The most ambitious undertaking in Israeli sports?

Israel’s first pro cycling team aims to build interest at home with a little help from one of the sport’s most prestigious races.

RIDERS OF the Israel Cycling Academy stick together during stage four of the 2018 Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in eastern Spain in early Februrary. From left: Guy Niv (Israel), Ben Hermans (Belgium) and Ruben Plaza (Spain) (photo credit: NOA ARNON)
RIDERS OF the Israel Cycling Academy stick together during stage four of the 2018 Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in eastern Spain in early Februrary. From left: Guy Niv (Israel), Ben Hermans (Belgium) and Ruben Plaza (Spain)
(photo credit: NOA ARNON)
About 20 minutes before the race, the cyclists squeeze onto the team bus for a strategy meeting and pep talk. They grab last-second energy drinks and snacks, and fidget nervously while listening to one of the coaches, who outlines what awaits them in the 184.2-kilometer course ahead.
The seven riders of the Israel Cycling Academy (ICA) can first expect fairly flat terrain through a few sleepy villages along Spain’s eastern coast. Beyond the villages, the terrain begins to rise. They will climb over foothills before tackling some of Spain’s many medium- sized peaks, which seem to crop out of the Iberian Peninsula at regular intervals, like dark folds of clouds forever on the horizon.
These mountains do not seem daunting from afar, but the riders know they will face a grueling 1,000-meter climb that will test their endurance, including a finish line at the top of a small mountain (the final kilometer is a killer – with a gradient of 12.3%).
The race about to begin is the fourth stage of the 2018 Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana (Tour of the Valencian Community). While it is not a major event like the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta a España, it is nevertheless considered one of the classic preparation races, a well-trodden pathway to the bigger bouts. It will put riders in the competitive mind-set, and more importantly, tests their resolve for the highest levels of competition.
After the pep talk, the riders take to their bikes and arrive at the starting point. Soon enough, the race is under way.
Races always start off with riders packed tightly together. This one is no different. Moving like a school of fish, in perfect unison, they speed down narrow village streets and maneuver through roundabouts as the locals look on and cheer from the sides. Once out of the village, they follow an outlet to a scenic country road, which is blocked off for the occasion.
As the race progresses, a pack of riders begins to form, shorn of those who have fallen too far behind. This group, called the peloton (from French, meaning “platoon”), can hang together for a long time, sometimes nearly the entire race. But all the while, riders vie to reach the front, looking for opportunities to break away from the herd.
Winning is often about picking the right time to break away from the peloton. If you “attack” too early, you risk getting overly fatigued and falling back into the peloton, or even out of the race because you’re dead tired. If you break too late, you risk being challenged by more riders at the finish. Your calculations must also take into account ascents and descents, as well as the winds. If you spend too much time at the front of the pack – breaking the wind and not drafting (riding behind others to reduce wind resistance) – you are setting yourself up for a grand failure.
Of course, it is not all about individuals. The sport is more team-oriented than meets the eye. Riders depend on one another for drafting and encouragement. Sometimes they alternate who breaks the wind so that each member can get a rest. On other occasions, weaker riders sacrifice their own ambitions to draft for the stronger one, so the latter can have a great finish.
The race progresses and the cycling mass climbs up snaking mountain roads, down around fast curves, through level prairies and then up again to a point where the snow has accumulated.
During the race, members of the team’s staff follow the riders in colorful cars bearing the team’s logo and those of its sponsors. The vehicles carry reserve bikes in case the cyclists experience technical problems. Inside the car, they listen to a radio that relays information about the race every 10 to 15 minutes. For now, a voice announces in three languages (Spanish, French and English) that the pack is still together. But 10 minutes later, it comes on again, declaring in a more excited tone that a breakaway has occurred. It gives the numbers and names of those leading it. The staff listens carefully to hear if any of its own are among the leaders.
The lead changes several times before the voice calmly reports that all riders have returned to the peloton – the momentary flurry of excitement is over.
As the race enters the final 50 km., the scenario is repeated, but this time the breakaway riders are not falling back into the herd. They are pushing forward. They give it their all in the final stretch. So far, they have been racing for about four and a half hours. A helicopter hovers overhead, following the riders up the small mountain to the finish.
The ICA staff members become nervous as they strain to hear the radio announcements. Questions run through their minds: Did any of our guys win? Were any in the top 10? Who did well? Who got left behind?
In the end, Spanish-native Alejandro Valverde of team Movistar wins this leg of the Volta in spectacular fashion. Overtaking the leaders with only a few hundred meters to go, he powers up the final incline, as his rivals, who now seem to be pedaling in slow motion, fade away.
“It wasn’t the best day,” says Tsadok Yechezkeli, the team’s media manager. “We didn’t meet our goals.” But there were some positives today, he adds, as one ICA rider, Ben Hermans, a Belgian, finished tenth.
“This is a difficult business,” Yechezkeli says. “We’re racing against the strongest teams in the world, so there is no sugar-coating things here.”
THE ICA is a Pro Continental team established in 2014 with the stated aim of “putting Israel on the bicycling map of the world and providing an opportunity for the next generation of Israeli riders.”
One wonders, however, what Hermans, the Belgian, is doing on a team that seems Israeli-centric. It might come as a surprise that the Israelis on the team are actually a minority. Of the seven cyclists participating in the Volta, only one is from Israel. They are part of a 24-member team that includes riders from 16 countries. Overall, the Israelis amount to just five.
Beyond the cyclists, the 48 staff members who accompany them around the world for competitions are also largely international. Why does the team have such a strong international component?
“We need to give Israelis a chance to grow into professional cycling,” Yechezkeli says. The difference between Europeans and Israelis is so great at the moment, he explains, considering that Europeans grew up with cycling. The goal is for Israelis to absorb as much as possible from top-notch foreign cyclists, so that a riding culture in Israel can grow, as well as an ethic of discipline and professionalism around the sport.
At the same time, the idea is to expose up-and-coming Israeli riders to the feel and speed of high-stakes races. That is why when the team of 24 is broken down into smaller groups of seven riders who are sent to individual races, there is at least one Israeli in every contest.
The ICA has also opened up a development team of 60 promising Israeli cyclists. They start in lower levels of competition, and if they work hard enough and prove themselves, they are given opportunities to move up the ranks and into bigger events.
Beyond the central aim of building up pro cycling in Israel, the team also looks to help riders from less-privileged countries. One such rider is Awet Gebremedhin, a 25-year-old professional cyclist from Eritrea. Gebremedhin became a legal refugee while living in Sweden in 2015. He saved up money by collecting bottles, purchasing his own bike for training in his adopted country.
In the following years, Gebremedhin landed a spot on the ICA’s development team; he was the only non-Israeli on the squad, and just recently, he signed a contract for the pro team.
Team general manager Ran Margaliot cautioned that the decision to sign the Eritrean was not done out of protest against the Israeli government’s immigration policies. In an interview on the matter earlier this year, he said: “Awet is a special rider, based on his personal story and his abilities. We are not a political movement, we’re a sports team, and regardless of whatever your opinion is on any specific topic, we believe that sports is about connecting people. Everybody deserves a chance, regardless of where they come from. We are proud of Awet for being a part of us. It shows that if you work hard you can get to the top of the sport.”
How did the ICA get its start? Margaliot cofounded the team with Israeli businessman Ron Baron. Their dream was for an Israeli rider to compete in the Tour de France. That lofty aim became more attainable when Israeli-Canadian philanthropist Sylvan Adams stepped in as the team’s major financial backer. With a bigger budget, the team went after bigger names, signing Hermans and Spain’s Ruben Plaza, a stage winner in the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, and now ICA’s veteran leader.
Since its founding in 2014, the ICA has taken part in hundreds of races around the world and notched dozens of victories. Yet the biggest fish are still waiting to be fried.
Giro d’Italia
Even those who couldn’t care less about professional cycling know that the Tour de France is the pinnacle of the sport, but not too far behind is the Giro d’Italia – and this year’s Giro will be unlike any other.
The 101st Giro d’Italia is scheduled to begin May 4, and not in Italy. Instead, 176 of the world’s top cyclists will spend the first three days of the 21-day course in Israel. Since 2006, the Giro has started every other year with a Grande Partenza (Big Start) outside of Italy. Previous Big Starts were held in Northern Europe. This will be the first time in the history of any Grand Tour that a start will take place outside of Europe.
The first stage of the Giro will involve an individual time trial in Jerusalem, followed by two stages, one between Haifa and Tel Aviv (167 km) and the other between Beersheba and Eilat (226 km). The cyclists will then fly back to Italy for the remainder of the race.
The ICA will be part of it all, having accepted an invitation from the Giro to participate. It will field eight riders for the race. If the team’s confidence grows in preparatory bouts, a stage win in the Giro is certainly within its grasp. Many of the riders are familiar with the landscape, having previously trained in the Holy Land alongside their Israeli teammates.
One rider, Dutchman Dennis Van Winden, sat down with The Jerusalem Post Magazine to discuss his experiences in Israel.
“You really get to know a country on a bike; you meet a lot of people; and I could see that cycling in Israel is getting more popular,” Van Winden says.
He was particularly struck by the beauty of Lake Kinneret, as well as by Mount Hermon. Last year, he joined up with teammate Guy Niv, one of the five Israelis on the squad, and took part in a three-day mountain bike race on the Golan.
“I had so much fun. I am not a mountain biker, but we went without expectations into the race, which you do as a duo, and I went with Niv.
“We were laughing and smiling but also suffering because of the hard climbs. In the end, we came out of it with a good result: third in the classification. We were on the podium, and later in the afternoon treated ourselves to beer and ice cream.”
Along with Israel, Van Winden lists Utah and Colorado as some of the most scenic landscapes he has traversed on a bike. The team chose pristine locations in the two states for training. During a few training sessions through the vast and eerily quiet landscape, Van Winden vividly remembers a few bear encounters.
A pro cyclist should be able to outrun them, Van Winden concedes, but adds that the bears seemed more afraid of the fast-moving, two-wheeled creatures. “Still, it doesn’t matter. I am super scared of them because I am from Europe. You know, we don’t have bears.”
Bears aside, why do Van Winden and others ICA riders put their bodies through such stress? Van Winden relishes the strict discipline of it compared to other sports.
“Not to offend soccer players, but when they win a match, they go party. We cannot do that; a rider’s body is too sensitive to lack of sleep and the wrong kinds of foods. We train literally every day on the bike, even if it is a rest day, and on such days after training, you really need to take the remainder of the day off. You can’t go into the city for five hours to shop with your girlfriend.”
Along with strict discipline comes pain and discomfort.
“Nothing really grows in the comfort zone,” Van Winden asserts. “You need to undergo a certain amount of time out of your comfort zone as a rider. This means being hungry, in pain, or just having high lactic acid in your system; that is necessary to becoming a better rider.”
Such vigilance over one’s body is necessary considering that racing events are long and usually last three to four consecutive days. This means riders must be ready to put their bodies through tremendous strain day after day while recuperating as much as possible at night in the hotel.
“This is a limit sport,” Yechezkeli says, “because you take riders to their limits. That is why some stages are 200 km. and not 80, otherwise all the riders would have fresh legs, and you wouldn’t be testing the limits of an athlete.”
Niv, Van Winden’s Israeli teammate, confirms these sentiments. Speaking with the Magazine, he says this is why riders need years of kilometers behind them. Born in Misgav, a small village close to Nazareth, Niv started riding as a hobby with his father when he was just eight. Soon after, he started training at a local cycling school and found his pathway into professional racing.
“To represent Israel is a huge honor for us,” Niv says. “It is important to show the world a different side of Israel. We are a normal country, unlike what some people in the world think we are. We are into sports, we have great people and great landscapes.”
Niv started out as a mountain biker, hoping to represent Israel in the Olympics. With the prospect of joining the IAC, he switched gears to road racing.
“It is like a volleyball player going to basketball,” Yechezkeli says. Since the tough transition, Niv has been showing steady improvement.
As Niv and other ICA riders prepare for the Giro, the hope is that they can transform cycling in Israel from a niche sport to a mainstream one. Ahead of the race, the academy will be cooperating with a number of municipalities to put on children’s events and public races. The idea is to stir up grassroots energy that will inspire younger enthusiasts to become homegrown cycling heroes.
When it comes to the ICA’s own riders, they are certainly doing their part to spark interest. Just this week, the team scored some of its sweetest successes at Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico race. For three stages in a row, its cyclists, including Israeli rider Guy Sagiv, led breakaways from the peloton. In the fourth stage of the race, a 219-km climb into the Apennine Mountains, Hermans finished strong, beating some of the best climbers, including last year’s Tour de France winner, Chris Froome.
The politics of it all
IN THIS land, however, such enthusiasm is quickly offset by the winds of political strife. With the Giro less than two months away, Palestinian leaders and BDS advocates have been trying to cancel the race or in the least, delegitimize it.
“By organizing such an event, Giro d’Italia is complicit in Israel’s military occupation and its egregious violations of international law, conventions and consensus,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said in a statement late last year.
The event has also brought unease to the Israeli side. When race organizers characterized the start of the race as being in “west Jerusalem,” they faced some withering fire from angry Israeli ministers. The organizers apologized for using the term and struck it from all official materials.
Yet the team maintains its apolitical stance. What it does stand for is inclusiveness, coexistence and peace. Toward these ends, it recently signed 18-yearold Druse cyclist Sanad Abu Faris to the youth team, and hopes to attract Arab and Palestinian riders.
The team also accepted into its ranks a Turkish rider, Ahmet Orken. But when US President Donald Trump announced late last year that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Orken became unsettled. Hailing from a religiously conservative area of Turkey, he said the pressure had become too great and he would have to leave the team.
Of Orken’s departure, Margaliot said, “While we are disappointed by his decision, we only want what is best for him and his family. The doors of the Israel Cycling Academy will be open for Ahmet and we certainly hope to see him rejoin us.”
Speaking with the Magazine by phone, cofounder Ron Baron weighed in on the agitations the Giro has already caused and may cause going forward.
First off, he says, “This is something very meaningful for the State of Israel when it becomes 70 to have the biggest sports event ever.”
When it comes to politics, he explains the ICA has no agenda aside from promoting coexistence; it considers its riders “ambassadors of peace.”
“BDS is only noise, you know. They do what they have to do, but they themselves know they cannot stop the event.”
The ICA, he continues, had discussions with teams from Bahrain and other Arab countries and they are more than delighted to come and race in Israel. He adds that his team has raced in Muslim countries and never experienced problems.
“Earlier this week, we had our first win in Taiwan, winning a stage there, and our performance in the Tirreno-Adriatico race was strong.”
If people doubted the team’s merits, he explains, and believed the ICA was invited to the Giro only because the first stage will take place in Israel, more and more people, certainly within the sport, now acknowledge that the team deserves to be there.
“We want to be there because we are good – no favors. This team will go all the way to the Tour de France.”
The writer was a guest of the Israel Cycling Academy during the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.