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JERUSALEM (VN) — Tom Dumoulin couldn’t resist. After arriving Tuesday evening in Israel, the defending Giro d’Italia champion snuck away on his bike and rode into the ancient old city.
The reigning world time trial champion looped around the city’s towering walls and pedaled under Jerusalem’s famous Jaffa Gate. Dumoulin turned his high-tech carbon-fiber racing bike down the same narrow streets and alleyways that have been the center of historic intrigue and religious fervor for millennia. It was so crowded and narrow, he had to get off his bike and walk. He was lost in history.
“I couldn’t resist the urge to visit the old city of Jerusalem,” Dumoulin said. “So I headed over on my bike. People were looking at me a bit funny, wondering who’s this guy with normal clothes on a race bike. It was very cool.”
Jerusalem is sacred ground to three of the world’s major religions. This weekend, this compact, highly significant and equally contentious patchwork of hallowed monuments, historic quarters and bustling bazaars became an improbable intersection of history, sports, politics and bikes.
Jerusalem was already 6,000 years old and counting when Henri Desgranges thought up the Tour de France. After months of hype and polemic surround the Giro’s “Big Start,” nearly 200 of the world’s best racers showed up not quite knowing what to expect.
Many were surprised at what they discovered.
“I had a bit of a strange feeling before coming to Israel, but I am happy with it now,” said Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens. “I think we will be a bit a little sad when we go back to Italy.”
Bicycle racers by their very nature travel to some of the most beautiful and exotic locales on earth. With races from Asia to the Americas, and Europe to Australia, their itinerary would make even the most ambitious globetrotter jealous.
Despite their itinerant ways, riders spend most of their time hanging around hotel rooms and stale lobbies waiting for the next race. Any hint of tourism is frowned upon and usually banned by teams.
Jerusalem was different. No one wanted to miss the chance to follow the footsteps of history in one of the world’s oldest and holiest cities. There’s something otherworldly to follow the Via Dolorosa or to face the Western Wall in places that reach across centuries of shared human experience.
“It’s definitely an interesting place,” said EF-Drapac’s Michael Woods. “It’s an adventure being here. I am not religious at all. I would have loved to check out the old city. That’s the only issue of being a pro bike racer, you go to these cool places, but you’re often just sitting around a hotel room waiting to race.”
For many riders and staffers typically stuck inside the Giro d’Italia bubble, the draw of such sights as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Dome of the Rock was simply too much to resist. They ventured alone and sometimes as an entire team. Others snuck away without telling their team managers.
A night after Dumoulin’s personal visit, the entire Sunweb team piled into taxis and went to the Western Wall one evening before dinner.
“It’s a bit unconventional being in Jerusalem for a bike race,” said Sunweb’s Chad Haga. “We’re here to race, so our job is to embrace it and try to put on a good show. The optimist in me believes that maybe sport can help bring people together and close some of those divides.
“To walk through those streets was so emotional,” Haga continued. “We don’t get to be tourists too much in this job. I am glad that we got to take the opportunity. It was so powerful to see something so significant for so many religions.”
Riders tried to put aside the polemics and find a private moment to soak up the atmosphere of one of the world’s most fascinating cities. Some teams, however, strictly forbid their riders from venturing into the old city. Other teams tried to squeeze in a quick visit when they could without jeopardizing their preparation for the opening time trial. Lotto-Soudal zipped into the old city on bikes after the team presentation Thursday.
This Giro is unique in that it brings a grand tour beyond the European realm for the first time. In such a significant and historic setting, teams and riders seemed to give pause to the old-school traditions of ride, rest, eat and recover, at least for a few days.
Canadian veteran Svein Tuft also slipped away from the Giro bubble in a private visit to the holy sites in what he knew was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“I went down to walk around the old city a bit,” said Mitchelton-Scott’s Svein Tuft. “I went alone. I am not religious, but I respect it. It’s very interesting to me. This holy part of the world is fascinating. I didn’t want to miss it.”
Jerusalem is cycling’s unlikeliest host city and certainly its most controversial.
The Giro’s excursion to Israel has been a lightning rod of debate. The race’s three-stage visit is loaded with polemics and bitter acrimony for many inside and out of the peloton. Some accuse the race of helping Israel to “sport-wash” some its most controversial and divisive Palestinian policies.
Yet for those who came to Israel to race their bikes, the eternal allure of Jerusalem seemed to supersede everything else.