Israel's cycling team looks to make its mark at home terrain Giro

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israel's first professional cycling team hopes to take inspiration from the biblical sites they pass during training as they prepare for the start of the Giro d'Italia, whose initial three stages will be hosted by their country.

During a training session on Tuesday southwest of Jerusalem, Israel Cycling Academy (ICA) members passed Tel Azeka, the site where tradition holds the biblical David, future king of Israel and Judah, defeated Goliath with a stone.

"We see this site as a metaphor of what we're going to endure during the Giro, where some of our rivals are giants," said team manager Ran Margaliot.

"But we're going to do our best," he added, with cyclists such as Britain's Chris Froome, Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, Italian Fabio Aru and Thibaut Pinot of France set to take part in the race beginning Friday.

Investors and cycling fans came together to create the ICA in 2014 as Israel's first professional cycling team.

The first goal was to promote cycling in a country where sports such as football, basketball and even judo greatly overshadow it.

They hope to create a culture of cycling that will result in more people riding bicycles to work or to relax on the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest.

Since its creation, the team has gradually earned victories in second-tier races.

With the assistance of wealthy Israeli businessman and cycling enthusiast Sylvan Adams, originally from Canada, an additional goal has been added: promoting Israel's image abroad.

Friday's start marks the first time any of cycling's major three races -- the Giro, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana -- will begin outside of Europe.

It is not only a coup for Israel's efforts in promoting itself as a sporting and tourism destination, but also a chance for the ICA to prove itself.

"We hope to earn a place among the greats," Margaliot said.

- 'An honour' -

When the 22 teams set off on a time trial in west Jerusalem on Friday not far from some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it will be ICA's first time at the starting line for one of the big three races.

The next two stages will be held in northern and southern Israel before heading to Italy.

Adams, influential in bringing the Giro to Israel and himself a cyclist who financed the construction of the country's first velodrome, had to overcome scepticism from organisers when he first approached them.

He said he wanted to bring millions of television viewers the image of a country not only defined by its conflict with the Palestinians.

"One of our goals is to make people talk about Israel," he said. But, he added, "we also want to be on the podium."

The ICA's team includes Ruben Plaza, the 38-year old Spaniard and winner of a Tour de France stage in 2015.

He will be taking part in his fourth Giro.

The third stage will traverse the desert, but Belgian Ben Hermans does not expect the ICA team to encounter difficulties.

?We are here with a good team for the Giro to get some stage-wins maybe," he said.

"We want to race aggressively in the front, to go on breakaways and to ride some nice finals, and maybe fight for a stage win.?

For Guy Niv, one of two Israelis on the team, the race is an "honour."

?It?s a great honour to be one of the two first Israelis to ride a grand tour. It's a kind of dream coming true," he said.

"It?s something I?ve been dreaming about as a kid when you?re only starting to ride. When I had a bar-mitzvah my father and me travelled to see the Tour de France, to see the riders, to feel these speeds."