The first day at school is enough to make anyone nervous. The routines are new, the places unfamiliar and the faces unknown. Do you belong here? How will you fit in? So spare a thought for Guy Niv, the first ever Israeli rider to ride the Tour de France.
He lined up in Nice last weekend and is, as you read this, speeding his way across southern France. He’ll have experienced riders around him in André Greipel and Dan Martin. No one is expecting him to deliver results beyond helping those leaders with their respective goals, but it marks a crowning achievement for him, and indeed for Israel Start-Up Nation.
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“I have goosebumps just thinking about it,” said Niv ahead of the Grand Départ. “It’s huge. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do – and now we are about to make history.”
In just five short years, the team has gone from its first race as a Continental level team to signing Chris Froome, the most dominant Grand Tour rider of his generation. To say the rise has been meteoric is a disservice to astrophysics.
“When we founded the team five and a half years ago, we never thought that it was going to happen that quickly,” says Tsadok Yecheskeli, board member of the team and its media director. “I definitely can tell you that we were looking at a slower process and doing it year by year. I think that we never imagined that we will be the world’s top level now.”
Yecheskeli speaks enthusiastically about co-founder Ran Margaliot – a pro rider with Saxo Bank until 2012. Margaliot’s dream to send an Israeli rider to the Tour was born of him being told he’d never make it to that level. He set up the Israel Cycling Academy with Israeli businessman Ron Baron in 2014 and swiftly roped in Yecheskeli to help. In 2015, Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams bought into the project as co-owner. That same group of people were instrumental in taking the Giro d’Italia Grande Partenza to Israel in 2018.
Adams’s arrival was a game-changer, says Yecheskeli. “I can never forget Sylvan had this business card printed which said ‘Ambassador at large of Israel’. He feels that Israel is sometimes looked at in an unfair way by the world and image- wise he feels that, through sports, we can do a lot to show what we call the normal Israel, the democratic Israel.”
So when Katusha sought to withdraw from the WorldTour last year, Adams – in a move that showed the same opportunism as signing Froome – saw a chance to take the next step and add a top-flight team to the project’s stable. Now they are starting their first Tour de France.
It’s all, Yecheskeli explains, part of a plan both to elevate cycling in Israel, which he says was, until recently, almost non-existent; promote an inclusive vision of the country both inside and outside; and to supercharge Israeli cycling at the elite level, too.
Margaliot left the project last year, handing over the management reins to former Sky rider Kjell Carlström, but is busy setting up a series of cycling schools all over Israel, working on building the base of the pyramid that the pro team stands on.
Read the rest of this feature in the 3 September issue of Cycling Weekly. Available now in supermarkets and newsagents and online. You can also take out a subscription to Cycling Weekly magazine and get it delivered to your door each week.