Tour of triumph! The rapid ascent of Israeli cycling

Cheering crowds greeted the Israeli outfit's remarkable second stage win


The blue-and-white car came to a halt amid the cheering crowds at the finish line of stage 16 of the Tour de France in Foix.

In the bright sunshine, Steve Bauer, team director of Israel Premier Tech, leaped out and hoisted his colleagues in the air in triumph.

This was only the team’s third time at the Tour de France and they had just taken their remarkable second stage win of the race. It’s difficult for new teams to break into the mad world of Tour de France racing. Israel Premier Tech has taken it by storm.

In 2020, the signing of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome put the team firmly on the map (this year, he took third place on stage 12 to L’Alpe d’Huez before being forced to withdraw from the event with Covid). But it was the team’s newer additions – veteran Australian Simon Clarke and Canadian Hugo Houle – who won both the team’s first and second Tour de France stages.

“I’m very thankful for Israel-Premier Tech for giving me this opportunity,” Clarke said. “So to get them their first-ever Tour de France stage victory is very special for me.”

Most Tour de France teams do not display their country’s names in the title. Bora-Hansgrohe, effectively Germany’s team, is named after companies selling shower heads and extractor fans. Britain’s team, the Ineos Grenadiers, promotes UK chemicals billionaire Jim Ratcliffe’s 4x4 vehicles.

Not so with Israel Premier Tech, which is Israeli loud and proud. According to the team’s owner, Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams, its national identity is the whole point.

“I want the Jewish world to take pride in the only Jewish professional sports team,” the 63-year-old told the JC. “It is the only team in the history of Israel to compete at the highest level of its sport.”

He smiled, a gleam of bright white teeth and a shock of white hair. “There is no Israeli team in the NBA or in the FA Cup or any of it. I’m very proud of that and we feel the support. I like to tell the worldwide Jewish community that their support is the wind at our backs.”

When the team rode its first mile at the Tour de France in 2020, Jewish and Israeli people supported it out of loyalty. Now that they’ve started to win, the reaction has been ecstatic.

Guy Niv, who is racing for the team this year, became the first Israeli cyclist to ride the Tour de France in 2020. “It’s a huge privilege for me to represent my country on the biggest stage in the cycling world,” Niv told the JC, just before the finale of the three-week race in Paris.

“I was dreaming about racing the Tour 15 years ago as a spectator with my dad. Thirteen years later, I was the first Israeli to make it to the Tour de France. Now it’s my second time here and it’s getting bigger in Israel. I’m happy I can be part of it.”

When Adams took over what was then known as the Israel Cycling Academy, there was barely any cycling in Israel. He aimed to develop the sport at all levels, creating an ecosystem that brought promising youngsters in at the grassroots and turning them into athletes able to compete at the highest levels.

As well as building the Middle East’s first velodrome, and bringing the Giro d’Italia to Israel for the first time, Adams helped push the grassroots team from the footballing equivalent of League One all the way up to the Premier League. Once a team reaches top-level status, they get an automatic place at the biggest road race of all, the Tour de France.

Niv, 28, signed up in 2017. He is a prime example of the path that Adams wants to see homegrown athletes tread, the billionaire said.

“We’re really hoping to take the kids out of the velodrome and eventually introduce them to road cycling. We want to take them through a whole cycling ecosystem,” Adams explained.

“That brings the best, the most ambitious and the hardest working Israelis to the World Tour, where we are hoping that we’ll see more victories for Israelis."

The wins have already started to come, at smaller pro races to begin with, through their sprinter Itamar Einhorn.

The goal is to one day have an Israeli winner of a Tour de France stage. But for the first three years, the hope has been a stage victory from any of their international squad on the biggest cycling stage in the world.

The first win this year came on the fearsome Roubaix stage, taking place on the cobbles of northern France which are difficult enough to walk on, let alone ride over. The winner, Simon Clarke, was picked up by Israel Premier Tech over the Chanukah period, in what has proved to be a savvy piece of business.

“On perhaps the most difficult stage we emerged as winners,” Adams said. “The way Simon kind of lost the race three times in the run-up to the line, then how cleverly and with such energy and skill he threw his bike across the line, that was quite special.”

The second was a win in the Pyrenean mountains for the Canadian Hugo Houle. The 31-year-old dedicated the victory to his late brother, who was killed by a drunk-driver while out running more than a decade ago.

“That was my motivation, to win for my little brother,” Houle said. “And today I did.”

Houle’s victory was a very special one for lifelong cycling enthusiast Adams, who himself used to race alongside the Canadian in different age categories on Thursday nights in a Montreal suburb.

Houle, racing on the same course but as a junior, would speed off the front and Adams would ride closely behind his wheel. Houle would win every sprint but Adams would take the Masters (over-30) category victory.

“He was a man possessed,” Adams explained, describing Houle’s attack from the breakaway to go off alone at the front of the race and cross the line first. “If you watched him do that climb where he attacked the guys and then on the descent, he was a madman descending.”

Having known Houle since the cyclist was a boy, Adams says it was gratifying to see both of his nationalities win at once, with the Canadian Houle won wearing the kit of Adams’ Israeli team. This was also the first win for Canada in 34 years. The last Canadian winner? Steve Bauer, Adams’ team director.

“I’m quite convinced we’re going to see many victories in the future,” Adams says, adding that he hopes it will soon be Israeli riders taking victories for the team.

“We will win some of the bigger races, like the European Championships, the World Championships, and eventually the Olympic Games and the Tour de France. We’re developing something that’s not just at the highest level. There is a pathway for Israelis to make it all the way. We’re doing it from the ground up.”

While Adams was at the Tour de France to see Clarke’s historic victory, he missed Houle’s triumph. The reason? He was himself racing at the Maccabiah Games, winning silver at the velodrome and gold in the time trial.

After the road race tomorrow, he will fly to Paris to greet his victorious team on the Champs-Élysées. “I always prefer to participate rather than to watch,” Adams smiles.

These days, in the world of professional cycling, the same can be said of Israel too.

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