Five years after the launch of team Israel Cycling Academy—the squad that eventually became Israel Start-Up Nation—the team is set to fulfill its founder’s dream of placing the first-ever Israeli rider in the Tour de France.
Team officials told VeloNews that the team will reserve a spot, and maybe two, for one of the team’s four Israeli riders on the Tour de France roster come July.
“The DNA of the team is to develop Israeli riders, so one of them has to start the Tour,” French Director Sportif, Lionel Marie told VeloNews. “We have to prepare them from the start because the level is so high. We don’t know yet how they will handle the pressure of the Tour, so it’s our objective to keep them calm.”
The four Israeli riders on Israel Start-Up Nation for 2020 are Guy Sagiv, Guy Niv, Omer Goldstein and Itamar Einhorn. On paper, Niv and Sagiv are the likely front-runners to make the Tour squad, as both are finishers of the Giro d’Italia. While each rider has a different race program for 2020, both are confident they will make it onto the Tour team.
“If we both are going to a really good start to the season and show that we are super useful for the team, I don’t see why there are not going to take both of us,” Niv said.
The 2018 Giro d’Italia started in Jerusalem, and the event marked the first time Israeli riders participated in the event. Niv and Sagiv were the two to make history, and both hoped to inspire Israeli fans and cyclists to embrace the sport.
Both men took dramatically different pathways to the start line in Jerusalem.
Niv had been racing road for just one year up until that point, after beginning his career in mountain biking. He switched to the road in 2017 after learning that the Giro would start in his homeland.
Following a strong push to make the team’s Giro roster, he was forced to abandon due to illness during the race’s first week.
Sagiv, meanwhile, held on to finish in Rome, crossing the line five hours down on GC winner Chris Froome. He returned home to great fanfare for his achievement, but inside, he was quietly disappointed.
“For some people it seemed like I wanted to be great, but it wasn’t that. I didn’t deserve enough for that attention,” Sagiv said. “The feelings haven’t changed, I doubt they ever will. Just finishing was never the goal, and I hope it will never be.”
Niv returned to the Giro with the team in 2019 and finished, which gave him hope to one day race the Tour de France. The sport’s biggest grand tour holds a special place for him; when he was 13 he traveled to watch the race for his Bar Mitzvah. He now hopes to come full circle and experience it as a professional.
“The biggest pressure anyone puts on me comes from myself,” Niv said. “Of course, we have a lot of exposure now in the media, something that’s not really normal for us here in Israel – normally the attention goes to football.”
Both Guy’s will begin their campaigns at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in Spain and remain in Europe for the first half of the season, based in Gerona.
“The riders know it’s important, they have a lot of responsibility for cycling in Israel,” Marie said. “They are flagged in a way, now that we are WorldTour. Niv has shown this year that he can finish the Giro well, and Sagiv did very well the year before. We knew it was hard for Niv, and so we dealt well with him this year and he’s grown a lot.”
In Israel, military service for young men is mandatory. Sagiv was forced to delay his debut with the team because of it, something the other two Israeli riders on the team, Omer Goldstein and Itamar Einhorn are also managing. That’s one of the reasons why the team does not anticipate Goldstein or Einhorn to compete for Tour spots in July.
Niv and Sagiv understand the decision for team management will not be easy. Both said they were cognizant of the opportunity and challenge facing them; it’s not everyday that riders from non-traditional cycling nations are given a chance to start in the sport’s biggest race.
The two view the Tour berth as an advantage rather than an inter-squad competition.
“This year is going to be very challenging, the pressure is going to be from the beginning of the season until the very end,” Sagiv said. “My goal is to not just be in the Tour but to be a part of something so I hope I will get the chance to do so. If not this year, then the years after, I’ll keep chasing my dreams.”