“I was on Zwift and my brother came into my room shouting get into the shelter,” said Omer Lahav, an emerging talent from a small village in Israel.
Lahav was telling me about the chaos of training to be a professional rider when you live on the border of Israel and Gaza, living under the ever-present threat of rockets falling from the skies.
The launch of Israel’s first-ever top-tier cycling team in 2020 unsurprisingly caused waves far beyond the reach of the peloton.
Team owner Sylvan Adams has been clear that Israel Start-up Nation, the team named after a non-profit organisation in Tel Aviv, is a vehicle to promote Israel to the wider world.
But the aims of the team were called immediately into question by those who had seen behind the curtain of the Israel-Palestine conflict, through a phrase that is becoming ubiquitous in cycling - sportwashing.
According to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, between 2009 and 2019 Palestine killed 97 Israeli civilians in the Occupied Territories and Israel.
The Israeli security forces killed 3,556 Palestinians in that same period.
Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem and prominent Israeli human rights activist, previously told Cycling Weekly: “Israel’s propaganda campaign, meant to allow for the perpetuation of the occupation while preventing any significant international consequences, is usually angry and loud, involving guilt-by-association smears and false accusations of anti-Semitism.
“But that very same campaign also has a fluffier side, meant to distract attention away from the realities of Palestinian lives closed behind walls and checkpoints. In that cheerful campaign, Israel is not the oppressor of millions denied basic human and political rights for more than half a century, but rather the start-up nation of cherry tomatoes and Tel Aviv pride.”
Amidst the ambitions of management, and the barbs from human rights campaigners, is a generation of young Israeli riders who for the first time can dream of a pathway to the WorldTour, just like 21-year-old Omer Lahav.
Lahav, a former under-23 national champion, hails from the small village of Ein Habesor (population 1,100), just 7km from the Palestinian Gaza Strip territory, the site of numerous atrocities.
Growing up under the shadow of conflict Lahav, who races for the Israel Cycling Academy development team, part of the Israel Start-Up Nation WorldTour squad, has ridden through experiences most European under-23s have only heard about on news broadcasts, like the threat of rockets fired towards Israel from Gaza.
“You get used to it. All my life it’s been like this,” Lahav told me via Whatsapp call.
“It just seems normal that every few years we have a kind of war. You have to be ready to go into a shelter pretty much all of the time because of the rockets from Gaza. We have 15 seconds to get into a shelter.
“It’s a s**t situation because normal people don’t want this to happen, both on this side and in Gaza, we don’t want to live like this. But some people, on both sides, are crazy.”
Through bike racing, Lahav has been able to travel far beyond the desert roads that surround his village, first moving to Jerusalem in search of better training climbs, and then to Europe.
Over the last two seasons, Lahav has had the chance to compete around the world, from his home in Israel, to Rwanda, and the European cycling heartlands Belgium and France. All the while living and training in Girona, Spain during the summer months, a hotbed of elite cycling.
But how do his team-mates view Lahav’s experiences from the outside?
“They think it’s crazy, just something that you don’t think about when you live in a place like this.
“Because I’m used to it, I don’t really think about it too much. It’s just a part of life. I compare it to Girona for different things, like the climbs, this is the big difference for me.
“We have an apartment from the team and I can’t describe the difference - the riding, the climbs. For me it’s really exciting, you’re not used to this and you get excited about seeing professionals. It’s perfect.”
Having started riding mountain bikes at a young age, Lahav was inspired to take up road cycling and join a local club, in part thanks to a cycling star from his same village, Omer Shapira.
Shapira, 27, is a multiple Israeli national champion and races in the Women’s WorldTour with Canyon-SRAM, arguably making her Israel’s most prolific professional cyclist.
After traveling to Belgium for six weeks with his club in 2017, racing kermesses to experience European racing, and Lahav knew that road cycling was his calling, continuing his development until he joined Israel Cycling Academy for 2020.
But even after making it to the international stage, it hasn’t been plain sailing for Lahav, who juggles racing and training with military national service, mandatory for all Israeli citizens over 18.
“You have to do three years for boys and two years for girls. I have about a year left. There is a special athlete programme and they give you some vacation days every year that you can use to race and you have a special job that gives you time to train.
“Everyone’s job is different, but I’m a school teacher. It’s not common, I’m the only one in cycling who does this.”
While Lahav is allowed 90 days each year away from his national service to race his bike, he can take as many as 120 days, but with every day over the initial 90 then added onto the length of his service.
But with the end now in sight, Lahav can begin to dream of a future in the WorldTour.
Having already tested himself in some serious races, including the beloved Tour of Rwanda and his personal favourite so far, Le Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc, his first foray in true Alpine climbs, Lahav is now thinking about what he’d like to achieve: “I really want to ride one of the Grand Tours. I don’t mind which, because I don’t really know which one I’ll like most, but that is a big dream for me.”
Thanks to the stepping stones laid down by Israeli riders like Shapira, former Saxo Bank rider Ran Margaliot, and Guy Niv, the first Israeli professional to ever start (and finish) the Tour de France, Lahav’s dream of racing a Grand Tour is not as improbable as it once seemed.
He said: “My goal, for now, is to be at the top of the under-23 category in the world, to get some good results, and then I eventually want to step up into the WorldTour team.”
If a peloton consists of 150-plus stories, many will share familiar plotlines, but almost none will even remotely resemble Lahav’s
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