Tackling the ‘Tour,’ Israelis cycle their way to history

September 3, 2020 by Josh Hasten - JNS
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For the first time in its 107-year-old history, a team representing the State of Israel is dressed in blue-and-white jerseys and participating in the 21-stage Tour de France, the most prestigious bicycle race in the world.

Israeli team member Krists Neilands on the podium. Photo: Noa Arnon

Known as “Team Israel Start-Up Nation,” thanks to a sponsorship from the Israeli nonprofit incubator “Start-Up Nation Central,” eight riders representing the Jewish state are competing alongside the world’s best cyclists and are currently making their way through the gruelling French mountain course.

Guy Niv, the first native Israeli Tour de France participant ever, is part of the team, which also includes seven other riders from various countries around the world (the team has a total of 30 riders, some of whom are currently competing at other venues).

The contest kicked off in the southern French Riviera town of Nice. It will see 22 teams try and make their way across 2,156 miles to the finish line in Paris.

The vision of getting an Israeli cycling team into international competitions started just five years ago, when two friends—Israeli businessman Ron Baron, and professional cyclist Ran Margaliot—dreamed of taking the sport to a new level and founded the “Israel Cycling Academy,” (ICA) the first professional cycling team in Israel.

Sylvan Adams blessing Guy Niv at the beginning of the race. Photo: Noa Arnon

A little while later, Sylvan Adams—an Israeli Canadian entrepreneur, philanthropist, and cycling enthusiast—joined the ICA as a co-owner with Baron. In 2018, Adams successfully helped bring the first three stages of the Giro d’Italia, another major international cycling competition to the streets of Israel, marking the first time the event was held outside European soil.

JNS caught up with Adams, along with Tsadok Yecheskeli, the ICA’s media director and a board member, as the team was getting reading to get on their bikes for the start of the 186 KM Stage 5 of the race.

When asked how the team was doing, Adams replied, “We had a bad start with three riders going down and getting banged up on the first day, but fortunately, there were no broken bones, and they were able to continue.” He added that according to the rules of the competition, a rider who misses a starting day is out of the race.

However, Adams said that during Stage 4, one of the team’s riders, Krists Neilands from Latvia, had a very successful day. Describing what took place using cycling lingo, Adams said “we are really making noise out here, and yesterday, we got our first podium.”

In other words, Neilands was singled out as “the most combative rider” and donned a special jersey for his performance during that stage. For a large portion of the ride, Neilands broke away from the pack and was leading the race.

But more importantly to Adams, “the media covering the race was talking about our team, and the word ‘Israel’ was repeated hundreds of times over a six-hour period. Did you realize that 3.5 billion people watch the Tour de France?”

Winning the overall Tour de France might appear unrealistic for Israel’s team this year, as it has only been on the world stage at major competitions for less than a year. But for Adams, there is much more to it than just first-place finishes.

“The goals I have with this team are two-fold,” he said. “Firstly, I want to create opportunities for cyclists and build the sport in Israel,” explaining that he was responsible for the construction of a velodrome in Tel Aviv, which is a practice arena for cyclists. “I want young Israeli cyclists to aspire and have the opportunities to be professional.”

“But my bigger goal,” he said, is to show the world the real face of Israel—normal Israel, not the one portrayed by the media, which is obsessed with conflict. Our daily life is nothing like that. That is not what Israel is all about.”

He added that “first-time visitors to Israel, almost to a person, are completely surprised when they arrive. It isn’t what they were expecting. They see an Israel that is safe, diverse and tolerant. I am bringing that message to the rest of the world” through cycling.

Members of Team Israel Start-Up Nation riding in the peloton in the Tour de France. Photo: Noa Arnon

‘We want to change minds’

Yecheskeli was a long-time Israeli journalist and war correspondent before he was seriously injured covering Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. After a lengthy recovery process, he decided to make a change.

Speaking to JNS from inside the car that travels alongside the cyclists on Israel’s team offering any assistance the riders might need, he explained that he turned to biking as tool for recovery and rehabilitation. “The bike saved my life in a way, so I decided that I wanted to give back,” he said.

Joining the ICA, Yecheskeli said his “dream from day one was to inspire a new generation in Israel. Our goal is to make cycling the top sport in Israel, and we’re on our way.”

He acknowledged that he didn’t realize that Israel’s success in the sport on an international level would happen so fast, but he was quick to praise the commitment of Adams, along with Baron and Margaliot, for making it happen.

While he said that the team is making waves at its first-ever Tour de France, “this year we are not a contender. We are competing to win any of the individual stages, and it would be huge if that happens. But to win the whole tour, that’s another level. We are aiming for it for next year.”

Yecheskeli shared that the Israeli team has already signed legendary cyclist and four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome from the United Kingdom, who will join the squad in January. “We believe that with Chris and other new riders, the team will be upgraded, and the goal is to be a contender here in France.”

Like Adams, Yecheskeli is focused on the next generation of cycling in Israel, explaining that Margaliot’s focus within the ICA these days is to introduce the sport in youth villages throughout the country. He also noted the establishment of a “continental team” of 20- to 21-year-old Israelis who are gaining experience in lower-level competitions to prepare them for the world stage.

Turning his attention back to the current race, he said that Neilands’ ride the day before was “unbelievable,” and that he is looking forward to hopefully greeting Niv at the finish line. “We really hope he makes it,” he said.

Yecheskeli and Adams discussed took a more serious note in responding to how the Israeli team had been targeted by the anti-Israel/antisemitic BDS movement leading up to the competition. Various news outlets reported how certain hate groups urged supporters to harass the riders who were representing Israel on social media.

“While BDS is targeting the team, we are answering them in the right way by being successful and sticking to our values,” said Yecheskeli.

Adams added that “the more attention we get, the more opportunity we have to reach the ‘silent majority’—those sports fans who are not political, but probably have a negative image of Israel. We want to change their minds. The media and BDS-haters pollute the minds of that silent majority. And through our team, we are trying to bring the antidote to BDS and show them that Israel is a normal country.”

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