Giro d'Italia: Cycling Classic begins with historic Israel visit

Giro d'Italia preview Jerusalem Israel presentation
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Story highlights

  • Giro d'Italia starts in Jerusalem
  • World's second biggest cycle race in Israel for first time
  • Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome favorites

Jerusalem (CNN)They laughed at Sylvan Adams when he came up with the idea of starting one of the world's biggest cycling races in Israel.

Giro d'Italia organizers called his proposition "ridiculous," Adams recalls.
He had a tough job persuading Mauro Vegni, the head of the Italian Classic race.
    "I don't think he thought I was serious," says Adams. "But then I convinced him to pay a visit to Israel."
    And so began the long process to bring the famed Italian race to Jerusalem and to Israel for its Big Start.
    Everything that followed was largely a byproduct of Adams, whom some have dubbed -- perhaps a bit prematurely -- the Godfather of Israeli cycling.
    Adams' optimism is dwarfed only by his love of the sport.
    The eccentric Canadian-Israeli real-estate multi-millionaire discovered road and track cycling in his 30s and was instantly hooked.
    The son of a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who started a real-estate firm -- now one of Canada's largest -- Adams became an amateur champion in track cycling.
    In 2016, Adams left his native Canada and moved to Israel, purchasing a home in Tel Aviv that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea. He brought his passion for cycling with him.
    The Israel Cycling Academy team greets fans during the Giro's team presentation in Jerusalem.

    'Billion viewers'

    Israel has never been a true cycling nation. Sure, mountain biking is quite popular on some of the rough terrain around the country, and bikes are a common way to get around the traffic-clogged streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
    But Israel has never made a mark in competitive cycling. Not even close.
    Adams' dream is to change that, starting with the Giro d'Italia.
    He showed up for our interview on his bike, wearing a black bicycle helmet, light blue and white cycling jersey, and black shorts. As we took a stroll for the interview, Adams' powder blue cycling shoes clicked on the ground, as the metal clips hit the concrete.
    His goal is twofold: building a cycling culture in Israel and promoting the country overseas.
    "As many as a billion viewers will see the country on display, the full country," said Adams.
    "Cycling takes place outdoors, and for three days, the cameras will be on us for 16 hours showing the country from north to south."
    An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man walks past France's FDJ team during training near Bet Shemesh.
    I met Adams in a velodrome under construction in Tel Aviv's HaYarkon Park. His velodrome. Upon completion, it will be the Sylvan Adams Velodrome.
    When I ask Adams how much of his own money he invested between the velodrome, the Giro d'Italia, and launching an Israeli cycling team, he demurs.
    "It's an investment in the present and in the future towards the two goals that I have for this project, which are promoting Israel abroad and development of the sport of cycling, and frankly I'm very excited about the whole thing."
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    The velodrome will be the first in the Middle East, and Adams sees it as a bridge of peace between Israel and its neighbors.
    "Being the only velodrome in the Middle East, if our neighbors want to develop track riders, they're welcome to come here and ride with us and develop the sport and eventually maybe we could host some Middle Eastern championships when the sport is developed in all of the countries," says Adams.
    This year's Giro d'Italia has teams from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, two countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel.
    But Adams' optimistic political future is not the first bit of politics that comes to mind. The first stage of the Giro d'Italia is in Jerusalem, arguably the most sensitive city on earth.
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    'Beautiful and historical'

    The 10-kilometer time trial winds its way through a number of different neighborhoods in the city.
    Despite starting and finishing near the Old City, the route never actually enters the Old City itself, and it never crosses the Green Line -- the city's former dividing line -- to enter East Jerusalem, considered occupied territory by virtually the entire international community.
    Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat downplayed the significance of the route remaining entirely in the western half of the city.
    "We chose the route by beauty and not by anything else," Barkat told CNN.
    "The whole issue of how Jerusalem was in '67, in '48, 100 years ago, 2000 years ago is totally irrelevant."
    The 1948 reference is the year in which the State of Israel was established, while 1967 refers to the year Israeli forces captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both at the time under Jordanian control.
    British cyclist Chris Froome, under investigation for an adverse doping test, meets the media in Israel.
    The race continues with a second stage from Haifa in northern Israel to Tel Aviv in the center of the country. A third stage will take riders from Beer Sheva in southern Israel through the Negev desert to Eilat at the very southern tip of the country. It is the first time the race has ever started away from mainland Europe.
    Some of the riders relished the chance to spread the sport of cycling to new locations -- and maybe even to do some sightseeing on the ride.
    Alexandre Geniez, riding for the French AG2R La Mondiale team, said: "Coming to Jerusalem for the Big Start of the Giro is a break from our usual routine but it's beautiful and historical.
    "Cycling can't only be located in France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands."
    Echoing his sentiment, Domenico Pozzovivo on Bahrain's Merida team said: "Depending on the speed of the peloton, I hope to have a chance to look around during the race since it's my first time in Israel."
    This year's favorites are no surprise. Title defender Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands and four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome are leading the pack.
    Britain's Froome, riding for Team Sky, is under investigation over an adverse doping test as a result of a urine sample that contained excess levels of an asthma medication last year.
    Froome has denied any wrongdoing.
    It will likely be years before an Israeli cyclist makes a mark on competitive cycling. The country first needs to develop young talent before vying for the big titles.
    But for the tiny country, this year's Giro d'Italia is already a win.