The cycling team that drives crowds to chant Israel’s name

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The cycling team that drives crowds to chant Israel’s name

Michael Daventry watches Israel Premier Tech, whose backers are raising money for a cycling project in Rwanda, competing in its third Tour

Michael Daventry is Jewish News’s foreign and broadcast editor

The Israel-Premier Tech team has won a stage at this year's Tour de France already (Photo: Noa Arnon/IPT)
The Israel-Premier Tech team has won a stage at this year's Tour de France already (Photo: Noa Arnon/IPT)

The crowd was vast and it was loudly cheering the name of Israel. That alone made this a rare spectacle. I was standing in the very centre of Denmark’s capital watching a celebration ahead of the Grand Départ, the launch event of this year’s Tour de France.

On the stage were the members of Israel–Premier Tech, the elite road cycling team that was preparing to compete in the sport’s biggest race for the third time.

For many people outside of the country, the word Israel is so often framed within the context of the Palestinian conflict, creating connotations that are not positive, but here in central Copenhagen the word was shouted with enthusiasm and support.

In the Tivoli Gardens, a huge cheer rose as the sponsor country’s name was announced around the tiny park. The team had one of the loudest receptions of the night.

For Sylvan Adams, the billionaire who owns the team, it is part of a vast promotional opportunity for his adoptive country — and a clear sign that it has fewer adversaries than many might believe.

“We discovered we have many, many, many more friends than the haters out there,” he told Jewish News.

“When I’m riding my bike ahead of the peloton and the roads are closed for us, and I’m wearing my Israel jersey… I’m hearing on the roads of France – 15 million people watch the Tour de France, live spectators, it’s an amazing thing – and I’m hearing ‘Allez, allez, allez, Israël, Israël, Israël’.

“We have so many friends out there that we don’t even know about and I call these people the silent majority. [They are] regular folk, sports fans.”

Britain’s Chris Froome, who cycles for Israel-Premier Tech (Photo: Kei Tsuji/SprintCyclingAgency)

Adams has made a mission out of trumpeting his adoptive country at every opportunity.

He was born and raised in Canada, a son of the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Marcel Abramovich.

Marcel made his fortune as a property developer and investor in Canada after enduring years of hard labour in Nazi camps.

Sylvan, the second of his four children, made aliyah at the end of 2015 and has since orchestrated some events that most Jewish News readers will recall.

It was he who brought Argentina and its superstar striker Lionel Messi to Israel to face Uruguay in a friendly match. He arranged for Madonna to perform when Tel Aviv hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. He has also invested heavily in the Israeli space programme SpaceIL’s attempts to reach the moon.

And then there’s the cycling. Vast sums of money have been poured into the team that began life in 2014 as Israel Cycling Academy.

Three years ago, it reached the sport’s top tier by attaining World Tour status, meaning its cyclists could compete in the biggest races like the Tour de France.

It has signed on the likes of Chris Froome — who is someone even those who don’t follow cycling will have heard of.

Yet sporting success so far has been modest, with race stage wins in Italy and Spain, and team officials say their ambition this year is to win at least a single stage in France.

It is, of course, superfluous to ask an oleh like Adams why he is so enthusiastic about Israel. But is a cycling team the best way to channel all that energy?

“There are people who defend our case who make the historical, political case for Israel, and I can do so, I’m able to do so.

“But the people we weren’t reaching was that silent majority. They’re not interested in politics, they’re not interested in polemics and in being given a history lesson or a lesson in international politics and diplomacy.

“They’re interested in cycling, and football, and cricket, and tennis, and music.”

There was a vast crowd that cheered the Israel-Premier Tech in Copenhagen last week (Photo: Luca Bettini/SprintCyclingAgency)

These are the people, he said, behind that unadulterated cheer for the Israeli team in the Tivoli Gardens –although perhaps team member Jakob Fuglsang, one of Denmark’s top cyclists, helped to drive that enthusiasm along a little.

There was a time in recent history when the team was not allowed to use the country’s name.

“We couldn’t even use the name Israel initially because we didn’t get any races with the name Israel,” recalled Ron Baron, the Israeli businessman who founded the team.

“They were a bit anti-Israel in the beginning in Eastern Europe. Not any more [but] in the first year or two, we called it Cycling Academy. It was with the Israeli flag and everything, but we didn’t call it Israel.

“We were refused[entry to] some races. Yes we were. There is still antisemitism in Europe.”

He added that the problem disappeared as the team became more competitive and able to enter the larger races.

The Field of Dreams is a vast infrastructure project that could help deliver Africa’s first cycling champions (Photo: IPT)

But perhaps that was why, in the two days I spent in Copenhagen, multiple members of the team told me unprompted that Israel would always retain top billing in the name and never be superseded by a sponsor.

This is unlike, say, the Ineos Grenadiers, who were rebadged after the British chemicals company after the broadcaster Sky ended its support in 2019.

That’s why Premier Tech, a manufacturing multinational that is little known outside of Canada, took second billing when it became a sponsor this year.

So, to put it bluntly, is this team a huge promotional opportunity on two wheels? It is in many ways, but not exclusively for Israel.

Adams and Baron are among the main backers for a vast infrastructure project in Rwanda that they say will create a racing track and cycling academy in the southern African country, and the team has used every moment of publicity during the Tour de France build-up to plug it.

They call it the Field of Dreams and it is, they say, a project that exudes Jewish values. Even the Kenyan-born Froome used the term tikkun olam (“heal the world”) unprompted when he spoke to me about it.

Sylvan Adams (Photo: Velo Images)

It was, he said, a concept he could get behind: “I used to do cross-country running and in Kenya, I couldn’t keep up with the Kenyans.

“Even at a teenage, schoolboy level, I was nowhere, yet I’ve come on to win seven Grand Tours in my career.

“So it leaves me with that question, ‘What could those guys achieve if they were given the support and the infrastructure to properly harness cycling as a sport there?’

“It’s thanks to these private projects, like building the Field of Dreams in Rwanda, that would give cycling a chance to flourish in Africa.”

Adams and Baron both say they will match every penny in any currency that is donated to the project. A €300,000 (£257,000) fundraiser was launched online last week.

But what’s next for cycling in Israel? Adams was instrumental in bringing another major race, the Giro d’Italia, to Israel in 2018.

For three days cyclists zipped across the country, around Jerusalem and then in stages from Haifa and Tel Aviv to Be’ersheva and Eilat, before the race transferred to the Italian mainland.

Froome was the overall winner then, albeit for another team. Surely the ambition now is to follow Copenhagen’s example and arrange for a Tour de France Grand Départ in Israel?

“The answer is that the invitation has been given and I bug them, I bug them frequently about this,” Adams said, before trailing off.

But the Giro’s success hasn’t exactly encouraged the French: “Of course the Tour saw that success but at the same time they’re thinking to themselves in their French Tour de France-dominant mentality, ‘Well, we can’t copy and do the same thing the Giro did.’

“Believe me, I have this from the source, I’m not telling tales out of school, I know that this is the way they think.

“So will we get them? I hope so.”

• To donate to the Israel team’s Rwanda campaign, visit

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