Jerusalem (AFP) – Often in the news as the epicentre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem will later this week become the backdrop of the start of one of cycling’s biggest races, the Giro d’Italia.
The race’s “Big Start”, beginning Friday, marks the first time any of cycling’s three major races — the Giro, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana — will begin outside of Europe.
It is a major boon for Israel’s efforts to present itself as a sport and tourism destination despite being the site of a seemingly intractable conflict.
The three-day start will take riders on a spin through the hilly metropolis fraught with religious and political tensions, to modern Mediterranean cities and finally the desert, passing the world’s largest erosion crater and ending at the Red Sea.
The 10-kilometre Jerusalem time trial on Friday will see riders sprint through the western sector of the contested city, steering away from mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied over 50 years ago and later annexed in a move not recognised by the international community.
That day’s stage will finish a short distance from Jerusalem’s Old City, the location of some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Saturday’s 167-kilometre leg will begin in the northern coastal city of Haifa in striking hillside gardens built to commemorate the Bahai faith, which believes in “the oneness of humanity”.
Riders will head further north to the ancient city of Acre before the route circles back south, parallel to the Mediterranean to Israel’s financial and cultural centre Tel Aviv.
The third and final day of the Giro’s start will begin in Beersheba in southern Israel, pass through the Ramon Crater and end at the Red Sea resort of Eilat 226 kilometres later.
The 21-stage race ends in Rome on May 27.
– ‘A crazy idea’ –
Amir Halevy, director general of Israel’s tourism ministry, said hosting the race was “a huge accomplishment for tourism”.
“Hundreds of millions of Europeans and people from around the world watching the Giro’s start in Israel will be able to see our amazing views, religious sites, beaches and desert,” he said.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to pressure Israel over its occupation of the West Bank, had unsuccessfully called for organisers to relocate the race’s start.
Israel has reportedly paid some 10 million euros ($12 million) to host the event. Officials have declined to comment on the amount except to say that it is in line with what other nations have paid for previous Giro starts outside of Italy.
Sylvan Adams, a businessman-turned-philanthropist and riding enthusiast, was the driving force behind bringing the Italian race to the Holy Land.
Adams, a real estate developer whose business was based in his native Canada, took up competitive amateur cycling 20 years ago, at the age of 41, and has since won a list of races.
A few years ago, prior to his immigration to Israel in 2016, he was approached by Ran Margaliot, a former professional Israeli rider, who got Adams to become a board member and eventual co-owner of the biking team he had founded, the Israel Cycling Academy.
“Ran had the idea — and it was a crazy idea — to approach the Giro and bring the ‘Big Start’ to Israel,” Adams said.
“It sounded ridiculous — a grand tour has never raced outside Europe,” Adams said.
But after Margaliot managed to convince Mauro Vegni, the Giro director, to visit Israel, the project suddenly became feasible to the Italians.
Adams said he then took over negotiations “and we made a deal”. The idea of expanding the event to a new region appealed to the Italian organisers, he added.
“They saw a big advantage to building their brand by going further afield than any bike race had ever done before and doing something that was totally out of the box,” Adams said.
Adams says bringing the Giro to Israel was a “particularly enjoyable project” since it combines his love of his adopted country and his “passionate hobby” of cycling.
He also believes the event will boost cycling in Israel and cause parents to push their children toward the sport.
– ‘Something really special’ –
Retired professional riders said the Israeli terrain shouldn’t pose a problem to the Giro riders, who train and compete around the world, including in deserts.
Andrea Taffi, a retired Italian national cycling champion who recently visited Israel to promote the race, said the Giro’s Jerusalem start bore special significance.
“I’m Catholic, and really it’s something really special for me,” he said.
For Maurizio Fondriest, former world road cycling champion, the most interesting part will be the desert, but the most significant one is Jerusalem.
“You can imagine the riders that can wear for the first time the maglia rosa (pink shirt indicating the race leader) in Jerusalem, it’s a historic day for everyone,” he said.