The Matt Slater Column: Keeping up with the Tour… why the Giro went to Israel

Between an opening stage in Israel and a much discussed winner in Chris Froome, Press Association’s chief sports reporter finds plenty to reflect on in this year’s Giro d’Italia.

The Matt Slater Column: Keeping up with the Tour… why the Giro went to Israel

The debate about Chris Froome has not quite reached Israel/Palestine levels but there were times in the days after his Lazarus-like Giro d’Italia comeback that peace in the Holy Lands seemed more plausible than Twitter reaching a consensus on his achievement.

Sadly, neither of those scenarios look likely and while there is clearly no comparison between those two misfortunes in terms of their impact and seriousness, they are linked.

After all, Froome’s road to cycling glory in Rome started a bit gory in Jerusalem, where he fell off his bike whilst inspecting the course for the first stage, skinning his knee, hip and shoulder in the process. He would take the scabs off a week later when he somehow managed to crash whilst riding uphill.

For those wondering why the Giro was starting in Jerusalem, do keep up. The Giro and Tour de France have been locked in a battle for Grand Tour supremacy for about 30 years and the latter’s obvious lead means the former needs to try harder.

Having seen the Tour stretch the elastic as far as Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate, the Giro needed to go one louder. A start in Copenhagen begat Belfast, Belfast became Jerusalem.

But Grand Tours and their hosts are sport’s ultimate quid pro quo.

Fan photographs riders during stage two of Giro d'Italia in Tel Aviv, Israel

The hosts want the eyeballs and journalists all big sports events deliver and, if it is their region’s charms as a holiday destination they are selling, few events provide a showreel as spectacular as that of a bike race.

The race owners want publicity, too, so a lovely backdrop helps but they could probably take or leave the loveliness if the cheque to bankroll the event is big enough. If this sounds awfully cynical, it shouldn’t.

Races like the Giro take place on open roads and none of those fans lining the route on those days of high drama has bought a ticket. Selling places or a place’s wares is the business model the Giro, Tour and pretty much every other bike race was built on.

Sylvan Adams understands this and was making no bones about it during Israel’s long weekend in the Giro spotlight.

Born in Canada, the billionaire property developer moved to Israel two years ago and has spent that time combining his two great passions: cycling and convincing people his new home is a wonderful place.

Putting on three stages of the Giro that far away from its homeland was a huge logistical challenge and doing it in a country as… erm… complicated as Israel only added to that complexity. Lots of people were involved, then, and they all played their part. But without Adams, there would have been no Giro in Israel.

It was his idea, it took a lot of his money, it was his Israel Cycling Academy team providing the local interest and it was him who would be doing most of the interviews.

I caught up with him the day before the first stage at an event at the site of a new excavation in Jerusalem’s City of David district – a new twist on the phrase ‘laying it on with a trowel’.

I asked him why he wanted to bring an Italian bike race to a country that did not appear to have any love for bikes without motors and was, by the looks of my television, in a semi-permanent war with a large number of its inhabitants.

Adams was not having either part of that question but his smile did not dim as he delivered a pitch I had read a couple of times already and would hear a few times more over the coming 24 hours.

“When you speak to people who are visiting Israel for the first time you invariably find they’re impressed and surprised by what they find,” he beamed.

“That’s because before they came they only ever saw one aspect of our life: the conflict.

Chris Froome on stage 21 in Paris passes iconic Arc de Triomphe

“Last year’s Giro was seen by more than 800 million people. Because Israel makes news that number will be one billion this year, so my plan was to invite one billion first-time visitors to Israel via television.

“They will see that this is a beautiful, open, safe and free country. We are selling normality.”

Which is what they did.

As Eurosport viewers will now know for the rest of their lives, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – or stages one and two, as the riders will remember them – are ‘two sunny cities, one break’.

Eilat, stage three, is your gateway to a winter-sun wonderland in the desert, where you too can ride on miles and miles of Israeli army-laid tarmac while your mates back in Europe are stuck in the shed on their rollers.

And, yes, it is open, safe and free, providing you are on the right side of the checkpoints and security walls.

This last point was rammed home while Froome was doing his own rebranding exercise in Italy, as dozens of Palestinian protesters were killed or seriously injured in clashes with the Israeli security forces.

A 900-word sports column is not the forum to discuss the rights and wrongs that caused those protests or the Israeli response, which was almost universally condemned at first for being appallingly heavy-handed, before some started to question if all of those protestors were quite what they seemed.

Before long, we were back where we started. Blame on both sides and none the wiser.

What I can say here is that was not an Israel I or those one billion first-time visitors via TV were allowed to see during the Giro’s visit and, for that reason, Adams’ advertising triumph comes with an asterisk.

Just like Froome’s Giro win, then.