TWO hundred of the world’s top cyclists will descend on Israel next month to make sporting history.
They’ll set off from Jerusalem’s Old City on the Giro d’Italia — the biggest sporting event ever seen in Israel — then ride from northern Israel to the Red Sea, via Beersheba, before continuing in Italy.
Like the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia normally takes place entirely in Europe. But this year it will pay tribute to Israel and its fast-growing cycling craze.
“It’s a 101-year-old event that is televised and watched by millions of people around the world, a huge international sporting event, so we are extremely excited,” says Tsadok Yecheskeli of the Israel Cycling Academy.
Cycling has become as synonymous with Tel Aviv as nightclubs and beach life in recent years. Almost one in five residents in central Tel Aviv cycles to work or school, taking advantage of miles of bike lanes, which include some stunning sea views.
Part of the change was inspired by London. Tel Aviv’s mayor introduced a bike-sharing scheme, like the so-called Boris Bikes, in 2011. Cycle usage in the city rocketed, and bike sales increased by 21 per cent from 2012 to 2015.
Tourists are embracing Israel as an attractive place to cycle, and a growing segment of Jewish tourists from the Diaspora prefer to see the country by bike instead of trudging on and off a bus. From Birthright to luxury travel operators, all kinds of organisations are now running cycling tours — and many Jewish charities, including Norwood, organise sponsored rides.
But the cycling craze, and Israel’s success in positioning itself as a cycling destination, was not enough to woo the Giro d’Italia. That only happened after Israel got involved in competitive cycling.
In 2014 the first Israeli professional team, the Israel Cycling Academy (ICA), was launched. It has competed in hundreds of races around the world, chalked up dozens of victories, and now boasts a £4.5 million annual budget. In 2016, Israeli cyclists competed at the Rio Olympic Games — the first time the country had taken part in an Olympic cycling event in 56 years.
Sylvan Adams founded the ICA, and when it had acquired a name for itself, he approached the Giro d’Italia organisers about his dream of taking the race to Israel. He not only managed to get them on board — he also managed to get the Pope excited about the race.
Adams enjoyed a private audience with the Pope in Rome to discuss the event, a race that will bring people of all religions to Israel.
And as a Jewish-Canadian-Israeli philanthropist, Adams believes that the race sends out an important message.
It will be a “testimony to the power of sport to transcend politics and division, and focus solely on sportsmanship — Jew, Christian, and Muslim; Israeli, Italian, and Arab, and many others from all the continents of this earth, all competing together in this Giro of Peace”, he says.