Israel gears up to host prestigious Giro D’Italia cycling race opener in May

First three stages of iconic competition to be held at cost of NIS 120 million, one of the country’s most expensive and logistically complex sporting events

Members of the Israel Cycling Academy, which received one of the Giro d'Italia wild cards to participate in the May 4, 2018, race in Israel (Courtesy Noa Arnon)
Members of the Israel Cycling Academy, which received one of the Giro d'Italia wild cards to participate in the May 4, 2018, race in Israel (Courtesy Noa Arnon)

Almost 200 spandex-clad world-class cyclists will be whizzing down Israel’s highways the weekend after next as the country hosts the start of the Giro D’Italia, the world’s second-most prestigious bike race, in a mammoth logistical endeavor largely financed by a single person who’s hoping it will catalyze a tourism bonanza as well as a spike in local enthusiasm for the sport.

The Giro Big Start Israel, to be held May 4-6, will be one of the most expensive single sporting events in the country’s history. Billionaire Canadian real estate mogul Sylvan Adams, who moved to Israel two years ago, is the event’s driving force and main financier.

Various ministries, including the Tourism Ministry and Transportation Ministry, provided approximately NIS 30 million ($8.4 million) of the race. The Big Start Israel team had difficulty obtaining sponsors for the event due to the fact that cycling is not a well-known sport in the country, so Adams financed most of the cost on his own.

“This is an opportunity to show Israel to the world,” Adams said. With the Tour de France, cycling’s most prestigious race, “France found a way to promote French culture and French tourism and French history and French geography on a massive scale to hundreds of millions of TV viewers,” he added.

Giro Big Start Israel organizer Sylvan Adams at the 19th Maccabiah Games (Courtesy Maccabiah)

Last year, 840 million people watched some portion of the Giro D’Italia on TV, and this year the number is expected to be a billion, according to Danny Benaim, CEO of Comtec Group, which is the production company in charge of the Big Start Israel and has overseen other major sporting events in Israel. In contrast, the Super Bowl had 114 million viewers.

The first three days of the 21-day race will be held in Israel, consisting of a 10-kilometer time trial in Jerusalem, a 167-kilometer race from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and a 226-kilometer race from Beersheba to Eilat. Afterwards, the 176 riders from 22 teams will fly to Italy to ride the remaining 18 stages of the race, finishing in Rome.

It is the first time in the 101-year history of the Giro D’Italia that the race will start outside of Europe.

Roads and highways along the race route in Israel, including Route 2 and Route 90, will be closed during portions of the race. Air traffic to Eilat will also be affected for about four hours on the event’s last day.

Organizers said that no one had pulled out of the race due to its location in Israel or to the boycott Israel movement. The route avoids the Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem, but there have still been minor controversies along the way. Israeli ministers were angry last year that the race’s start referred to “West Jerusalem,” implying a division from East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital. After the race organizers apologized, Palestinian officials accused the Giro of being “complicit in Israel’s military occupation.”

An illustrative photo of the 2012 Giro D’Italia. (CC, BY-SA Wikimedia)

Adams said that aside from promoting Israel as a tourism destination to the entire world, he also hopes to build up cycling culture in Israel, where few people follow the sport.

“I think cycling is a bridge building endeavor, because sports is a universal language,” said Adams. “It is something we can use to grow strong people here in Israel. I would like parents, when they see the massive Giro coming here, that maybe they’ll buy a bicycle for their child. They’ll realize their child can aspire to race at the highest level after seeing it happen here on home soil.”

Adams is also financing the construction of the Middle East’s first velodrome, an indoor cycle racing track with banked walls. The velodrome, located in Tel Aviv’s Yad Eliyahu neighborhood, will be dedicated on May 1. Adams said he hopes to replicate Britain’s success in the cycling world after the country invested in velodromes for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and helped grow a generation of young cyclists. He hopes Israel will host the 2021 World Junior Championships for track racing.

The Giro D’Italia will cost an estimated NIS 120 million ($34 million), making it one of the most expensive single sporting events in Israel’s history. More than half of the expense is for licensing fees for broadcast rights.

Adams estimated that the riders, support teams, technicians, and 400 foreign journalists coming to Israel for the event will inject NIS 50 to 60 million into the economy in hotel rooms and restaurants.

Around 6,000 police will be required to secure portions of the race route. More than 50 motorcycles will accompany the cyclists on the route, beaming footage to a satellite plane hovering over the route.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (left), Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (on bicycle in middle) and Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev, with Giro d’Italia organizers and winners celebrating the announcement of the 2018 Giro d’Italia bike race, whose ‘Big Start’ will take place in Israel in May 2018 (Courtesy ‘Big Start’)

For the first time, an Israeli team will take part in the Giro D’Italia, after the Israel Cycling Academy snagged a wildcard spot, thanks to its role as host. The 24-person team features five Israeli cyclists. Only the team’s top prospects will ride in the race stages.

The race start is also a logistical project on a magnitude larger than the pope’s visit or a presidential visit, said organizers. After the race’s conclusion in Eilat, almost 1,000 people and three cargo planes full of bikes and gear will need to fly out of the tiny Uvda airport in the space of an hour to reach the next stage of the race in Italy.

Adams was hopeful that thousands of Israelis will come to cheer along the cyclists, though he was realistic that the country won’t produce the cheering masses that accompany the races in Europe. “We’re starting a process here to get people to know cycling,” he said, expressing hope that people will congregate at points along the route such as Mitzpe Ramon or Wingate. Shuttles will be available to bring spectators closer to the routes in some cities.

Adams, an amateur rider who has won master’s competitions in his age group on a national and international level and was most recently the Israel National Champion for his age group, said he knows that the road closures of main routes will likely provoke some headaches among Israeli drivers.

But he hopes that Israelis will be able to see beyond the minor inconveniences to the benefit it will bring for the country and the cycling culture.

“We want to build the sport from underneath,” he said. “People are going to see the best cyclists in the world rolling by their homes.”

Information about road closures, shuttles, race updates, and spectator suggestions is available on the Giro D’Italia Big Start Israel official site.

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