Contador handily wins first-ever Tour de Jerusalem

Local road rider Ran Margoliot takes second place, Israeli champion Niv Libner finishes in third.

December 7, 2011 02:40
Riders in the Tour de Jerusalem

Riders in the Tour de Jerusalem 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

The Western Wall has seen its share of famous and distinguished visitors over the centuries. But few of them arrive hurtling down the hill at speeds of over 60 kph, spinning on the thinnest of wheels, taking tight corners over bumpy cobblestone roads.

That’s how Alberto Contador, the threetime Tour de France winner, zoomed past the Western Wall as he handily beat more than 100 cyclists from Israel and the Saxo Bank team in the first-ever Tour de Jerusalem criterium race, or crit, a shortcourse race, on Tuesday night. Contador finished the 10 laps of a 2.8 km. loop through the Old City in a staggering 53 minutes, 7 seconds.

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In a storybook ending, Israeli Ran Margoliot, who signed a contract with the Saxo Bank team in September, captured second place on his home turf, finishing in 53:24. Third place also went to a local: The Israeli champion road rider Niv Libner in 53:28.

“Everything has been really exciting, meeting [president Shimon] Peres and then going to Yad Vashem, this whole race and the fact that they’re closing the Old City for this event is amazing,” an ecstatic Margoliot said before the race.

First Jerusalem Marathon hits City of Gold streets

Contador and his Saxo Bank team have been in Israel for a week for a training camp, including a community ride to bring attention to the Galilee on Saturday and laying the foundations for a cycling school for Jews and Arabs in Acre called “Cycling for Peace: With Love and Good Energies.”

Throughout his trip, Contador has declined to address the doping scandal that is currently under investigation, endangering his shot at competing in the next Tour de France.

The Tour de Jerusalem was the team’s last group event in Israel before it continues with training camps in other countries ahead of the Tour de France, which begins June 30.

The Tour de Jerusalem course was a rollicking ride through history: tight turns inside the Armenian Quarter, daunting downhills with hairpin turns, and an insane climb from the Dung Gate up and over Mount Zion.

I joined for the first warm-up lap, bound and determined that no matter what happened, Contador would not quadruple- lap me. In addition to an intimate knowledge of the ups and downs of Jerusalem’s hills I’ve gained as a bike commuter over the past two years, I figured I had another advantage over Contador: the fact that once I sprinted up the hill from Dung Gate to Mount Zion after inhaling multiple lungfuls of tear gas after leaving a riot in Silwan. Pepper spray isn’t on the International Cycling Union list of banned substances, right?

“It was a nice experience through the Old City, it’s quite unique, really the only place like it,” Nick Nuyens, a Saxo Bank rider from Belgium, said after finishing the race. “Going through the city in the evening was beautiful but pretty hard. They were short laps but all ups and downs,” he said.

The steep downhills ended poorly for at least one Saxo Bank rider, who crashed on the first lap in the precipitous decline to the Western Wall and was evacuated from the course by Magen David Adom. The rider was not seriously injured and later returned to the hotel.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also joined for the warm-up lap, riding in front of the pack with Contador, pointing out landmarks along the way.

“When I looked back and saw the peloton [pack] behind me, I was filled with pride and excitement,” Barkat said as he watched the riders zoom by later in the race. “Also, to see these images on the big screen that are being broadcast around the world, that’s the best marketing for Jerusalem that there is,” he said, gesturing to a live feed of the race that was being broadcasted on an ancient wall.

Before the race, Barkat praised Saxo Bank for taking the initiative to visit Israel and encouraging the city to hastily organize its first crit race, helping to “integrate sports with the holy city,” he said.

The race was also a celebration of Israel’s growing cycling culture. More than 30 riders joined the first lap from the Alyn Hospital’s Wheels of Love, an annual long-distance ride that raises money for the rehabilitation hospital in the capital and attracts riders from around the world.

Fourteen-year-old Itai Alahanaty was one of the youngest Alyn riders. Alahanaty, who spent half a year at Alyn in 2006 while recovering from a brain tumor, couldn’t believe his luck when Saxo Bank owner Bjarne Riis signed his helmet.

“This is just so fun,” the budding cyclist said as he jumped up and down with the cheering crowd at Jaffa Gate.

And the race was also a celebration of Jerusalem. We set off as the sun was setting, casting pink and golden light across the walls. Sprinting over the cobblestones made my teeth chatter but also made me laugh as I tried to imagine where else you could fit so much history, and so many uphills, into 2.8 kilometers. And as I pumped my pedals for all I was worth, I drank in the views of the purple sky and the Judean Mountains rolling off into the horizon as we climbed Mount Zion. The panorama was breathtaking – and the hill was as well.

Barkat vowed to make the Tour de Jerusalem race a yearly event, on par with the Jerusalem Marathon. Contador may not be back here for the next tour, but hundreds of other cyclists will.

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