It is arguably the most ambitious project currently being undertaken in Israeli sports.
Cycling at the amateur level has mushroomed in popularity in Israel over recent years. But considering the country’s lack of history in the sport at the professional level, it was nothing short of crazy for Ran Margaliot, the team manager of the country’s only professional team, the Israel Cycling Academy, and co-founder, Israeli businessman Ron Baron, to set out three years ago with the target of participating in the Tour de France within five years.
Then again, in 2014 it also seemed like complete madness to even suggest that the world-famous Giro d’Italia
, one of cycling’s three grand tours, will begin in Jerusalem in 2018 before continuing with stages between Haifa and Tel Aviv and Beersheba and Eilat.
But that will indeed happen next May, and the Israel Cycling Academy is set to be there as a full participant, registering another landmark on the way to realizing all its dreams.
Israel Cycling Academy was established in December 2014 with the declared goal of “putting Israel on the bicycle map of the world and providing an opportunity for the next generation of Israeli riders,” as stated by Baron.
Since its inception, ICA has competed in hundreds of races around the world and claimed dozens of victories. In addition to the Pro Continental level outfit, ICA has established an all-Israeli development squad whose young riders also compete internationally.
“This is a fairly unusual project in Israeli sport. We started it from nothing,” said the 29-year-old Margaliot, who retired from pro cycling in 2012 due to a serious injury suffered while he was part of World Tour team Saxo Bank.
“I had a dream to be the first Israeli rider to take part in the Tour de France. I reached one of the top teams in the world, but the bottom line was that I wasn’t good enough.”
Margaliot explained how ICA grew in ambition and diversified its goals with last year’s addition of Israeli-Canadian philanthropist Sylvan Adams as a major backer.
“It was always clear to me that there was no point in the project if we didn’t set ourselves lofty goals. We spoke about reaching the Tour de France from the start,” Margaliot told The Jerusalem Post
“Initially, our only goal was to create a team that will develop Israeli riders. But last year we decided we needed a more significant vision. We wanted to affect Israeli sports, understanding that if we will have riders participating in the biggest races in the world our sport will gain in importance in Israel. Together with Sylvan, we also set the goal of using sport as a platform for showcasing normal Israel, as Sylvan puts it.”
Adams’s support has seen the team’s budget almost double ahead of the 2018 season, standing at more than 5 million euros. ICA’s budget in its first season was a fifth of that.
Thanks to the additional investment, ICA has recruited several notable cyclists such as Ben Hermans of Belgium and Spain’s Ruben Plaza, a stage winner in the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana. The team also includes riders from Colombia, Norway, Italy, and Australia, as well as a former track world champion and four national champions, led by Turkey’s Ahmet Orken.
In all, the team has 24 riders from 16 different countries, among them five Israelis: Brothers Roy and Omer Goldstein, Guy Niv, Guy Sagiv and Aviv Yechezkel.
“We have undoubtedly built the most balanced and strongest team we have ever had to aim for a stage win in every tour we race, but we also made sure to maintain and even strengthen our identity as an Israeli team,” said Margaliot. “Even with an unprecedented schedule of about 240 race days, at least one Israeli rider will represent us in every race.”
ICA will only officially find out in January if it has received a wild-card to the Giro. Each team in the Giro includes eight riders, with at least one of ICA’s representatives to be Israeli. Margaliot is adamant they will earn it by merit.
“Five years ago I could have included an Israeli rider, but I would have known that after four days he would be done,” explained Margaliot, with the Giro, for example, including 21 stages. “Now I actually have Israeli riders who can complete the Giro. They have improved tremendously over recent years thanks to the conditions they are receiving. At their age, I had to work full time and in between find time to train.”
“The name of the game in cycling is training, nutrition and recovery,” he added. “They get all these conditions. They don’t have to worry about anything. We have a staff of 48 people and give our riders the best conditions in the world.”
While the riders spend most of the year abroad, ICA’s new roster will arrive in Israel for its first team camp next week, which will include a boot-camp-style training in the Jerusalem hills and an opportunity for the international riders to get to know the country.
“I cannot wait for the start of the new academy race season,” said Adams. “We have established a much expanded and strong team that includes a series of experienced international cyclists with proven track records, including victories at the world’s greatest races. They join our talented young group who has already gained experience in many races and the Israelis who were promoted from the development team.”
As its riders line up alongside the best in the world ahead of Stage 1 of the Giro in Jerusalem next May, ICA will be able to mark off yet another amazing accomplishment. It has come a long way in a mere three years, but still has its sights set on achieving so much more.
“We want to use this team as a source of inspiration and also as a way to develop a sporting culture in Israel,” said Margaliot. “If Guy Sagiv will do well in the Giro that would be great and important to Israel’s image, but I believe that Israel will benefit the most by what is happening at the grassroots. We have the ambition to create a more sporting society. One of our goals for the next 3-5 years is to leverage events like the Giro and success by these riders to create a real change at the grassroots level.
“Cycling can bridge differences between people from many backgrounds. It can also help overcome real issues that other sports can’t. You can cycle even if you are a paraplegic, blind or overweight,” added Margaliot. “That is why we talk about cycling almost like religious missionaries. But we really believe in it. This sport has the ability to create a better society.”
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