Thousands of fans lined the streets of Jerusalem to cheer on the 176 cyclists in the first stage of the 21-day Giro d’Italia road race on Friday, as they watched Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin of Team Sunweb win and don the coveted “Maglia Rosa” pink jersey worn by the race leader.
Dumoulin, who won the Giro d’Italia last year, took first in the 9.7-km (6-mile) time trial through the hilly streets of the center of Jerusalem in 12:02, two seconds faster than the second and third place finishers Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) and Victor Bel Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal).
As the defending champion, Dumoulin was the last to ride of the 176 riders.
The fastest rider from the home team Israel Cycling Academy was Belgian rider Ben Hermans, who finished in 108th place with a time of 13:14. Guy Sagiv, Israel’s time trial champion, was the fastest Israeli finishing in 162nd place in 13:47. Guy Niv, the other Israeli rider, finished 167th in 13:51.
Before the race, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with members of the Israel Cycling Academy at the Tower of David to wish them luck. “We are very pleased that bicyclists have come here from all over the world, including the Arab world,” said Netanyahu. “This is a very important message from Jerusalem, our city, the city of peace.”
There are no Arab cyclists competing in the Giro d’Italia, although there are teams sponsored by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Members of the UAE and Bahrain-Merida team refused to comment on the political situation. According to Giro d’Italia race organizers, no riders or teams pulled out of the race due to pressure from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“We are here for taking part in a sport event, we have no comment on any other issues,” said Andrea Appiani, the communications director for UAE Team Emirates.
Appiani said the team was excited for team member Valerio Conti’s 12th place finish. Appiani said after Giro favorite Chris Froome took a spill on a reconnaissance lap before the race started, his other riders decided to ride the windy course conservatively.
Froome is already embroiled in controversy because of his failed test for salbutamol, a performance enhancing substance, during the Vuelta a España race last September. Froome, a four-time Tour de France champion, is attempting the “grand slam” of road races with victories at the Giro, Vuelta and Tour de France.
Froome fell on a sharp turn onto Shmuel HaNagid Street on Friday morning, and except for a few scratches he was uninjured. Froome wasn’t the only rider who got a bit of road rash before the race started. Colombia’s Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) also crashed on a sharp corner and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Bahrain Merida) was forced out of the race with a broken vertebra after a fall on the training run. Team spokesperson Ozren Muller said Siutsou will be heading back to Italy for an evaluation from the team’s specialists.
Muller added that the Bahrain-sponsored team was concentrating on the sport and not interested in politics.
“We are an international team, we are proud to represent all our nations we come from,” said Muller, who noted that sports can often “open frontiers in every sector.” “We are here just for the sport, we are a world tour team and we are contractually obliged to compete in the world tour,” he said.
“[The course] was technical, hard to get a rhythm and challenging,” Rohan Dennis (BMC) told reporters after finishing in 12:04, which landed him in second place. “I would have liked for the roads to be a bit smoother but you can’t have everything.”
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 left at one-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.
Sylvan Adams, the Canadian real estate mogul who was the visionary and major funder bringing the Giro’s start to Israel, told The Times of Israel the race went “flawlessly.”
“I was filled with pride as I saw my countrymen, women and children line the streets to cheer for the racers, especially those from the home team, Israel Cycling Academy,” he said. “The TV images of magnificent Jerusalem were breathtaking. The Italian organizers, RCS, were simply in awe of how well this stage went, including the enormously positive media coverage around the world. What a day we just had!”
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 move 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.
Local Tel Aviv racing team White City Racing set up near the finish line, comparing notes on their favorite riders and throwing out predictions for the next two race stages in Israel.
“Many of us have seen races in other countries, but it’s not something I ever dreamed would ever happen in Israel, so to be part of it is something really special,” said Rob Woolfson, a native of Manchester, England who has lived in Israel for 12 years. He founded White City Racing with a number of cycling friends three years ago. “It’s really cool to see cycling become such a part of Israeli society,” he said, looking around at the cheering crowd.
Woolfson hopes that the Israeli home field advantage will prove helpful on the most challenging stage in the country, Sunday’s ride from Beersheba to Eilat.
“Israeli riders know the course really well, so maybe they’ll have a good chance on Sunday,” he said.
White City Racing member Meital Gannot added that she hopes women will also start getting more seriously into cycling, even though the Giro d’Italia race only has male competitors.
“Every bit of exposure is good, anything that’s good for cycling is also good for women’s cycling,” said Gannot, who lives in Tel Aviv. “There are a lot of women in the crowd today, but it is a shame we don’t see this type of race for women.” She said she expects these kind of events to trickle down, eventually building more enthusiasm for the sport across society.
“Something that often stops women from joining a cycling team is the fear of riding with men, that they might not be able to keep up,” said Gannot. She added that the White City Racing, which has both male and female members, is like a big family, with members supporting each other during tough rides, regardless of gender.
— Melanie Lidman (@melanielidman) May 4, 2018
Despite the frustration of many residents who had difficulty navigating the city center on Friday, thousands of people cheered on rider after rider, waving flags and banging on the fences lining the racecourse in support — from the kids sitting on their parents’ shoulders to hardcore cyclists wearing their clipless shoes and bike shorts.
In Israel, bikers are often shoved to the side of the road, honked at incessantly, or even killed in tragic accidents. But for once, the cyclists had plenty of space on the road and all of the attention, and many cyclists are hoping that excitement, and respect, will stay after the pink flags of the Giro return to Italy.
At a press conference after the race, first-stage winner Dumoulin said the course was “demanding but enjoyable.” “Jerusalem helped me, I loved these streets,” he said. “This is an exciting city with a special culture. The crowds were amazing for a country that isn’t so aware of the sport.”