Israel is “selling normality” to an estimated audience of one billion television viewers by hosting the first three stages of the Giro d’Italia this weekend, the man behind the “Big Start” has claimed.
Property billionaire Sylvan Adams moved to Israel from Montreal two years ago and has poured money into cycling-related projects, such as the Israel Cycling Academy and the Middle East’s first velodrome in Tel Aviv.
But it is his campaign to persuade the Giro to become the first of cycling’s three grand tours to start outside Europe that has catapulted him to fame in his new home.
The decision to start the 101st edition of the Giro in Jerusalem has not gone without criticism, though, particularly from groups angry about Israel’s treatment of their Palestinian neighbours.
Adams, however, rejects those calls for boycotts and protests.
Speaking to Press Association Sport on the eve of the race, Adams said: “When you speak to people who are visiting Israel for the first time you invariably find they’re impressed and surprised by what they find.
“That’s because before they came they only ever saw one aspect of our life: the conflict.
“Last year’s Giro was seen by more than 800 million people. Because Israel makes news that number will be one billion this year.
“So my plan was to invite one billion first-time visitors to Israel via television.
“They will see that this is a beautiful, open, safe and free country. We are selling normality.”
Cycling events have been used to promote towns, cities, regions and countries for more than a century – fees from hosts are vital to a sport without paying spectators – but few have put as much thought into the tourism plan as Israel has.
To push Israel as a destination for Christian pilgrims, the race’s usual finish has been moved from Milan to Italy’s capital – making it a journey from Jerusalem to Rome – and Adams met the Pope last year to receive his blessing for the race.
The Israeli stages have also been chosen with tourism in mind: Friday’s opening stage in Jerusalem and Saturday’s ride up the coast to Tel Aviv will reinforce the message that the country’s two main cities are only 45 minutes apart.
Sunday’s ride through the desert to the Red Sea resort of Eilat will showcase the next campaign: an effort to promote Israel’s south as a hiking-and-biking destination for those tired of European winters.
But Adams, a highly accomplished amateur cyclist, has a second ambition.
“I want to show Israel this beautiful sport and, in time, I think this country could become the Amsterdam of the Middle East,” he explained.
Key to this goal is the wild card his Israel Cycling Academy team was given for the race. Launched in 2014 with the aim of developing domestic talent, the team is starting its first grand tour and there are two Israelis in their ranks.
Guy Sagiv, a three-time national champion, told Press Association Sport: “A few weeks ago most people here didn’t know what a grand tour was but now I hear them talking about ‘pelotons’ and the ‘maglia rosa’. We’re trying to make cycling a bigger sport here and I think it’s working.”