I first met Amitay Cohen three days before the start of the Giro d’Italia in Israel when I came upon his electronics shop on a dusty stretch of Ibn Gavriol in Tel Aviv, a road down which a Grand Tour peloton would soon hurtle towards a sprint finish.
Three large monitors showing last year’s Giro stages filled the window display. Behind them, a polished Merida mountain bike leaned against a stack of aftermarket speakers.
Amitay was the kind of Israeli that I wasn’t sure even existed when I first heard that Israel was going to host the start of the Giro d’Italia. He started riding in 1998 and today races with his local club, Dynamo Cycling.
When I lived in Tel Aviv, the seething temperatures meant I could hardly ride my bike beyond spring, never mind racing it. Could the people of a country with such little cycling heritage really be bothered to care about a throng of skinny men in lycra rolling through their streets? Plenty of cycling events take place away from cycling’s heartland, but I was sceptical.
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With dozens of Palestinians killed at Gaza border protests in the weeks leading up to the individual time-trial in Jerusalem, I questioned the motives behind Israel’s purchase of three Giro stages for a reported €10m. Was it truly a promotion of cycling in the country, or something closer to those lingering allegations of “sports-washing”?
I was dubious about who this Giro was for. But here was Amitay wearing his cycling cap, peak-up, broadcasting his bike races to Tel Aviv through his shop window.
As the Giro slowly began to set up shop in Israel over the next couple of days, I met the Israelis that had come to greet the Grand Tour circus with open arms. Echelons of local riders on road bikes with clip-on aero bars trailed behind the Quick Step team during their training rides. Bands of cyclists sporting Israel Cycling Academy kits became a common sight along the roads.
My scepticism about the race’s motives quelled and my vision began to filter out anything not marked by the iconic pink of the maglia rosa.
However, as I stood amongst the flag waving crowd at the team presentations, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of irony as the countdown to the ceremony started to the tune of “Time” by Pink Floyd.
This is a band that has previously refused to play in Israel in support of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. I don’t support BDS, I could never agree with the logic, but it was a small reminder of other people’s condemnation of Israel’s injustices. When the first team rolled up onto the stage, I began to photograph the spectacle.
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Locals and international tourists alike leant over the barricades to watch the riders whoosh by during the opening individual time-trial in Jerusalem. Walking around the course, I ran into Amitay again. He was still in his cycling cap, still peak-up.
As Tom Dumoulin set off on his stage winning effort, the crowd roared. For better or for worse, I couldn’t help but marvel at the idea that a future generation of a sport so new to this incredibly complex country was somewhere in these crowds, cheering on the skinny men as they raced through the narrow streets lined with Jerusalem stone.
Comment: Why I will be boycotting the Giro’s 2018 start in Jerusalem