MITZPE RAMON, Israel (VN) — There’s a feeling of excitement and anticipation amongst the riders and staff at Israel Start-Up Nation here at the team’s winter training camp. Ever since the squad acquired the WorldTour license of Katusha-Alpecin, the team has been adding experienced riders and staff to its previous lineup, in anticipation of the challenges it will face at the WorldTour level .
Atop the list of challenges is a milestone for the squad. For the first time, an Israeli team will start the Tour de France.
Charged with preparing the squad for this huge step forward are two veterans of WorldTour racing and directing: Niki Sørensen and Dirk Demol.
“It’s a huge challenge, but I think we have some good and achievable goals,” Sørensen told VeloNews. “We try to be modest in our approach. Across the board with the sports directors, coaches, and staff to take care of the riders, we feel like we have a good set up.”
The team has yet to decide its specific goals or its roster for the Tour de France. Sørensen said the only two riders confirmed right now for the Tour roster are Dan Martin and veteran Ben Hermans, both of whom will target the GC.
That decision marks a return to GC action for Martin, who has finished inside the top-10 at the Tour on three occasions. It represents a huge step up for Hermans, who has never started the Tour.
Both Sørensen and Demol are part of the group brought in to the Israeli operation from Katusha-Alpecin. Seven riders followed, including Nils Politt, Alex Dowsett, Daniel Navarro, and Rick Zabel. They joined new signings Martin, Rory Sutherland, and Andre Greipel, who came from other programs.
“It’s really good for the team because they have the experience on the WorldTour level, like Nils (Politt) who was really shining in the spring classics and looking more like a leader, with Rick Zabel, Reto (Hollenstein), Dan Martin, and the experience that Andre (Greipel) brings to the team,” Sørensen said. “We are confident that we are going to play our role.”
Only a few days into the preparations for the new season the team was already hit with an injury. Rory Sutherland broke his femur while riding an electric scooter in Tel Aviv—not the best way to kick off the training camp. The Australian was in surgery the next morning and is hoping for a quick recovery.
“These are things that we have to avoid,” Demol said. “His recovery time could be as short as 12 weeks with a little bit of luck he could be back for Catalunya, but we’ll need some luck.”
Sutherland has been a key rider for past teams Movistar, Saxo-Bank, and most recently as a teammate to Martin at UAE Team Emirates. Israel will look to his experience and leadership skills out on the road to support the GC riders.
“He’s a really good road captain; a rider who is always on the schedule,” Demol said. “It’s going to be tight but let’s see what it is and how he recovers. He’s a key rider but okay, it can happen this way.”
Merging two programs together can be difficult, but both Sørensen and Demol said the transition has gone smoothly. Prior to arriving in Israel, the team had a mini camp in Croatia, where directors and coaches met to decide on the 2020 program.
“I like to observe a little bit, and from the first time we all came together, to today, I see only good things,” Demol said. “Also the feedback that we have from the riders, I don’t see any problems.”
The team will kick off their 2020 campaign with a 1-month racing block in Australia, around the Herald Sun Tour before heading to Argentina and Colombia to prep for the program in Europe with the Classics squad. The season will include over 300 race days in all.
“We’ll take decisions on how we approach the races, with what goals and strategies for each, will be the key to our success. We have that in place,” Sørensen said. “We have to be realistic as well, the WorldTour is really heavy. We have races that we can go and start in a strong spot, and other races that will be for motivation but we will see.”