The Jewish state’s cycling team, ‘Israel-Premier Tech’ soars at the Tour de France
By David E. Kaplan
There is hardly a more prestigious thrill in the world of professional cycling than winning a stage at the Tour de France. However, when there are 176 riders as began the 2022 Tour de France with the Grand Depart in Copenhagen on July 1; and there are only 21 stages, the odds are challenging. The commentators common line every day for 21 days is:
“Who will have the legs to sprint for the line.”
Talking about legs, I knew something was ‘afoot’ when I received a WhatsApp from a friend on July 6 asking:
“Are you watching?”
He did not have to specify what – it was a given. I turned on Eurosport just in time to see an Israeli team make history in the Tour de France when one of its riders won a stage of the world-famous race.
Australian Simon Clarke of Israel-Premier Tech won stage five of the tour in a photo finish after a 157 kilometer (97.5 miles) run from Lille to Arenberg featuring 20 kilometers (nearly 12.5 miles) of cobbled roads.
It was the first time ever an Israeli team had performed so well.
It was a sheer joy and pride for Israelis, to see their country’s name branded on the riders cycling top at the podium.
With the Tour de France being the most prestigious cycling race in the world, reaching more than 15 million spectators and over 1 billion television viewers globally, this was a refreshing media spotlight on Israel.
Could it happen again at this Tour? Having happened once, anything is possible!
So when I again received a WhatsApp from my friend and a co-founder of Lay of the Land, Yair Chelouche this time on the 19 July, saying again: “Are you watching?”, I replied, “You gotta be kidding.”
“Turn on your TV we may have a story in the making!”
I flipped to Eurosport and screamed in joy as there was the name ISRAEL in bold leading the pack. However, it was still some 40 kilometres to the finish line and anything could happen. Could the rider keep it up with the profusely panting predators lunging from behind?
This was riveting stuff and warranted cracking open a beer. After all, this rider needed all the support and I thought cracking a Gold Star – one of Israel’s premier beers – was my thoughtful contribution.
After dropping on the Port de Lers, the Israel-Premier Tech rider Hugo Houle chased back to the front of the race with 40 kilometers to go before attacking from a reduced group at the foot of the final climb. The beauty of the French countryside – its medieval churches and chateaus were but passing flashes of distractions as all eyes were on Hugo Houle, who was like horse with blinkers bolting back to the barn as if stung by a wasp!
When he attacked he was – in his words – “setting the table” for fellow Israel-Premier Teck team member Mike Woods but “ when I saw that they let me go, I just went all in, full gas. You never know how it will turn out in the breakaway. Sometimes you need luck. Nobody wanted to commit…and then it was just a time trial to the end.”
‘Luck’, ‘legs’ and ‘commitment’ saw the Israel-Premier Tech rider take the stage. A joy for Israel, it was an enormous emotional win for Houle.
With one minute and ten seconds ahead of the chasers behind him, Houle had plenty of time not only to raise his arms in celebration on the approach to the line but also to point to the sky in memory of his brother.
“It sounds incredible, but I know my brother helped me,” said an emotional Houle of his younger sibling Pierrik who was killed by a hit-and-run driver a decade earlier.
“He went to run in the snow and was hit and left dead by the roadside. It took me three hours to find him.”
“It was my dream to win a stage of the Tour de France since he left us,” said the Stage 16 Israeli-team winner.
So while most Stage winners express absolute joy as they are received by their teams after crossing the finish line, “This one is for my brother,” Hugo Houle could be heard saying as he was embraced by his team after the 178.5-kilometer (111-mile) leg from Carcassone to Foix,
“This means a lot to me,” Houle told reporters shortly afterward, with his voice breaking as he struggled to hold back the tears.
The Tour de France is not all about racing and picturesque countryside – it’s about human stories.
With the name of the Israel team having changed from Israel Cycling Academy to Israel Start-Up Nation and finally to Israel-Premier Tech, there was something common in all the name-changes – the inclusion of the word ISRAEL.
I thought back to my Hilton Israel Magazine 2019 interview with the Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist and powerhouse behind the renaissance of cycling in Israel, Sylvan Adams. Credited for the successful campaign to have Israel host in 2018 the Big Start of the Giro d’Italia, I recalled his words:
“I intentionally insisted on ISRAEL in the name of the team – our name is part of our identity, so that sports commentators cannot avoid mentioning ‘Israel’ in their coverage of races where our riders compete. It’s strategic branding. Instead of TV viewers around the world hearing of ‘Israel’ in news reports relating mostly to political issues, they will increasingly hear it in the context of sport. We are resetting the visuals.”
How right he was.
I also think back to early 1990’s when Avi Ganor, a former business correspondent for Israel’s daily Haaretz, gave it all up to start a local monthly magazine called OFANAYIM (Bicycle).
“Meshuga (crazy)!” my friends said. “How can you make a living out of a magazine about a sport that nobody in Israel takes seriously?”
Really? Takes seriously?
Two decades later, an Israeli team is winning stages in the Tour de France.
Israel is a country that faces endless existential challenges but always has the knack of getting – literally and figuratively – ‘back on the saddle’
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