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How Israel Start-Up Nation’s Sylvan Adams helped orchestrate the daring rescue of Afghan cyclists

In an exclusive interview with VeloNews, ISN owner Sylvan Adams recounts the 'cloak and dagger' rescue operation and explains why he wanted to help.

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“Whatever it costs, I got this covered.”

Those were the first words from Sylvan Adams when he learned of the dire situation facing female cyclists in Afghanistan who were desperately trying to escape the clutches of the Taliban.

“In the case of the cyclists, they were just terrified,” Adams told VeloNews. “The regime is such now that just riding your bike can get you killed.”

A journalist who had worked closely with female Afghan cyclists knew another journalist who knew Adams. A few calls were made, and the wheels were quickly put into motion. The owner of Israel Start-Up Nation did not hesitate and immediately sprung into action.

The request was simple: We need help getting people out of Afghanistan, do you have any contacts that could be helpful to extract these Afghan cyclists?

Also read: The incredible backstory of the Afghan rescue mission

It was a race against time, and the consequences were literally life or death, freedom or oppression.

This summer, with the U.S. troops pulling out on August 31 after 20 years of war, the Taliban swept into Kabul on August 15, much quicker than many had expected. Within a matter of days, the government collapsed, and the nation’s airports, highways, and borders were being choked off by the Taliban.

Time was of the essence. The complexity and dangers of the ever-more-volatile situation in Afghanistan only enhanced the urgency.

The Taliban were patrolling the streets, and the main point of exit was the Kabul airport. On one side of a fence surrounding the airport were the U.S. and international forces and a one-way ticket to freedom. On the other side, an uncertain but certainly bleak future under the yoke of the Taliban’s twisted interpretation of sharia law.

In the ensuing days, Adams and a growing consortium of diplomats, philanthropists, journalists, an NGO, cycling’s UCI, and governments helped orchestrate a straight-out-of-Hollywood rescue mission that involved presidents and prime ministers, operatives on the ground, two chartered flights, and a daring land crossing.

In total, 167 people were able to escape the clutches of the Taliban. A few weeks after it all happened, Adams is still moved when he recounts the operation.

“It was a lot of cloak and dagger, and stuff you read in spy novels and see in movies,” Adams said in a phone call from Tel-Aviv. “People were risking their lives to help these Afghans get out.”

A U.S. Air Force aircrew, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, prepare to load qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021. The Department of Defense is committed to supporting the U.S. State Department in the departure of U.S. and allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan, and to evacuate Afghan allies safely. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Crul)
Efforts by many across the cycling community helped 167 Afghans escape Kabul, shown here in a file photo. (Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Crul/Getty Images)

Two-level chess match

Pieces were moving very quickly on two different levels.

The first was at the highest reaches of governments across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America, with calls coming and going between Adams and his long reach of contacts.

Adams reached into his expansive Rolodex that includes prime ministers, CEO’s, Tour de France winners, and presidents.

A few calls quickly put him in touch with IsraAID — an Israeli NGO that operates around the world helping in the aftermath of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other disaster relief projects — and they agreed to join forces. Adams had the financial might and international contacts, and IsraAID literally had boots on the ground with staff in Afghanistan.

It was a call here, a request there, and a roadmap to freedom that started to come together.

Adams also reached out to the UCI, where president David Lappartient also got the wheels moving in Switzerland, which stepped up with an offer to help patriate the first group of escaping Afghan cyclists.

“The impetus of this entire mission is because I got this call for help, and we ended up in the Afghan rescue mission,” Adams said. “In addition to the cyclists, we have taken out female judges, police officers, families of diplomats, human rights workers, an all-girls robotics team, and members of the Afghan Parliament. It’s quite a diverse group. It started with the cyclists, and the list grew very quickly.”

Even if Adams could get flights into Afghanistan, the Afghans would need passports to get out. It was a Catch-22 situation — without passports, they couldn’t leave. And they couldn’t get passports without a confirmed passage out.

Adams helped pull the levers to expedite the passports, and delivered them to people inside Afghanistan in time to leave before the end of August.

“We knew of an Afghan diplomat in one of the diplomatic missions and that individual made 160 passports for our two groups which enabled them to get out,” Adams said. “It was heroic work by so many.”

Even more remarkable, the UAE and Albania — both majority Muslim countries — also agreed to serve as critical bridges between Afghanistan and Europe and Canada, where many are hoping to secure refugee status after the government there promised to accept 40,000 Afghans.

It’s especially significant for UAE, which signed a historic peace treaty in 2020 to formalize diplomatic relations with Israel for the first time since the state of Israel was created.

“This is groundbreaking, and something new for our region,” Adams said. “We are now at peace between the nations and there are warm relations, and that is something very important. The Afghans are all Muslim, and we as Israelis helped them, and Muslims helped us.”

The female road bike team and coach Abdul Sadik Sadiki (C) seen during a training tour outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, 06 May 2016. In Afghanistan's conservative Islamic society, it is normally not customary for women to ride bicycles. Photo: )
The female road bike team and coach from a file photo in 2016. Efforts by the cycling community helped many escape the Taliban. (Photo by Christine-Felice Röhrs/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Crisis situation on the ground

And then there was movement on the ground. The actual extraction of dozens of people with family members was harrowing at times, and the consequences were very real.

“There was a lot of dangerous work for people on the ground,” Adams said. “It’s incredible that we were able to take out 167. We were inundated with requests. So many have been left behind. We are still working to get more groups out.”

The first group, which included many of the female cyclists, was able to fly out of northern Afghanistan in the first plane that Adams chartered for the initial extraction operation.

“They left everything behind, and some were quite successful,” Adams said. “They could only bring what they had in a few suitcases. They have to start from scratch. These are the best and brightest of the Afghan people.”

Things got dicey for a second group, which was trying to arrive at Kabul airport.

Their hoped-for escape route was made more difficult following the suicide-bomb terrorist attack at the Kabul airport on August 26, killing 13 U.S. soldiers among 183 victims, an attack that only heightened tensions across the region.

On the day they were supposed to fly out, a caravan of buses carrying part of the group was stopped and turned around by the Taliban before it could reach the airport.

The clock was ticking for the U.S. deadline of August 31, and the group was desperate to get out before the Americans left.

With the airport largely closed off, the group made a B-line for a land border. Adams did not want to reveal which country because there are ongoing efforts to get out more people, and did not want to risk seeing a possible escape route being shut down if it was publicized.

Once at the border, heavily armed bands of Taliban soldiers refused to let them cross. Urgent and panicked calls were made, and Adams helped ease the way.

“The Taliban had their rifles trained on our group,” Adams recounted. “We made some calls into that neighboring country, and a very important businessman knew the president of that country. Literally, minutes later, the gates were opened, and they were walking across the bridge and their lives were saved.”

Sylvan Adams, left, met this month with Fatima Sarohat, 19, a refugee who fled Afghanistan with Adams’s assistance. (Photo: ISN)

A personal mission

Adams’ role in the Afghan rescue mission is just the latest adventure for the 62-year-old billionaire.

An avid cyclist, Adams has been connected to Canadian cycling for decades as he helped manage his father’s real estate business, which grew into one of Canada’s largest.

In 2016, he made aliyah and patriated to Israel. That started a new chapter of his life, one he takes very personally.

“I’ve been asked, ‘why did you do this?’ The Jewish people have an ancient cultural imperative that obliges us to make positive contributions in the world,” Adams said. “‘He who saves a life saves the world.’

“I felt a personal obligation to practice this ancient Jewish imperative and to do what I could do to help,” he continued. “I feel very blessed to have the means to help these people get out of Afghanistan.”

Adams — who refers to himself as the “self-appointed ambassador at large for the State of Israel” — works with several other charity and humanitarian groups. Adams is the only Israeli billionaire to accept “The Giving Pledge” of donating most of their financial wealth to charity.

Ever the cyclist, a few years ago he jumped at the chance to join the team, and eventually became the principal partner in the Israel Start-Up Nation, Israel’s first WorldTour team that he largely underwrites with his personal fortune. Adams was instrumental in bringing the Giro d’Italia to Israel in 2018, and built an indoor velodrome in Tel-Aviv.

Earlier this year, his team started working with female cyclists in Rwanda to help nurture and grow the sport there. So far, they delivered bikes and equipment, and provided help with coaching and training, but it’s an important step ahead of Rwanda hosting the world road cycling championships in 2025.

Also read: ISN helping female Rwandan cycling club

Some critics accuse such projects as “sports-washing,” and others may take a dim view of cycling projects in the UAE, Bahrain, Rwanda, Israel, and other nations that pack sometimes controversial track records with human rights.

Adams — who is the son of Holocaust survivors — looks at it from the other side of the argument, and believes sport can build bridges that divide the world.

Adams cited the 2018 Giro “big start” that he underwrote to bring the Giro to Israel. Many wondered if such teams as UAE Emirates and Bahrain-Victorious would race. Adams insisted the teams from Muslim-backed nations would be at the start line.

“It’s the politics that create obstacles,” Adams said. “One of the things I like about the bike team is that we can compete in the spirit of good sportsmanship, and that’s the power of sport.”

Earlier this month, Adams flew to Albania to meet in person some of the Afghans as they wait for their paperwork to be finalized. It was an emotional reunion for everyone.

“I met these people, and they were lovely people. We got out 167 people, every life counts,” he said. “They said, ‘we can never repay you.’ I said you absolutely can because the way to repay is by doing good for others. When you see others in need, you pay it forward, and you will have repaid me.”

Some might roll their eyes at Adams’ earnestness and passion, but Adams isn’t doing this to placate critics. He’s doing it because he believes in it.

While many wrung their collective hands in helplessness about the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan, Adams played a key role in a rescue operation that delivered 167 people to safety and to new lives.

Sylvan Adams met Chris Froome at the ‘big start’ of the 2018 Giro d’Italia, and later signed him to his Israel Start-Up Nation team. (ISN: Gilad Adin)