Q&A with Sylvan Adams: the man who brought the Giro d’Italia to Israel

(Noa Arnon photo)

For the first time ever, a Grand Tour cycling race will start outside of Europe. The Giro d’Italia, one of the world’s most prestigious and widely watched cycling events, will kick off on May 4 in Jerusalem. The Giro is considered one of three Grand Slams of the cycling world, along with the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana. Canadian-born philanthropist Sylvan Adams, the only Israeli member of the Giving Pledge, which was founded by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, was instrumental in bringing the race to Israel. Adams, who now lives in Tel Aviv, corresponded with The CJN via email.

How did you convince organizers of the Giro to hold part of it in Israel?

When I first approached the organizers of the Giro d’Italia about holding the Big Start, the first three stages of this three-week Grand Tour, in Israel, I don’t think they took it seriously. After all, no Grand Tour had ever raced outside of Europe. But then I convinced Mauro Vegni, the head of the Giro, to pay a visit to Israel. He saw that Israel is a beautiful country, has excellent roads, a cycling culture where thousands of Israelis can be seen riding bikes and that it is an open, tolerant, free and safe country. Only then did he become intrigued with the idea of pushing the Giro brand to further geographical territories and gave Israel serious consideration.

What were the main stumbling blocks you had to overcome to convince organizers to hold it in Israel? Were they concerned about security?

Once Vegni actually came to Israel and witnessed our beauty, freedom and safety, negotiations started in earnest. Early on, before investing too much time, I asked the Giro organization whether security was an issue that could become a deal-breaker. They smiled, telling me that they had consulted with the chief of the Italian national police, who told them that the race would be “safer in Israel than in Italy.” This subject never came up again.

Sylvan Adams

What is the significance of Israel hosting this event?

The beauty, freedom, spirit and safety of Israel will be seen by a billion, largely apolitical, sports fans, who don’t care about our problems and conflicts, but will realize that what they are watching doesn’t match with their preconceptions, which have been built up by the mainstream media’s singular focus on conflict.

My experience with first-time visitors to Israel is that they are almost universally pleasantly surprised once they see our country and society, and taste the food.

This Giro will invite a billion TV “visitors” and about 20,000 physical tourists to Israel to see our beautiful, pluralistic and free country. I’d say that’s pretty good PR and it will be done without polemics and arguments. Let the viewers decide how they feel after seeing Israel as it really is.

Did the organizers require a fee, or other monetary guarantee?

The Giro d’Italia is a brand that’s owned by Italian media conglomerate RCS. Last year, 840-million people watched the Giro on TV.

The Giro brand is an asset that is monetized for commercial value by its owner. So yes, we paid a substantial fee, 10-million Euros, for the right to host the Big Start.

The reason the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia exist is largely to promote tourism – showing off their countries to hundreds of millions of sports fans. This will be the same for Israel. I told Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin to expect a before the Giro and after the Giro effect on tourism. This investment will pay off many times over, both financially and, more importantly, by enhancing Israel’s image abroad.

Tell me about your meeting with the pope and how that might affect the profile of the event?

I received an audience with Pope Francis, to invite him to attend and bless the Big Start. Normally, the race finishes in Milan, but because the race is beginning in Jerusalem, the Giro organizers moved the final destination to Rome, so that the race will follow the symbolic route from Jerusalem to Rome. I suggested to Pope Francis that he could receive and bless the riders at both ends of the race, which are three weeks apart. I also came carrying an invitation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which I handed to the pope.

Sylvan Adams, left, meets Pope Francis.

How long is the race? What will its route be?

There are three stages to the Big Start in Israel, before the race continues in Italy for the remaining 18 stages.

It starts with a short, 10-kilometre time trial in Jerusalem. This will spotlight the famous and beautiful city of Jerusalem during three to four hours of TV coverage.

Stage two is over 167 kilometres and will begin in Haifa, riding by Nazareth and reaching as far north as Acre, before turning south to ride through Zichron Yaakov, Caesaria, Netanya and on throughout Israel’s metropolis of Tel Aviv, with a sprint finish by the beach.

Stage three is 226-kilometres long. It will begin in Beer Sheva, with a finish at Israel’s most southern point, Eilat.

Did you expect some countries would boycott Israel?

Every team selected for this year’s Giro has accepted our invitation and all are coming, including two teams with Arab ownership, the Bahrain-Merida team and the United Arab Emirates team.

How did you get involved in the world of cycling? Are you a cyclist yourself?

I came to the sport as a participant and an amateur bicycle racer. I discovered bike racing at age 41, about 18 years ago. I am now a six-time Canadian Master’s champion, four time Pan American champ, I have earned five gold medals at the Maccabiah Games and am a twice World champion, having won in 2013 and 2015. Finally, I won the Israeli National championships last year.

Sylvan Adams trains with the Israel Cycling Academy. (Israel Cycling Academy photo)

How popular is cycling in Israel?

Cycling is the fastest-growing sport in Israel, with literally hundreds of thousands of cyclists riding recreationally and commuting on bikes. On any Shabbat, I like to joke that half the country is Shomer Shabbat, while the other half is riding a bike. This is not far from the truth.

What is the Israel Cycling Academy (ICA)?

ICA is Israel’s first professional cycling team, which I co-own with my partner, Israeli businessman Ron Baron. We have 24 riders from 17 countries. We also have a development program of eight Israeli riders. Two riders from last year’s development squad graduated to the pro team, including one who will be racing in the Giro.

What is the overall message you hope this event conveys to people around the world?

I call this the “Giro of peace,” whereby the Big Start in Israel can point the way to using sport as a bridge towards peace and understanding between peoples, religions and nations.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.