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Israel Start-Up Nation: Inside Froome's new team

In-depth
9 Jul 2020
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Poaching Chris Froome, Israel Start-Up Nation is aiming to bring cycling to Israel and Israel to the world

Words Peter Stuart Photography Noa Arnon

As a bus rolls through the streets of east Jerusalem towards the Mount of Olives, the passengers lean over to point their phones out of the window. But these aren’t the usual busload of snap-happy tourists. These are the professional riders of new WorldTour team Israel Start-Up Nation.

They’re here for a pre-season training camp – a chance to meet new teammates, ride together and begin to forge the bonds any cycling team needs to be successful. But right now they have another job: to help present the best elements of the city to the outside world – a Jerusalem that is modern, liberal, diverse and peaceful.

The goal is to win races, yes, but there’s a much larger project that underpins Israel Start-Up Nation. The team aims to promote cycling in Israel, but perhaps more pertinently promote Israel to cycling.

 

Project Israel

Israel Start-Up Nation is the new name of the team formerly known as Israel Cycling Academy. The move from ProContinental to WorldTour has attracted a new title sponsor – tech company Israel Start-Up Central, an international hub that connects Israeli startups with companies around the world. Yet Start-Up Central is not the main financial backer of the team. It’s the Canadian-Israeli businessman at the helm who has really influenced the team’s destiny.

Sylvan Adams is a two-time World Masters Champion, winning the time-trial title as recently as 2017, and regularly tags onto training rides with the team. He’s reportedly worth $1.5 billion, a fortune he amassed dealing in real estate in Canada. He first invested in the team in 2014 and emigrated to Israel the following year.

In 2015 Adams became co-owner of the Israel Cycling Academy alongside the team’s founder, Israeli businessman Ron Baron. Adams’ intervention in the team, and the funding that came with it, has played a big part in the step up to the WorldTour. Combined with various efforts to promote Israel abroad, it also marks the team as a project beyond the world of cycling alone.

‘I love sports as a fan, and I believe in it as a bridge-builder between diverse people,’ Adams tells Cyclist as we talk in a bar in Jersusalem. ‘Maybe, with this team, in a little way I can move the needle and help foster world peace,’ he says with a smile that confirms the scale of his ambitions, but also hints that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The team has invited the world’s press to the camp to meet the riders and discover the scenic splendour of Israel, but it is also an exercise in some of the soft diplomacy that it hopes to realise.

In training, the team has ridden past the Dead Sea valley and Mitzpe Ramon, but has also ventured close to the Gaza strip and through the West Bank – claimed Palestinian territory.

Adams explains the fundamentals of the historical context of the West Bank occupation, outlining exactly how he sees the situation and his ideas for a route to peace.

He doesn’t hold back on any topic, no matter how controversial, and he’s not afraid to lay his politics out for the world to see (check our Q&A with him for more of that).

Team co-owner Sylvan Adams

In a similarly forthright way, he makes no secret of having courted numerous WorldTour teams to see his outfit compete in the Tour de France. It was the unravelling of Team Katusha, though, which presented a unique opportunity.

Back at the team hotel, co-owner Baron explains the arrangement: ‘We knew our destiny was the WorldTour. We tried with the racing points and almost got there last year. Then we had talks with other teams; I can’t tell you which ones.

‘Eventually we reached a very complicated agreement with Katusha owner Igor Makarov, whereby we rented their WorldTour licence for three years. We reached a deal with him without exchanging much money. We just accepted the liabilities and took the riders we wanted.’

That meant adding the likes of Nils Politt and Alex Dowsett to the team roster, alongside major signings Andre Greipel and Dan Martin. It’s a giant step for the team, which will see some of its riders move up from Continental level.

For some, that transition would be considered unrealistic, but for the team’s owners and managers, it’s a move underpinned by a confidence that this is a matter of destiny. 

 

The Big Bang

‘On 12th August 2008, when I was covering the Georgian war, I was hit by a Russian missile in the middle of a square filled with civilians,’ says Tsadok Yecheskeli, media director at Israel Start-Up Central and one of the team’s founding forces. ‘About 10 people died, including a Dutch reporter. I found myself in hospital two months later waking up from a coma.’

Yecheskeli was international news at the time. His story could occupy more pages than this magazine can offer, but it was a key part in the foundation of the team.

‘I spent about a year in the hospital. One of the guys who was with me in my toughest time was a rider called Ran Margaliot,’ Yecheskeli says. Margaliot was an Israeli cyclist who spent several seasons with Saxo Bank, but was told early in his career that the Tour would be out of reach for him. Rather than give up on the sport, he set his sights on a new goal.

‘His new dream was to bring an Israeli team to the Tour de France one day,’ Yecheskeli says. ‘He met this Israeli businessman who was a cyclist himself – Ron Baron – who offered to give him a few hundred thousand euros every year to help realise his dream.’

Yecheskeli was so moved that he volunteered his services as a media manager, and to this day he still works on a voluntary basis despite an enormously busy and immersive race schedule.

It was Margaliot who first attracted Adams’ interest in the team, too. Adams says, ‘I was minding my own business when Margaliot sent me an email and said, “Listen, I’ve heard nice things about you and would you like to go for a bike ride?” We started to talk and they invited me to be on the team’s board.’

Adams subsequently began discussions to bring the Giro d’Italia to Israel, a seismic move for cycling in Israel and a key point in the team’s history. ‘I started negotiating to bring the Giro big start here, and I realised that we needed to be ProConti otherwise we wouldn’t have the opportunity to have an invitation as a wildcard team,’ says Adams. ‘We talked about it and I stepped up my investment in the team, so we went up to ProConti a year early.’

 

The Giro’s Grande Partenza in Israel sparked accusations of ‘sportswashing’ Israeli foreign policy such as the controversial building of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

The Israeli government threatened to withdraw funding days before the event as organisers described the start venue as ‘West Jerusalem’ rather than ‘Jerusalem’, due to competing Israeli and Palestinian claims over the city. Turkish muslim rider Ahmet Örken was reportedly pressured to quit Israel Cycling Academy amid the broader tensions.

For Baron and Adams, though, headlines designed to court controversy didn’t tell the real story – it couldn’t have been more successful.

‘I think the best evidence of our international approval is that the Giro came here,’ says Baron. ‘No one would have thought that possible. It was another building block in the team’s development. There were no real objections – a few Palestinians and some socialists, but generally we were very well accepted.’

Ultimately, though, the team wants to win over its cynics as much as its Israeli fans. ‘If we could get a Palestinian rider on the team, what a statement that would make,’ says Adams. ‘That we can get along and that people can get along. I think it’s a powerful statement and we can maybe change the world a little bit through sport.’

That desire is reflected in the roster, which includes a muslim rider from Morocco and a Druze rider on the Continental team. On a wider level, Adams sees a chance for some symbolic collaboration and friendly rivalry with Arab teams. He shows us a selfie of him with the Prince of Bahrain (and owner of Team Bahrain) Sheik Mohammed. The two hit it off, he says.

Returning to the roster, there is a strong list of new names, but they still have a big challenge ahead. Dan Martin has struggled to transition to being a true General Classification contender, while Andre Greipel is a legendary sprinter but has not had a big result for a few years and severed his contract with Arkea-Samsic after an unsuccessful season. At the same time, a key ambition for the team has been to promote Israeli cycling with Israeli cyclists.

‘The team is under two frontiers of pressure,’ says Yecheskeli. ‘We took 29 victories last year but none of them in the WorldTour. So certainly we want to make it and not be a low-ranking team. We also understand that we will not be a successful team unless we are able to bring the Israeli riders up into the WorldTour.’

Over dinner, team staff share the owners’ bullish optimism, but have no illusions about how difficult the task ahead will be.

Backing the underdog

Baron and Adams are open about funding. The team’s budget is around €14 million, which has predominantly come from their own pockets.

‘We spent €1 million when we were Continental, then €2-3 million, then €6-7 million when we were ProContinental. Now we are more than double that,’ says Baron. ‘But we have significantly more sponsorship now. We have Vini Fantini and some other sponsors. The other teams will be around our budget, maybe up to €20 million.’

For some of the riders, though, it wasn’t budgets that appealed, but rather the open-minded and gung-ho spirit of the team.

‘It’s been an adventure – it’s what I signed up for,’ says Martin of his experiences in Israel so far. Some have speculated Martin had a painful innings with Team UAE.

Crucially, he joined the Israeli team before there was any sign of the merger with Katusha that catapulted it to the WorldTour. As such, it was a step down, but one he saw as a worthy opportunity.

‘I think the WorldTour calendar is very congested, with a lot of races on, but also if you’re on a good ProConti team you’re essentially on the same programme,’ Martin says. On the other hand, he saw that the team was on a clear trajectory towards WorldTour.

‘I knew it was coming,’ he says. ‘Maybe not this year, but the ambition was to be WorldTour and my idea was to help them reach that goal. It was a case of when and not if.’

In terms of the season ahead, the team boasts six dedicated sprinters. Greipel is the biggest name on the roster, but given his age of 37, younger upcoming riders such as Davide Cimolai may emerge as leading talents. Greipel remains philosophical. ‘In the end, we’re not always at the same races,’ he says.

 

At the same time, Greipel will be able to mix a pastoral role for the younger sprinters with his own goals: ‘The directors have the confidence to give me the opportunity to go for sprints, and the talent is there to make the whole project work.’

Politt’s second place at Paris-Roubaix and fifth at Tour of Flanders mark him out as a talent for the cobbled Classics. Yet the range of abilities on board do spread the team quite thin. It may find itself juggling the goals of sprinting, one-day Classics and Grand Tour general classification, without even considering the development of national riders.

In terms of Israeli talents, Guy Sagiv and Guy Niv will be the big hopes for the year ahead. Both have finished the Giro, and by doing so in 2018 Sagiv was the first Israeli to finish a Grand Tour.

For a team in its first year on the WorldTour, Israel Start-Up Nation has a huge amount to do. They must juggle aspirations to develop home-grown cycling talent, rejuvenate talents that have floundered for several seasons and help foster world peace. To call it a difficult task would seem an understatement.

At the same time, step back and consider the progress of Israeli cycling under the impetus of the likes of Margaliot and Adams, and almost anything seems possible. As Baron tell us as we depart Israel, ‘We’re only getting started.’