How many cycling teams have a trained sniper on the roster? How many employ a political refugee? How many are owned by the son of a Holocaust survivor who promises to give his fortune away to charity?
Meet Israel Cycling Academy, one of the most intriguing and controversial teams in the peloton. The team made its grand tour debut at this year’s Giro d’Italia.
“This is a special team,” says Dennis van Winden, a blonde-haired Dutch rider who provides European ballast to the upstart squad riding high on dreams. “I raced on one of the biggest teams in the world [Rabobank], but I have never been on a team as tight as this one.”
The team is somewhat comparable to the all-Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi team, or the United States’s 7-Eleven squad, which brought American riders to Europe for the first time. Having finished the 2018 Giro d’Italia, Israel Cycling Academy has dreams of a Tour de France bid by 2020. The team’s racing ambitions, however, are just a piece of its larger mission. Israel Cycling Academy wants to change the wider global perception of Israel, one of the most polarizing countries on the planet. The team management’s unabashed patriotism is one of the main drivers behind its existence.
“Our athletes understand that being on an Israeli team, they are each ambassadors for the team’s home country,” says owner Sylvan Adams. Adams’s father survived a Nazi death camp and then built a billion-dollar real estate empire in Canada.
“Israel is so much more than the bad images of what is often seen on TV by the world,” Adams says. “That is a distorted view of the life I know in Israel. We want the team to help tell that story you don’t often hear about.”
The team faces very public pushback in its mission to tell this story. Its mere presence in races sometimes elicits boos, insults, and even protests. Last year an international collection of organizations launched protests against the Giro d’Italia for choosing Israel to host the “Big Start” of the 2018 race. Anti-Israel activists accuse the country of using the Giro, and to a certain degree the Israel Cycling Academy, to whitewash decades of war, as well as alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians.
“Starting the race anywhere under Israel’s control will serve as a stamp of approval for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians,” says the group BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). “Would the Giro d’Italia have considered starting a race in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s?”
The team says it just wants to race bikes.
“We know everyone is watching us, but we are here to race,” says van Winden, who raced seven years in the WorldTour before joining in 2017. “We don’t need any gifts. We present ourselves and fight like everyone else. Is an Israeli ready to race at the top level? Oh, for sure.”
CYCLING’S GLOBAL REACH NOW touches every corner of the globe, with major races held in China, South America, and even Africa. Yet prior to 2014, Israel had not made it to the cycling map. Israel Cycling Academy’s quiet launch that year brought the country its first professional team.
Today, cycling is booming in Israel. Young urbanites spin along the streets of Tel Aviv in between bars, cafes, and restaurants year round. The countryside is alive with pelotons of amateur riders, and world-class mountain biking exists in Israel’s rural areas. There are weekend criteriums and a growing gran fondo series across the country that draws hundreds.
Despite the growth, Israel has no WorldTour professional riders. This could be traced to Israel’s mandatory military service. Israel requires a three-year commitment from all young Israeli men and two years for women. When young Belgians or Italians are racing in the U23 ranks, their Israeli counterparts are practicing military drills.
The five Israeli riders on Israel Cycling Academy’s elite team all spent time in the army. Guy Niv, whose nickname is “Sniper,” was trained as a sharpshooter. Guy Sagiv, Israel’s two-time national road champion, took four years to complete his military training because he mixed racing with his duties.
Niv has shown tremendous potential. In March he rode into an all-day breakaway during stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico. When he finished that event, Niv became the first Israeli rider to complete a WorldTour stage race.
“The army will give us time to train and travel to race, but we have to make up for time we miss,” Sagiv says. “It’s part of duty here in Israel. Everyone must serve.”
Riders like Sagiv and Niv know that in Israel, country comes first. Yet the nation’s politics sometimes put the riders in challenging situations.
In 2016, Sagiv defied Army orders and traveled to Qatar for the UCI world championships. Israelis are not allowed to travel to most Muslim countries in the Middle East, but the Israeli cycling federation worked out a deal with Qatari counterparts. Sagiv did not inform his Army bosses, who found out when images of him racing were printed in newspapers.
“A fan started screaming at me in Spanish about the Palestinians. I went up to him and talked to him calmly. I know that I am racing with a symbol on my back, and I am proud of it.”
“I decided that if I wanted to be a cyclist, I needed to go there [the worlds] no matter what,” Sagiv says. “I felt comfortable and safe in Qatar. I did what I thought was the right thing. I didn’t go to jail, but I was quite close to.”
The team’s riders have multiple stories of this nature. Roy Goldstein, reigning Israeli national champion, raced in Spain’s Basque Country, where anti-Israeli sentiment runs deep.
“A fan started screaming at me in Spanish about the Palestinians,” Goldstein says. “I went up to him and talked to him calmly. I know that I am racing with a symbol on my back, and I am proud of it.”
The team’s riders and staff are cognizant of the squad’s international ambitions and the challenging dichotomy that comes with the plan. Israel Cycling Academy wants to build a professional racing program that can win major races and develop Israeli talent for the WorldTour. The team also wants to be a two-wheeled billboard for Israel, and the various political baggage that comes along with it.
ISRAEL CYCLING ACADEMY TRACES its origins to a chance meeting on Nes Harim, a good-sized hill west of Jerusalem favored by local cyclists. In 2013 Ran Margaliot, an Israeli professional rider, met Ron Baron, an amateur cyclist and businessman 20 years his senior.
Margaliot had just seen his professional cycling dreams come to an abrupt and bitter end. After just 26 race days with Saxo Bank during 2012, team manager Bjarne Riis broke the news to Margaliot as gently as he could. There would be no contract extension.
“It’s hard being told you’re not good enough,” Margaliot says. “I dreamed of becoming the first Israeli to race the Tour de France. It took me a while to accept that was never going to happen.”
Margaliot burned his anger out on the steep pitches of Nes Harim, where he met Baron while riding that day. Margaliot recounted his personal frustrations of trying to become a pro cyclist: he paid his own way during summer breaks from Army service to race in Belgium, and then attended the UCI’s World Cycling Center. After two stagiaire deals he joined Saxo Bank, but he couldn’t quite cut it at the pro level. Baron was intrigued. The pair struck up a friendship and soon shared a common dream: create an Israeli professional cycling team.
“It is a bit of a Cinderella story,” says Baron, who was the team’s early financier. “There are a lot of amateur cyclists in Israel, but no professional ones. Ran wanted to start a team and I thought, ‘Why not?’ He was so enthusiastic. And now here we are, four years later, going to the Giro.”
With Baron’s financial backing, Margaliot reached out to the pro cycling network to look for riders, staff, and infrastructure. Barely a year after their mountaintop meeting, Margaliot was able to create the infrastructure for the team. He also secured the help of Peter Sagan, who agreed to serve as a public ambassador for the squad.
The team debuted in the Continental ranks under the name “Cycling Academy” in 2014 with 14 riders. Sagan attended the launch — his mere presence helped the team score headlines across the globe.
“The idea was to start small and build up the infrastructure,” Margaliot says. “We signed Israelis, but also some established pros. We know it will take time to develop Israeli riders. We are not going to throw them into the deep waters.”
Margaliot, 29, is perhaps the youngest team manager in pro cycling. His youth and energy helped the team quickly excel. The squad took its first professional victory in 2015, and scored invites to races in the United States and Europe. The following season, the team added riders with European experience, including Dan Craven, Guillaume Boivin, and Chris Butler.
By 2017, the team took another important turn, adding the word “Israel” to its official name. There was no more hiding the team’s ambitions.
Enter Canadian billionaire real estate developer Sylvan Adams. Adams is a passionate cyclist and former world champion in the master’s category. The recently retired 58-year-old moved from Quebec to Israel in 2015 and soon tapped into the booming Israeli cycling scene. He heard about the Cycling Academy project through Baron.
He was just the man Margaliot needed to help the team step up another level.
In 2017, Adams joined as co-owner and chairman of the newly branded team. Adams brought unabashed pride as well as deep pockets. His investment helped the team climb to the Pro Continental ranks in 2018. His cash also allowed the team to grow to 24 riders and attract an even higher level of talent, including Ben Hermans (from BMC Racing), Ruben Plaza (from Orica-Scott), and Kristian Sbaragli (from Dimension Data), all three WorldTour pros.
“We want to bring Israeli cycling and modern Israel to the world stage. It’s the bike that can connect people. This is about sport and about passion.”
Adams has quickly become Israel’s cheerleader for all things cycling. He backs the Cycling Academy team, personally funds the construction of Israel’s first velodrome, and is a promoter of Tel Aviv’s tagline as “Amsterdam of the Middle East.” He also helped fund Israel’s $12 million bid to lure the Giro d’Italia’s “Big Start” to Jerusalem; his involvement earned him the title “honorary president” of the project.
A natural salesman, Adams believed the team could function as a traveling postcard to foster a new image for Israel.
“We want to bring Israeli cycling and modern Israel to the world stage,” Adams says.
“It’s the bike that can connect people. This is about sport and about passion.”
Four years after its launch, Cycling Academy has now grown into a multi-program development organization. Beneath the pro team sits a U23 feeder team, a junior team, as well as a mountain biking development program. Israel Cycling Academy riders made steady progress in 2018. Guillaume Boivin was seventh at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; Zakkari Dempster was fourth at Ronde van Drenthe; and Edwin Avila won the third stage of the Tour of Taiwan.
“The best way to develop Israeli talent is to race in the world’s biggest races,” Margaliot says. “Our dream is to race in the Tour. Do we have to become WorldTour to do that? I am not sure. Building up the Israeli base is the priority.”
THE TEAM PROUDLY CARRIES the Star of David on its jersey and all the baggage and hopes that come with it. Many inside the team embrace its dual messages of racing and ambassadorship.
“We want to bring a message of peace and hope,” Baron says. “But we are also a racing team. We don’t need any favors. We want to grow Israeli cycling and we want to put Israel on the map.”
The team’s ethos was underscored when it signed Ahmet Orken, the first Turkish rider ever to sign with a Pro Continental team. Months later, however, politics reared its ugly head, when President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s political capital. The decision created an international crisis that filtered all the way down to cycling. Under pressure from the Turkish government, Orken left the team before the season started.
“That’s why sports and politics should never mix,” Adams says. “This is what this team is fighting against. Here is a talented athlete who only wants to race his bike.”
To replace him, the team signed a 25-year-old Eritrean refugee living in Sweden named Awet Gebremedhin. Having raced for his country’s national team, Gebremedhin fled during a European racing swing in 2013. He traveled to Sweden and was forced to hide out for 18 months until he was awarded refugee status. His signing fits into the team’s ethos. Management denies his arrival is political, but rather because they want to help him foster his dreams.
“We are not a political movement, we’re a sports team. We believe that sports is about connecting people,” Margaliot says. “Awet is a special rider, based on his personal story and his abilities.”
Israel Cycling Academy will continue its two-sided mission to promote Israel and develop Israeli riders. The team brought Sagiv to the Giro, where he finished in 141st place. That fact alone will mark a milestone for the program. Yet politics will always linger. When VeloNews sat down with Margaliot last fall, he downplayed the political winds that inevitably blow around his team.
“This isn’t about politics. This is about racing bikes,” he says. “How come you and I are talking? It’s because of cycling. It’s about bridging differences with the bike.”