Thousands of spectators lined the streets of downtown Jerusalem to watch world-class riders whizzing down the city’s streets Friday for the first stage of the 101st Giro d’Italia, one of the most prestigious road cycling races in the world.
The time trials for the world-famous bike race — the largest sporting event ever hosted by Israel — up and down the capital’s hilly streets mark the first time a cycling Grand Tour has ever been held outside Europe.
The first three stages of the 21-day race are being held in Israel, after which the race will return to Italy and end in Rome.
A total of 176 cyclists from 22 teams, including an Israeli delegation for the first time, were taking part in the time trials which began just outside Jerusalem’s Old City. The 9.7-kilometer (6-mile) route took riders near some of Jerusalem’s holiest sites, but organizers have been careful to avoid any politically sensitive areas.
The race began at 1:50 p.m. as Fabio Sabatini began pedaling from just outside the Old City while title defender Tom Dumoulin will be the last one to set out at 4:45 p.m.
During a practice run, the race favorite, four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, tumbled off his bike. The Team Sky rider appeared to suffer cuts and abrasions to the right side of his body, Cycling News reported. However, Team Sky told the news site that he was fine and had suffered no significant injury.
A victory at the Giro would make him the seventh rider to win all three Grand Tours — cycling’s top three stage races — and only the third to hold the three titles at the same time. After successfully defending his Tour de France title last year, the 32-year-old Froome went on to win the Spanish Vuelta for the first time.
“The Giro is special and full of history, and I am looking forward to racing it again after almost a decade,” Froome said in a statement. “I’ve had a different start to the season as I’ve obviously been aiming to try and reach my peak quite a bit earlier than usual. But the target of going for a third consecutive Grand Tour has given me new motivation.”
The 2018 Giro d'Italia is underway ????
— Eurosport UK (@Eurosport_UK) May 4, 2018
Crowds were gathered at some of the major intersections in Jerusalem as the cyclists passed by, though the 10,000 expected spectators are far fewer than the race’s draw in Europe.
“I came for this especially from Holland,” said Ron Eisenmann, a lawyer who was waiting to cheer on the Dutch team. “Two years ago the Giro start was in Utrecht, Holland, and there were 1.5 million people watching. Holland has cycle mania.”
Waiting along a steep curve on Betzalel Street, Eisenmann said it was strange to watch the prestigious race with so few people around him. “It’s very relaxed,” he noted. “I don’t think Israel comprehends what the enormous impact of this race is,” he said. Eisenmann said Dutch TV had reported that the riders were complaining about not being able to have milk with their meat meals, since they are staying in hotels with kosher kitchens.
“I came here to watch also for the Formula One races,” said Jay Regosin, a 21-year resident of Jerusalem. He said that while a lot of people were frustrated with the road closures, he supports the race. “It’s necessary for Israel to have these things,” he said. “[Jerusalem mayor] Nir Barkat and others are trying to bring Jerusalem into the 21st century. They can’t do it politically so they might as well do it through sports.”
In an effort to encourage the public to take up cycling, the philanthropist Melinda Goldrich and the Israel Cycling Federation donated 350 mountain bikes to 32 different bike clubs across the country.
“These kids are so excited, we brought them here so they can see what is professional riding and how far they can go with this,” said Jaber Mohomad, the director of sports at the community center in Abu Ghosh, an Arab village west of Jerusalem. “We’re showing them they have to work hard so that next time we’re here they’ll be inside the fences along the route instead of outside.”
Two Eritrean asylum seekers, who declined to give their names, rode their bikes from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in order to cheer on Awet Gebremedhin, a member of the Israel Cycling Academy team.
“Today we are showing to millions of people the true Israel, the beautiful Israel, the Israel that’s fun to travel in, and the Israel that can host one of the largest sporting events in the world,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.
The massive logistical production required for hosting the Giro makes it the most expensive and complicated sporting event ever held in Israel, according to Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev. The race in Israel cost an estimated NIS 120 million ($33 million). Various ministries paid NIS 30 million and Canadian-Israeli real estate mogul Sylvan Adams paid for most of the remainder.
The first three stages of the 21-day race will take place in Israel. The first day is a 9.7-kilometer (6-mile) time trial in central Jerusalem. The 176 riders are leaving at 1-minute intervals starting at 1:50 p.m. The fastest rider will start the second stage of the race wearing the coveted pink jersey, denoting the first place rider.
After the Jerusalem time trials, the 167-kilometer (104-mile) second stage Saturday will whiz down the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to Tel Aviv. Stage 3 on Sunday will follow a lengthy 229-kilometer (143-mile) route — the second-longest leg of the entire race — from Beersheba in the Negev Desert down to Israel’s southern tip of Eilat along the Red Sea.
The race will then transfer to Italy, and the island of Sicily, for an early rest day on May 7.
The event consists of 21 days of racing, totaling 3,546.2 kilometers (2,203.6 miles) with 44 kilometers (27 miles) of vertical elevation.