The world-famous Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s three grand tours, is to begin in Jerusalem on Friday, May 4, a momentous occasion for Israeli sports and a high point for one of its most ambitious projects.
The race is to begin with 176 of the world’s top cyclists competing against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s Old City, before continuing with road stages between Haifa and Tel Aviv (167 km.) and Beersheba and Eilat (226 km.). The riders will then enjoy one rest day, before resuming the 21-stage, three-week race in southern Italy.
Since 2006, the Giro has commenced every other year with a high-profile “Big Start” outside Italy. Previous Big Starts have brought the Giro to Holland, Denmark, Northern Ireland and Belgium. This year’s Big Start in Israel will be the first time the Giro, the Tour de France or the Vuelta a Espana has been held outside Europe.
The honorary president of Big Start Israel, Sylvan Adams, is the driving force behind the development of Israeli cycling and the Giro’s arrival in Israel.
“This historic Big Start of the 101st edition of the Giro is about showcasing our country to hundreds of millions of TV and live spectators: our beautiful outdoor scenery, sharing our history, our culture and, most of all, our people, in this diverse, free, pluralistic and fiercely democratic society,” said Adams ahead of the race.
“This is a project about Zionism,” added Adams. “About inviting 800 million TV viewers to come see our country. The beauty of cycling is that it is outdoors and it will allow us to show the country. How else could we dream about having so many people come and see our normal Israel, the Israel they don’t necessarily read about every day in the newspaper?” Ensuring three smooth days of cycling will require an unprecedented logistical operation, involving governmental bodies and other official agencies. In addition to the competitors, officials and world media, tens of thousands of tourists and cycling enthusiasts are expected to arrive in Israel to experience the Giro d’Italia.
The race will be a major boost for cycling’s growing popularity in Israel.
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 general manager of the country’s only professional team, the Israel Cycling Academy, and team co-founder, Israeli businessman Ron Baron, to set out four 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 Giro would begin in Jerusalem in 2018.
The 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 I just wasn’t good enough.”
Margaliot explained how ICA grew in ambition and diversified its goals with last year’s addition of Israeli-Canadian philanthropist 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,” Margaliot continued.
Adams’s support has seen the team’s budget almost double ahead of the 2018 season, standing at more than €5 million.
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 squad for the Giro will include eight riders in all, with two of them Israeli, making them the first blue-and-white cyclists to compete in a grand tour.
This year’s Giro is also being used as an opportunity to pay tribute to legendary Italian cyclist Gino Bartali, a three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia. Bartali helped rescue hundreds of Italian Jews during the Holocaust and was recognized by Yad Vashem in 2013 as Righteous Among the Nations.
“The start from Jerusalem is a metaphorical bridge between our two lands, made up of history, culture and traditions,” said Italy’s Sports Minister Luca Lotti.
“There is another aspect that makes me particularly proud: the fact that this edition of the Giro d’Italia will celebrate the memory of the great Gino Bartali. It is beautiful that he is remembered right here in Jerusalem, because the great ‘Ginettaccio’ – as he was named by his fans and all his fellow sportsmen who loved and followed him – was not just a great champion of sport. He was also an extraordinary champion of life, and a man of heroic virtues, and this needs to be commemorated and shared, especially with the younger generations... never to be forgotten,” Lotti continued.
Cycling’s biggest names will be in Israel, including four-time Tour de France winner Britain’s Chris Froome, who is attempting to become the first rider in 20 years to claim the Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double. Froome won the Tour de France for a fourth time in five years last July before going on to become the first Briton to claim victory in the Vuelta. If he wins the Giro he would be only the third rider to hold all three grand tour titles at once.
ICA has far more modest goals, being able to mark off yet another amazing accomplishment as its riders line up alongside the best in the world next Friday.
“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 an Israeli rider 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.
“Cycling can bridge differences between people from many backgrounds. It can bridge 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.”