The Column: Chris Froome and the dream of Israel’s cycling team
Just over a year ago, in a bar in Jerusalem, Israel Start-Up Nation co-owner Sylvan Adams was holding court. Amongst a group of journalists and riders at the team’s training camp, the beers were on him and top of his list of conversation was Israel.
"All first timers are surprised when they come here. They say: 'The stuff that they’ve been selling us! This isn’t the country that I’ve been shown!'" he exclaimed.
Adams is the charismatic billionaire driving force behind the WorldTour team. He’s a two-time Masters world TT champion and architect of the Giro’s 2018 Grande Partenza in Israel. He’s also contributed to an array of other nation-building initiatives from the Israel moon landing to the Eurovision song contest.
He’s a man on a mission.
Sitting beside him, there was no doubt that Adams deeply loved his country and it was hard not to be carried along with his enthusiasm. He spoke with the sort of filter-free honesty that tends to only accompany substantial personal wealth. Without hesitation, he discussed everything from sportwashing to the West Bank settlements.
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For Adams, the entire Israel Start-Up Nation team and its racing has always been a vessel to sell cycling to Israel, but also to purvey an image of Israel to the cycling world – and the many nations that interlinks to.
“I love sports as a fan, and I believe in it as a bridge builder between diverse people," he said. “Maybe, with this team, in a little way, I can move the needle and help foster world peace.”
The first step to Adams’ big dream required the team to reach the WorldTour stage. That’s when, in all likelihood, the idea of getting Froome on board became possible.
Before the team bought Katusha’s WorldTour license at the end of 2019, there was a rumour that Adams was in the advanced stages of purchasing Team Sky. About that, he told me: "I had a deal with this fantastic WorldTour team. I can’t tell you which one it is. It was confidential."
Only two years after moving from Continental to Professional Continental status, ISN entered the WorldTour through the mechanics of a team merger, rather than performance. Progress at the top tier takes time, so it was no surprise that the team did not immediately match the sport's best teams, save for two Grand Tour stage wins from Alex Dowsett and Dan Martin.
This winter's acquisition of Froome, though, has already changed things.
Sylvan Adams (Photo: Peter Stuart)
The usual hyperbole surrounded Froome’s signing, a “historic moment for ISN, Israel, Israeli sports, our many fans all around the world and, of course, for me personally,” said Adams. For him, though, it truly was the culmination of a dream that began six years ago when he bought his stake in the team, and brought with him a flow of capital that has led to where it is now.
In a sense, the transfer has already done its work. Froome will likely become a brand ambassador for Israel. We’d expect him to be regularly broadcast cycling in the Negev desert and embracing local culture – some of which has begun already. But can he really escalate the team to greatness in performance terms?
Froome is no doubt the Grand Tour superstar of modern cycling, but his best days may be behind him. Following his 2019 crash at the Dauphiné, many expected him to bounce back in the manner he did from his chorus of previous crashes during his dominant years. His wounded performance at last year's Vuelta, losing 11 minutes on the first stage, suggested otherwise.
Froome will have to wait a little longer to make his anticipated ISN debut, as the Vuelta a San Juan has been cancelled. The watching cycling world will be eager to see if Froome presents an image of his former 2018 self, or of a champion on the wane.
A full-strength Froome still leaves some holes in Adams’ masterplan, though. He needs to show that the team is representative of Israel, and not just one wealthy enthusiast.
With that in mind, the performance of home riders like Guy Sagiv will prove pivotal to gaining a good impression from the Israeli public. In the team’s peace-building mission, Adams also needs to portray the team as a multicultural modern force in cycling. He’s made no secrets of his plan to recruit a Palestinian rider to the team. So far, his best efforts have largely fallen flat, though not through lack of trying.
For some, the idea of international relations playing out on the climbs of the Tour de France will never be an easy one to stomach. Froome may have switched one controversy for another: in years gone by, he was fired questions surrounding doping in Team Sky; in years to come it may be his position on occupied territories in the West Bank.
Despite some problematic edges to the ISN project, it’s one that should prove to be a good thing for cycling. At the very least, it’s spread some of the WorldTour’s best climbers a little thinner across the main teams. At most, it could breathe fresh life into Froome’s career as a standalone unchallenged team leader.
For Team Israel Start-Up Nation, and Sylvan Adams, Froome represents a giant leap toward what once seemed a fanciful dream. World peace may prove a step too far, but they'd certainly take a Grand Tour victory.