It’s Definitely Not About the Bike

The route from Jerusalem to Rome was long and arduous; however, making history is never easy.

This past Sunday, Israel Cycling Academy, Israel’s first — and, for the moment, only — professional cycling team, proudly rode into Rome and crossed the finish line of the 101st edition of the Giro d’Italia. As one Israeli newspaper headline reported the watershed achievement for Israeli sports, “We’ve entered the Pantheon.”

It was a singularly historic moment for Academy. Established in December 2014, the team has proven its bona fides by racing in the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Professional Continental Circuit, capturing multiple stage wins along the way. Academy claimed overall victory in the 2016 Tour of Hungary, won by Estonian rider Mihkel Räim, and the 2018 Vuelta Ciclista a Castilla y León, with Spaniard Ruben Plaza leading the way. In January, Academy won a coveted wild card spot to compete in the 2018 Giro d’Italia, elevating the team to the UCI World Tour, the big leagues of men’s road racing.

At the same it was recruiting world-class cyclists from around the globe, Academy was cultivating homegrown talent. The team added several Israeli riders to its roster, including cycling prodigy Guy Sagiv, who promptly proceeded to notch back-to-back wins in Israel’s National Road Race Championships in 2015 and 2016 and then captured the National Time Trial Championship crown in 2017.

When Sagiv and Guy Niv were named as the sole Israeli representatives to the team’s Giro roster, Israel went wild with pride. The nation’s major newspapers closely followed the “two Guys,” tracking their training and preparation for the big race. Academy fans and followers adopted the slogan and exhortation “Yalla Academy!” to cheer and motivate the team.

And when Sagiv rolled down the start ramp to launch his ride in Stage 1 of the race, a technical and demanding 9.7-kilometre individual time trial that wound through the streets of Jerusalem, he made history as the first Israeli to compete in a Grand Tour.

So it was that, at the start of the 101st Giro d’Italia, Israel Cycling Academy was the home team, racing in the world’s most heralded city. Regardless of the outcome on the road, Academy would enjoy the ultimate home field advantage. The Jerusalem start was followed by two more days of racing through Israel, a 167-kilometer stage from Haifa to Tel Aviv and a 229-kilometer stage from Be’er Sheva to Eilat. After a combination rest/travel day, the race moved to Italy for the final 18 stages.

The Giro, whose first race was organized in 1909, is one of three so-called Grand Tours (the others being the Tour de France and Vuelta a España). The trademark maglia rosa — pink jersey — began to be awarded to the race leader in 1931. This year’s Giro, whose 3,562.9 kilometer route spanned 21 stages from May 4 to May 27, was special on many levels. The Grande Partenza — Big Start — of the 2018 Giro, held in Jerusalem with the Old City’s walls as backdrop, was the first start of a Grand Tour outside of Europe. In a move saturated with symbolism, Giro organizers decided that this year’s race would start in one holy city and conclude in another holy city.

The fact the Giro was starting in Jerusalem also presented the opportunity to acknowledge the monumental and altruistic good deeds of Gino Bartali, a champion Italian road cyclist. Nicknamed Gino the Pious, Bartali won the Giro d’Italia three times (1936, 1937, 1946) and the Tour de France twice (1938, 1948). More important than his cycling accomplishments are Bartali’s life-saving heroics following the German occupation of Italy in 1943. Using his long-distance training rides as cover, Bartali acted as a courier for the resistance, rescuing Jews by transporting forged identity papers and other documents within the frame tubes of his bicycle. Bartali never spoke about his wartime activities, which came to light in 2010, some 10 years after his death. In 2013, Yad Vashem recognized Bartali as Righteous Among the Nations. On May 2, 2018, two days before the Giro was to commence in Jerusalem, and with several Academy cyclists participating in a memorial ride through the Yad Vashem campus, the State of Israel posthumously bestowed Bartali with honorary Israeli citizenship.

Academy’s stated mission is to be Israel’s ambassador to the world, by leveraging the great exposure it receives during races to promote Israel as a tourist destination in general and for cycling enthusiasts in particular. But the team also recognizes it serves a deeper, critical role as well.

Sylvan Adams, Academy’s co-owner and patron, said it well. Describing the thousands of Israeli spectators that lined the roads as the “greatest fans in the world,” Adams said the three stages held in Israel exceeded his expectations. “This was a Giro d’Israel, a three-day tour around our special country.”

About the Author
Harvey M. Lederman lives in Westchester, NY, with his wife and three children.