The Giro d’Italia will take an historic step in May, venturing outside Europe for the first time to start in Jerusalem. And when the race arrives, Israel’s first pro cycling team will line up for its first grand tour — a major milestone team leaders hope will help them eventually reach the Tour de France.
“This is a big, big opportunity that we hope to leverage,” said Israel Cycling Academy (ICA) general manager Ran Margaliot of the move for both the team and the race.
The young team was building toward a Giro bid long before race organizers officially awarded a wild card slot. Margaliot sees it as a key step toward riding the Tour, which he said has been his “number-one goal” since the team’s founding.
“This is the only point where we’re actually going to be able to penetrate into the mindset, into the awareness of the general public” in Israel, he said.
Cycling is a popular hobby there, Margaliot explained, but when it comes to the professional sport, “The Tour de France is the only thing they knew.”
That’s why he’s determined to take Israeli riders on an Israeli team to the Tour. In the meantime, he hopes his countrymen will get behind a team that has a lot in common with Israel itself.
“The underdog story is written on our forehead,” he said. “As a team, as people, as a nation, this is what this country is all about.”
To get Israelis psyched about pro cycling, Margaliot believes, their hometown team can’t just participate in high-profile races. They have to ride well.
“We have to be reliable when we are there. We have to make sure we have [a] legit team, legit riders,” he said, so the team’s efforts aren’t just “a one-year PR campaign.”
The team has been working to build that legitimacy, and grow into an organization that can tackle a grand tour. They’ve expanded the roster and nearly doubled the staff since late 2016; ICA now comprises a 24-rider pro team and eight-rider development team, with 44 staffers.
The team’s backers have stepped up to support the expansion, according to team manager Kjell Carlström. It’s also meant team suppliers and partners have pitched in more. In recent months, ICA has announced new deals with Oakley, Garmin and a trio of Italian gear manufacturers.
With numbers to match the rosters of top-tier WorldTour teams, Carlström said, “we can have a perfect run-in to the Giro. We can have everybody racing so that they are fit and on a good level.”
That run-in includes a series of shorter stage races, like the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico and Volta a Catalunya, which Carlström said can help the riders and team organization alike prepare for the bigger challenge of the three-week Giro.
Carlström has done this before, as part of the team that took IAM Cycling to its first grand tours — though he noted that, unlike at ICS, “I wasn’t the most experienced guy there.”
He took a major lesson from that experience: “You cannot underestimate how difficult the first grand tour will be for a team,” he said. “You cannot take it lightly.”
No matter the race length, Carlström said, the team has protocols so everyone knows the job they need to do. But the Giro will take more planning.
“When you come to the second week and maybe to the third week, and you start getting a little bit tired from all the work day in and day out,” he said. “That’s where the extra staff and the extra equipment and logistics, vehicles, et cetera will help you out.”
The riders who’ve never raced a grand tour face a similar adjustment. For them, Carlström said, the experience of veterans like Ben Hermans and Ruben Plaza will be an important guide.
Rider Krists Neilands, who’s hoping to make ICA’s Giro squad, agreed.
In other races, “you can go all-in for every day because it’s just five days; you can survive,” he said. But if he makes the Giro, he’ll watch how more experienced riders approach three weeks of racing. “You can just listen and you can figure out what should be the best option for you,” Neilands said.
The Giro’s trip to Israel, and Israel Cycling Academy’s invitation to the race, comes as the country’s always-fraught politics again make headlines globally.
That’s already had an impact. Race organizers sparked a brief controversy in November when they mistakenly said “West Jerusalem” while announcing the race route, stepping into the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute over control of the city. The following month, ICA released Turkish champion Ahmet Orken from his contract, a move he requested because of the heightened Middle East tensions.
Still, Margaliot said he hopes to keep the politics out of the Giro. “I’m not the ambassador of my country,” he said. “I’m the ambassador of our sport and of our team.”
Margaliot said the three Giro stages in Israel can show the world a different side of the country and help introduce its people to cycling.
“I am a big believer in the religion of cycling and its ability to improve society,” he said. “This sport has the power to inspire people, to bring them together.”