The site dates back to 200 BCE but has been subject to frequent demolition and renovation in the intervening two millennia.
From Qasr al-Abd, there’s no avoiding a seriously steep climb, referred to by some Ammani cyclists as “the atheist’s uphill”, because “no man can believe in God as they try to ride up this road”. It’s certainly a test – even with the extra small gears afforded by a mountain bike.
From the top of this ridge, however, it really is all downhill to the Dead Sea. We coasted along gravel paths that evoked the famous strade bianche (white roads) of Tuscany, through the surprisingly green landscapes of northern Jordan, before crossing what seemed like an invisible border line into the dry and dusty terrain one usually associates with the Middle East.
We decided to hop into the truck when our route rejoined the road, opting to take the shortcut to our finale, lured mainly by the promise of a big lunch and some time by a swimming pool. Several hotels at the Dead Sea offer ‘lunch and lounge’ deals, ideal for hungry cyclists with weary legs.
We make short work of the extensive buffet at the Holiday Inn, before retiring to sit by their pool for a couple of hours before sunset.