History will be made next week when a Grand Tour – one of the three major European professional cycling races – starts outside of Europe

Israel will host the opening three stages of the Giro d’Italia – attracting 175 of the world’s top cyclists – beginning with an Individual Time Trial in Jerusalem on 4 May, which will be the biggest sporting event the country has ever held.

The man behind bringing the tour to Israel – which he described as initially being “a really crazy idea” is Sylvan Adams, a Canadian immigrant who, along with his London-born wife Margaret, has lived in Tel Aviv for the past two years.

Speaking to Jewish News ahead of next week’s event, he said: “No Grand Tour had ever raced outside of Europe. The Giro people may have thought we were joking when we proposed doing the Big Start in Israel, but the key was inviting them to Israel for a visit. Once their management saw that Israel is a beautiful country, with great roads and a cycling culture, and that we are an open, democratic, tolerant, and most importantly, safe country, the discussions of bringing the Giro to Israel began in earnest. The Italians, after several scouting visits, actually fell in love with our country, and this helped a great deal.”

Sylvan Adams

Saying how ‘immensely proud’  as “nearly one billion television spectators will be seeing our beautiful country over three days, from Haifa in the north to Eilat in the south”, he explains: “Inviting the world to see us, on a massive scale, is an antidote to the distortions of the BDS movement. Without any lecturing or guidance, apolitical sports fans will have an opportunity to see for themselves that Israel is not how it is too often portrayed by a media obsessed with our tiny (but exemplary) country. They will see beautiful, varied geography, from the greenery of the north, the dramatic Negev landscape, and the golden beaches of Tel Aviv. And most importantly, a modern, democratic, free and open society, taking its place a sporting nation and host to a major event. 

We are also expecting up to 20,000 physical tourists, who will see Israel from an even closer perspective, experiencing our vibrant culture, delicious cuisine, and enjoying our warm Israeli welcome.”

The staging of the race will in some ways be the culmination of a project – the formation of the Israel Cycling Academy – which was launched in 2014. Explaining how it came about, Adams says: “The ICA was born of an idea by former professional cyclist and Israeli National champion, Ran Margaliot. After competing as a pro, he realised he’d never be quite good enough to reach his ultimate goal, riding in the Tour de France. So, he convinced an investor (and now, my partner in the team) Ron Baron, to financially support the creation of the first Israeli professional team that could offer an avenue to Israeli cyclists to reach the highest level of the sport.

“While living in Canada, prior to my aliyah, Ran sent me an email telling me that he’d heard nice things about me and asked whether I would like to go for a ride with him on my next trip to Israel. There, he told me about the Israel Cycling Academy team and we discussed our mutual contacts in the world of cycling, leading to subsequent rides where we were joined by Ron, which resulted in an offer for me to join the Board of Directors of the team. I made my first financial contribution to the team, a little while after making Aliyah, which led to a further involvement as an owner, together with my partner, Ron.”

ICA riders during March’s Tirreno-Adriatico race in Italy

Making swift inroads in the sport, he says: “We’re a really good team. We have five Israelis out of our 24 pro riders from 17 countries and six continents. We also have an eight-Israeli rider development team, from which, I am proud to say, two riders from last year’s squad graduated to this year’s pro team. This proves that our plan is working, as we are, in effect, creating Israeli professional cyclists.

“We are also reaching out to Israeli cyclists in minority communities, including Israeli Arabs, to try out for our development team. But this is a meritocracy, not affirmative action, as we are a pro team that competes at the highest level. But our ambition is to continue to develop Israeli riders and have even greater Israeli representation on the pro team.”

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Growing almost as fast as the ICA, is the sport’s popularity in Israel, with Adam saying it’s the fastest growing sport in the country. “Tens of thousands of riders can be seen on the roads every shabbat”, he says. “In fact, I like to joke that half the country is shomer shabbat, while the other half is on a bike on shabbat; it’s not far from the truth. The ICA is the country’s “home” team, and we have been embraced by Israelis. Our ambition is to see cycling grow in popularity and receive as much support as the very popular sports of football and basketball. We’re on a good trajectory for that.”

With the start of the Giro fast-approaching, the ICA has announced that Guy Niv, 24, and Guy Sagiv, 23, will become the first two Israelis to race in a Grand Tour. Adams said: “I’m particularly proud that two Israeli riders made the cut on pure merit, in furtherance of our team goals. This means that our development program is working. It would have been an unthinkable dream just a couple of years ago to place an Israeli in a Grand Tour and now we have two. I am very proud of our team and wish the riders luck and success in this historic Giro which begins on home soil.”

Guy Sagiv. Picture: Bettini

Sagiv, from Givat Nili, is currently in his third year as a professional cyclist and a former two-time former Israeli national champion (2015 and 2016). He said: “I’m so honored to be selected and I believe I have earned this. Now I am focusing on only one thing: helping my teammates. This is my role and I will do everything I can to support our squad.”

Niv, a full-time mountain biker just a year ago, joined the ICA’s development team in 2017. He said: “I was so relieved to get selected. I was so stressed waiting the last 24 hours. I am very proud that the team is putting their trust in me. Selecting Sagiv and me shows Israel and the world that Israel is truly becoming a cycling country with riders taking the sport seriously and achieving their dreams. But beyond this, I believe that I can make it to the last stage in Rome. I see myself at the finish line there!”

Having done the hard part in setting up the ICA and seeing it flourish, and having now been able to bring the Giro to Israel, Adams isn’t stopping there in terms of his dreams and goals in both the immediate future and years ahead.

“I want to develop more creative ways to showcase my country to the world in a realistic light, not the uni-dimensional perspective portrayed by the media always focussed on the “conflict”. Israelis of all nationalities actually get along pretty well, and this is, somehow, a great secret that journalists don’t describe. We have Israeli Arab judges (including on the Supreme Court), Knesset members, Ambassadors to foreign countries, policemen, doctors and nurses, in short, in all walks of life. If you are being treated in a hospital or given a traffic ticket by an Israeli Arab, they don’t ask you about your “identity”, nor does theirs matter in the interaction (I know, both have happened to me).

“Another mission of mine is to engender national pride amongst Israelis in their country’s athletes and achievements. For example, Israel has earned a cumulative total of nine Olympic medals over its Olympic history. I have an ambitious, but entirely realistic, four point plan to multiply that number of medals, to earn at least nine medals (including gold coloured ones) in EACH Olympic cycle. Tiny Israel, the start-up sporting nation.

“I only made aliyah two years ago, and am just getting started. Stay tuned, and watch our progress….”