A perspective on the road ahead as the wheels of Middle East progress are spinning in sync with the wheels of Israel’s top cyclists at the Tour de France
By David E. Kaplan
What a difference 7 months can make!
In February 2020, Israel’s pro-cycling team, Israel Start-Up Nation (ISN) took part in a cycling tour in the UAE that this August, signed a historic groundbreaking “normalization deal” with Israel – a deal that not only formally ended an economic boycott but will likely lead to transforming the political landscape of the Middle East. “Normalisation” is the name of the new game and what was once “abnormal” is today peddling at high speed into “the new normal.”
If in February Israeli professionals were in Dubai cycling, in a post-Corona world Israeli tourists will be there shopping.
More than seeing it coming was ISN’s co-owner and the man behind Israel’s cycling revolution, Sylvan Adams, who played a sporting role in these welcome developments. A cycling enthusiast responsible for the Middle East’s first indoor velodrome in Tel Aviv and who brought the “Grand Start” of Giro d’Italia to Israel in 2018 so astutely observed before February’s 2020 tour in Dubai:
“When our leaders decide to make peace, we would already have prepared the GROUND for a warm peace.”
Literally on the ‘ground” as the signs were all too evident for Adams on the streets in Dubai in February:
“Our cyclists had the national blue and white colours emblazoned on the front of their jerseys. They carry the name of our nation on their backs and fans were standing in line to receive autographs of our riders who they earlier had cheered in the streets of the United Arab Emirates.”
And now in September, when both the UAE and – for the first time – Israel are participating in the 2020 Tour de France, we see developments of the new agreement between Israel and the UAE taking shape by facilitating easy banking, lowering financial impediments to making investments between the countries, and promoting joint investments in the capital markets. The word out is that there will soon be additional agreements in aviation, tourism, trade tech, research, energy and academia.
Adams is astute when it comes to marketing Israel through sport. In an interview with the writer with the Hilton Israel Magazine at the time of the start of the Giro d’Italia in Israel, Adams said, “It was not just the biggest sporting even in Israel but the biggest event in Israel’s history – period!”
Point taken. Where have a billion people watched an event – “any event”- in Israel?
“Over a billion people worldwide,”said Adams, “watched the first three days of the race in Israel. What this TV global audience was exposed to was not an Israel as a ‘news item’ but as a normal country, basking in sunshine with exquisite scenery and wonderful warm people. They saw our biblical sites as well as modern Israel and learnt about our culture.”
Upping the Pace
And now with Israel Start-Up Nation participating in the 2020 Tour de France, the Jewish State is riding its way into the history books as the first Israeli team to participate in one of the most watched sporting events in the world.
For three weeks, Israel’s cycling team “is being watched by three-and-a-half billion television spectators as we represent the whole country,” says Adams, “showing our true face, warmth, friendship, diversity, tolerance, bringing our message of peace to people all around the world.”
The 107th Tour de France got underway on the French Riviera on Saturday, 29 August, two months later than planned and under the shadow of the Coronavirus pandemic. That shadow, however, did not darken the spotlight on the state of Israel as it participates in what is described as “the world’s most prestigious and most difficult bicycle race”.
For 26-year-old Guy Niv, the first Israeli to ride in the Tour, “It is a dream come true; I have goosebumps thinking about it,” he said before the race.
“I am honored and privileged to represent my country and team in the biggest race in cycling. And to be the first Israeli to do so? It might sound cliché, but my dream of a lifetime has now been realised.”
Niv’s journey, which hopefully will lead to crossing the finish line on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées on September 20, began at the same place in 2007 when he was thirteen years old.
“I went on a Bar Mitzvah trip to watch the Tour de France and now as the first Israeli rider in the 2020 Tour de France, I have the opportunity to close a circle.” He had no illusions that it would be the ultimate challenge, saying, “I have concerns; it will be a mental challenge, not just a physical one, but I’m ready for this mission.”
The Tour de France is certainly a “big deal,” not only for the riders but for Israel. To this point, the dream of competing in the Tour de France was “almost unthinkable only five years ago when we launched the team,” says Adams. “Now it’s come true. A professional team with world-class Israeli riders alongside the finest international talents, racing with pride in one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events.” Adds Israel Cycling Academy co-founder, Ron Baron that “when we founded the team five years ago, we dreamed of this moment. But we strive for more than just the glory of racing in the Tour de France. We want every kid in Israel to say, ‘I can be Guy Niv one day. I can get to the Tour”.”
Niv is the only Israeli on the team, which also includes Ireland’s Dan Martin, André Greipel and Nils Politt from Germany, Ben Hermans and Tom Van Asbroeck from Belgium, France’s Hugo Hofstetter, Latvian cyclist Krists Neilands and from South Africa, Daryl Impey, the first ever from that country to wear the ‘Yellow Jersey’ at a Tour de France. That was back in 2013.
Now in 2020, “Around 3.5 billion viewers in hundreds of countries across the world will see the Israeli flag and hear the message of the Israel Start-Up Nation team that this is a country bringing unrivalled innovation to the world,” said Adams.
Taking on the challenges of navigating success in a turbulent Middle East or grinding up the Alps and Pyrenees in the Tour de France, it’s always “a lot of uphill”.
Equipped with boundless grit and chutzpah, little wonder for the mix-up sometimes of the ‘Start-Up Nation’ thought proudly as the ‘Upstart nation’!
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