The Giro d’Israel: A first-hand perspective of the controversial ‘Big Start’

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On the surface, the story is simple: a billionaire Zionist paid the organisers of the Giro d’Italia a lot of money to bring the race to Israel. His vision was two-fold. One: to get the world’s eyes on Israel and tell a rare, positive story about a country so often mired in bad press. Two: to inspire the next generation of Israeli cyclists; to show them that they too can race at the highest level.

But there’s so much more to the story than Sylvan Adams’ ambition and wealth. The story of the Giro’s Israeli “Big Start” is one of inescapable politics, of a fledgling cycling culture, of logistical nightmares, of tourism ventures, and ultimately, a tale about a bike race.

CyclingTips visited the “Big Start” as a guest of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. While not an immediately obvious platform for gaining neutral perspective, it served as a surprisingly useful vantage point. What follows is a first-hand account from the ground in Israel, following the opening days of the 2018 Giro d’Italia.

A story untold

There’s something about Jerusalem. An unshakeable feeling that what you see is only a fraction of the story, especially when you’re being shown around by Israeli Tourism. It’s a city so steeped in history, religion and conflict — past and present — that it defies comprehension like few other cities.

There’s a genuine power and beauty to the place, but it’s a city that also fosters a distinct feeling of unease. Perhaps it’s the fact the city itself is still under dispute, with no signs of resolution any time soon.

A tour guide said early in the trip that “Jerusalem is a very very complex place”. She was right. It’s hard for the casual observer to fully comprehend what’s going on.

In many ways Jerusalem was an perfect location for the first Grand Tour stage beyond European borders. The beauty of the city’s landscape and architecture make for an impressive backdrop, and the Giro’s journey from Jerusalem to Rome — holy city to holy city — offers a nice narrative in the first edition of the race’s second century.

Of course, starting the race in Jerusalem — and Israel in general — also brings with it significant challenges, not least politically.

Sport vs politics

You have to admire Mauro Vegni’s optimism. Speaking to AP in November last year the Giro d’Italia director declared: “The reality is that we want it [the Giro] to be a sports event and stay away from any political discussion.” He must surely have known the impossibility of his dream.

The reality is that Israeli money comes with its own price tag. It comes with unavoidable controversy and with condemnation from numerous quarters. If your bike race is going to be Israel’s biggest ever event — not just its biggest sporting event — it’s going to be viewed in the context of the region’s volatile politics.

Indeed, the race was political from the beginning. Official race documents designated that stage 1 would be held in “West Jerusalem”, a seemingly innocuous designation laden with political weight. Israel views Jerusalem as its undivided capital, despite the east of the city lying in disputed Palestinian territory, and despite the international community’s condemnation for its control of that territory.

For Israel, there is no “West Jerusalem”, only “Jerusalem” and the Giro suggesting otherwise was seen as tacit support for a Palestinian claim Israel doesn’t recognise. Israel threatened to withdraw its support for the Giro if the word “West” wasn’t removed from official documentation. The Giro swiftly complied.

“When they took out the ‘west’ they used the race to send a political message, to show the world that Jerusalem will be the Jewish state’s undivided capital,” explained Malak Hasan, a Palestinian journalist and cyclist. “[This] in itself completely ruined the beauty of sports; the fact that sports unites people.”

Israeli police frisk a Palestinian man in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter.

Speak to the people of Israel and you’ll hear time and time again that the country doesn’t deserve the poor reputation it has. This frustration is shared by politicians, business-folk and the average citizen alike, and it’s an issue many blame on the international media. So keen is the media to hammer the same narrative about “the conflict”, the thought goes, that the true Israel is lost and forgotten.

Israel has made no secret of wanting to use the Giro to show the “normal Israel”, to tell a different, positive story about the country. Sylvan Adams has made that his goal, so too the Ministry of Tourism, which joined Adams in footing the bill (Adams reportedly paid US$10 million with the ministry pitching in US$5 million).

This desire for positive press is understandable — every nation, organisation and individual wants to portray themselves in the best possible light. But in the case of Israel’s Giro ambitions, it leads to accusations of “sportswashing” — of using the Giro to divert attention away from issues such as the recent (and ongoing) conflict with Palestinian protesters in Gaza, or the conflict more generally.

“Israel’s going to do whatever they want — they would want to bring any amazing event in the world to Israel to bring a better image — but my problem is with the Italian people who are involved in the race,” Hasan told CyclingTips. “Does money make us really neglect human rights violations? Does money make us forget about the other people?

“Why did they agree to bring the race to Israel knowing it would be used as a PR stunt?”

For most riders in the Giro, the politics is a minor sideshow. Some are more politically engaged than others, but the majority were in Israel to do a job — race bikes. As a general rule road racers already tend to be insulated from the “real world”, and that’s no less the case in Israel, as Mitchelton-Scott’s Jack Haig explained.

“As the riders we probably don’t know enough about the political situation to be … involved in that sort of discussion,” Haig told CyclingTips. “We’re just here to race our bikes, to be honest. Yeah, sure, it’s a little bit in the background, but we’re just here to race bikes.”

Politics also weren’t a factor for the two Israeli riders in the race, Guy Sagiv and Guy Niv. For them, the Giro’s visit was a significant opportunity — and not just to represent their Israel Cycling Academy team on home soil, or to become the first Israelis to start (and hopefully finish) a Grand Tour.

“I think that sports and politics … it’s not supposed to go together,” said Guy Niv ahead of the race. “We are here to focus on the sport event and just to show the world the great country we have, the beautiful landscape and the beautiful people that will be on the road and show all the world that Israel is a great country.”

Guy Sagiv (left) and Guy Niv (right), the first Israelis to start a Grand Tour.

It would seem that any moral responsibility around bringing the race to Israel surely must lie with race organisers. Was it simply that RCS Sport couldn’t ignore the money heading their way, and that any controversy or condemnation was a price that simply had to be paid? Or was there something more to it — was RCS looking for something that would set the Giro apart from the Tour de France and Vuelta a España in this modern era of Grand Tour one-upmanship?

It’s not clear, and only RCS will know whether the money was worth the bad press and international condemnation, not to mention the significant challenges of actually bringing the race to Israel.

Grand Tours have started beyond their host nation before but no Grand Tour start has ever been as ambitious as the Giro’s Israeli dalliance. There was a Boeing 747 full of bikes, wheels and race infrastructure, there were team cars, minibuses and trucks sourced locally, and there were chartered flights from Israel to Sicily when the Israeli leg was finished. All for three days of racing.

On security

When the Police Deputy Commissioner, Zohar Dvir, spoke to the gathered media at the pre-race press conference, he did so slowly, deliberately, and with a hint of nervous anticipation in his voice. He and his team had done all they could — 4,000 security staff had been deployed to police the “Big Start” — but there was always the chance of something going wrong.

“For nine months we have been preparing on various levels with all partners in Israel and abroad,” he said. “We have been coordinating, we have been going around in the field. And I think we’re coming to the moment when we are ready. We’re aware of all the challenges, everything that could develop — we have proper answers ready for everything.

“I think that we’re good to go, I think that we’re ready. We’ll do our utmost to maintain the regular course of the competition while ensuring the safety and security of the bike race and viewers.”

Like many others, I’d come into the country with concerns that the race could be targetted by an attack of some kind. Thankfully, those fears dissipated quickly.

As the teams’ presentation wound to a close on the eve of stage 1, I realised I hadn’t felt unsafe or concerned at any point in the evening, despite the thousands of people packed into a relatively small area. More than that, I realised that throughout the evening, I hadn’t once considered that safety or security might even have been a concern.

That feeling continued throughout my time in Israel, both at the race and otherwise. The strong security presence might have been a factor. Police, army and other security personnel were a frequent sight throughout the race, but perhaps not as frequent as I’d expected.

The sight of security personnel carrying automatic weapons on the street never ceased to be jarring for this Australian, particularly when those wielding the firearms were barely adults. Military service is mandatory for most Israelis at 18 years old. Servicemen and women take their weapons home on weekends (losing them can result in imprisonment) and it’s not uncommon to see 18-year-olds walking the streets, or at nightclubs, in street clothes, with assault rifles slung over their shoulders.

In all though, security efforts would seem to have been a success — no incidents came out of the Israeli “Big Start”, allowing the focus to remain on the bike race.

Another desert bike race

The race itself began inauspiciously. Controversial pre-race favourite Chris Froome (Sky) was one of several to crash in the time trial reconnaissance, with suggestions from some quarters that the course was dangerous.

There were crashes when the stage began too, but on balance, the stage 1 time trial was a success. The twists, turns and rolling hills of Jerusalem’s inner west made for an intriguing race against the clock with defending Giro champion (and time trial world champion) Tom Dumoulin taking the stage win and first maglia rosa. An impressively large crowd had turned out at the start/finish area to see the stage unfold, all with Jerusalem’s ancient architecture as a backdrop.

The time trial would turn out to be the best of the three Israeli stages.

Good crowds turned out to watch stage 1 in Jerusalem.

Impressive crowds again visited the start and finish of stages 2 and 3, but the racing left a lot to be desired. The early kilometres of stage 2 provided some interest, but the several hours of motorway racing into Tel Aviv were undeniably uninspiring. Stage 3 was worse — the Makhtesh Ramon, the world’s largest makhtesh (a crater-like feature formed by erosion) offered a striking vista for a brief time, but its impact was lost in a sea of sand and straight desert roads.

The calendar is already full enough with bike races through the deserts of the Middle East — the Dubai Tour, Tour of Qatar, Abu Dhabi Tour and Tour of Oman. That Israel offered the same was disappointing and a missed opportunity.

Despite being a small country (the Australian state of Victoria is 10 times as big), Israel offers surprising variety in its terrain. The hills west of Jerusalem would have made the perfect setting for a stage, so too the hilly reaches of the country’s north. Big climbs were available too — Mount Hermon in the north offers 30km of climbing at 5% (admittedly in the contested territory of the Golan Heights) while the infamous Scorpion’s Climb, popularised by the Gran Fondo Dead Sea, is a tough ascent on the way up from 400 metres below sea level.

In short, there’s no lack of great riding available in Israel.

Sadly, Big Start organisers seem to have been at the mercy of the Giro d’Italia route designers. There was a frustration among some connected with the race that “better” roads weren’t featured — roads that local cyclists actually use — but Giro organisers wanted a gentle start. They wanted stages where no huge time gaps would be possible, so as to preserve the suspense of the race as it headed to Italy.

The result was two sprint victories to the strongest sprinter in the race, Elia Viviani, both after several hours of racing that were more likely to sedate than inspire.

Cycling in Israel

The course selection is doubly disappointing when you consider that the Giro’s visit to Israel was supposed to inspire the next generation to take up the sport. Road cycling in Israel is a fledgling sport, comprised of a small population of dedicated individuals. Local racing certainly exists but pathways to higher competition have traditionally been lacking. The hope is that the Israel Cycling Academy will provide that pathway in the years to come.

While the Giro’s visit should get more people on bikes, it could have done more to show the appealing riding that’s actually available.

Most recreational cyclists seem to avoid riding in the big cities due to a lack of safety and appropriate infrastructure. Instead they’ll drive beyond Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa before saddling up in quieter, calmer areas. The riders of the Giro d’Italia did likewise in the days before the race began, driving to the Jerusalem hills on recommendation from local guides.

And with good reason: the hills of Jerusalem are a treat for road cyclists with their winding climbs, stunning vistas and limited traffic (in contrast with the city itself). Those hills are also home to some impressive mountainbiking, including one of Israel’s first IMBA trails — a rocky and somewhat technical 5km jaunt down to a fire road that serves as the way back up.

Commuter cyclists are reasonably rare, and most seem to ride e-bikes that move at a pace more akin to motorbikes than bicycles.

By all accounts the Israeli MTB scene is growing rapidly with the assistance of some exciting events. Epic Israel is the country’s answer to the Cape Epic — a three-day MTB race with UCI S1 classification. The Samarathon is also a three-day MTB race, held on the striking desert trails in the country’s south.

The road scene, too, has a number of flagship events. GFNY Jerusalem attracted a big crowd in the weeks before the Giro, the Dead Sea Gran Fondo, too, continues to draw international visitors, and a new event is set to start up around the Sea of Galilee in the north of the country.

The Israeli Ministry for Tourism hopes the Giro’s visit will inspire riders from around the world (and particularly Europe) to visit Israel as a cycling destination. For now, it’s hard to see potential visitors opting for the Middle East over cycling meccas like the Alps or Pyrenees, and any change will take years, or more likely decades. It’s just a shame the Giro course didn’t reflect the impressive riding Israel has to offer.

The fans

Coming to Israel, I’d expected fan engagement similar to what I’d seen at the inaugural Tour of Guangxi late last year: crowds that were more perplexed by bike racing than excited. After all, Israel is much like China in lacking an established road cycling culture.

But Israel delivered crowds far greater and more engaged than I’d expected.

Solid crowds turned up to each of the stages. This shot was taken at the finish of stage 2 in Tel Aviv.

There was a genuine curiosity among those on the roadside — spectators welcomed and cheered the riders with perhaps surprising vigour. Having the Israel Cycling Academy team in the race certainly helped — it gave local fans a focal point for their interest, especially with two Israeli riders in the mix.

The turn-out, while modest by European standards, bodes well for the future of the sport in Israel. It’s not hard to imagine those who watched the Big Start live tuning in to watch the rest of the Giro as it makes its way through Italy. And from there, well — hopefully they catch the bug like the rest of us.

Ideally there’ll be a legacy race that springs up in the years to come, capitalising on local interest like the Tour de Yorkshire has done since the Tour de France’s visit in 2014.

The winding road

By now the Giro has left Israel and is winding its way north through its home country. The Israel leg feels like a distant memory and its impact on the race’s overall standings is likely to be minimal. But the significance of the Israeli Big Start shouldn’t be forgotten.

Bringing the Giro d’Italia to Israel was a massive undertaking — a “logistical nightmare” according to RCS Sport general manager Paolo Bellino — and the Big Start ran more smoothly than most would have predicted. Could we now see the other Grand Tours travel further afield with their start locations? Israel and the Giro have certainly shown it’s possible.

While Giro organisers would love to imagine the Big Start as an apolitical sports event, that’s simply not the case. The mere fact of its existence in Israel (and especially Jerusalem) made it political, and there’s little doubt the Big Start was used for political ends — to present a more savoury view of Israel to the world.

Whether that’s cause enough for condemnation or boycott is up to each individual to decide. What’s undeniable is how complex a place Israel is and how deep its challenges run.

Bringing the Giro to Israel turned the cycling world’s gaze to this region, but it only allowed fragmented glimpses of the whole; the prism of sport served to obfuscate the region’s turmoil, which perhaps was the point all along. Ultimately, the political issues highlighted by the Big Start are a chasm far deeper than can be bridged by three days of a bike race.

Disclosure statement: Matt de Neef travelled to Israel as a guest of the country’s Ministry of Tourism. CyclingTips would like to thank the ministry for their hospitality.

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