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Q&A with Sylvan Adams, the billionaire behind Giro d’Italia start in Israel

Over the past three years, Israel has become a player in international cycling, with the launch of its first professional team, Israel Cycling Academy, followed by the announcement that Jerusalem would host the start of the 2018 Giro d’Italia, the event’s first voyage outside of Europe.

The Giro’s “Grande Partenza” will feature three stages in Israel — a 9.7km time trial in Jerusalem, followed by a flat sprint stage finishing in Tel Aviv, and a hillier sprint stage along the Red Sea, finishing in Eilat; it will be the largest sporting event the country has ever hosted. With a revamped roster in 2018, the Israel Cycling Academy team is almost certain to receive a wildcard invitation, which would mark its first Grand Tour appearance. The team has five Israeli athletes on its squad of 24 riders, which boasts former WorldTour riders Ruben Plaza, Ben Hermans, and Nathan Earle.

One man, Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams, has played an integral role in both movements. A 58-year-old real-estate tycoon who emigrated from Montreal to Israel last year, Adams is also an accomplished cyclist, a relative latecomer to competitive cycling who has scored numerous masters championship titles. In addition to his investments into team and the Grande Partenza in Jerusalem, Adams has also launched a cycling network in Tel Aviv — he hopes to turn Tel Aviv into the “Amsterdam of the Middle East” — and is also funding a $21 million high-performance sports institute and building the Middle East’s first Olympic velodrome, at the Olympic centre in Tel Aviv.

Israel Cycling Academy team co-owner Sylvan Adams, at the 2018 team presentation in Tel Aviv, November 2017.

Adams came into wealth through Iberville Developments, the property business his father Marcel, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, launched after World War II. The company’s modest website describes itself as “one of the largest real estate owners in the province of Quebec and in Eastern Canada.” Adams is no longer involved in the family business, now run by his son, Josh.

The Giro Grande Partenza in Jerusalem, one of the most politically charged cities on the planet, is not without controversy. While Adams views it as an opportunity for Israel to share “our beautiful scenery, our history, our culture, and most of all, our people, in this diverse, free, pluralistic and fiercely democratic society,” others view it as whitewashing the oppression of the Palestinian people.

In a September editorial, the Guardian referred to the possibility that Israel Cycling Academy rider Ahmet Örken, the Turkish national time-trial champion, could be the first off the start ramp in the Jerusalem time trial as a “masterstroke of soft diplomacy.”

Last week, over 120 human rights organizations, trade unions, tourism associations, and sports and faith-based groups from over 20 countries issued an international call urging Giro owners to relocate the “Big Start” from Israel “due to its grave and escalating violations of international law and Palestinians’ human rights.” That, however, is unlikely to happen.

A few days later, that threat came from within. Hours after Giro d’Italia organizers RCS presented the route of the 2018 event, Israel’s Sports Minister and Tourism Minister threatened to back out of hosting the Grande Partenza over the wording of “west Jerusalem” used in RCS materials. Israel’s occupation, and subsequent annexation, of east Jerusalem began in 1967 , and though that move has not been recognized by the international community, Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

“In Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, there is no east or west. There is one unified Jerusalem,” a joint statement read, calling any terminology in Giro d’Italia materials describing the city as divided “a breach of the agreements with the Israeli government.” The statement added that if the wording does not change, “the Israeli government will not be a partner in the event.”

RCS Sport replied with a statement the following day, clarifying that the start of the Giro d’Italia would take place “from the city of Jerusalem.”

“During the presentation of the 2018 race course, technical material containing the wording ‘West Jerusalem’ was used, due to the fact that the race will take place logistically in that area of the city,” the statement read. “That particular wording, devoid of any political value, has been removed from any material related to the Giro d’Italia.”

CyclingTips contributor Brian Hodes attended the Israel Cycling Academy team camp in Tel Aviv in mid-November, prior to the Giro route presentation, and sat down with Adams for an interview. Questions were provided by CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers, and covered Adams’ background, his involvement with the team and the Giro d’Italia, issues around the Jerusalem start, and concerns over security for both the team and the event. Hodes recorded the interview and provided audio. The full transcription is presented below.

Your father was a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor. You’re Canadian, your wife is British, and you’ve now emigrated to Israel. Can you explain how these different nationalities came together?

So, my wife is British, I’m Canadian, and we met in Israel in 1983. We’ve been married for 33 years. We met 34 years ago on a Kibbutz. We were two youngsters floating around and working on a kibbutz [an industrial community], Kibbutz Hatzor, in the south near Ashdod. The reason I picked Kibbutz Hatzor is because it was south enough. It was winter, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be too cold. And I met my wife within a few days of arriving there and basically I was hit by lightning. And we’ve never looked back. We eventually moved to Canada. We got married in England and we moved to Canada and when I came home a couple years ago, I said to my wife, what do you think about moving to Israel? She said, let’s do it, I always thought we would end up there. And here we are. We’ve been here about 18 months.

You’re a six-time Canadian and 15-time Quebec champion. You won four Pan-American gold medals, and a total of five golds at 2009 and 2013 Maccabiah Games. How did you get into cycling? What’s your favorite thing about it?

Actually, I counted, I’m a 17-time Quebec champion. I actually have the medals so I counted them and I said I’ve been under-selling myself. Also, I have two masters world championships. I got into cycling, believe it or not, in my early forties. I started to ride a bike in my late-thirties and I was pretty good on the bike. As soon as I got on … I had done sports all my life. I had done team sports. I participated at a reasonably good level of team sports right into my college days. Then life took over and building a career and having a family, we have four children, and I kind of got away from sports. With the kids growing up, I started to ride a bike recreationally and I went out and bought myself my first fancy bike, which, by the way, I think it cost me $1000. I think I paid $2500 and I got pump, shoes, helmet, kits, glasses, everything, water bottle, all the stuff, computer, and I think I paid $2500 Canadian, tax included. And I got the full kit and I started to ride with my friends and I was pretty good. I was pretty good on a bike.

And then, because I was living in Montreal, there was an indoor gym run by this guy who was formerly Canada’s best triathlete, and he started to do this power training in his indoor facility, and I was introduced there. Again, I just was naturally good on the bike. They were doing some sort of a training camp. I’ve never been on a training camp. I’d never done 100 kilometers before on a bike and here they were going to a training camp for four days in Arizona and he asked me if I’d like to join. I said, do you think I’m good enough? I think he just needed the money. I think he needed an extra participant to make the thing work financially and he says, ‘you know, I think you’ll be okay.’

Sylvan Adams, Canadian masters champion. Photo courtesy Maccabiah Games.

So, I went there and I … on the first day we rode 100 kilometers. It was the longest I had ever ridden in my whole life. And by the end I think we did a century, which is 160km, one of the days. I rode for four days and I held my own. I held my own. We were … we did Mt. Lemmon. You know, we did great rides. And I held my own. And one thing kind of led to another. And he suggested to me, this guy, who became sort of a guru for me in cycling, he suggested to me, ‘have you ever thought about racing?’ And I said, where? He said, ‘listen, there are races.’ And I had no idea.

So I went to watch a race. First thing I do is I went to watch a race. I was blown away. This was a masters race and these guys for me they looked like professional cyclists. I mean, I thought that had speed and … I went to watch a criterium. So they do a lot of turning. I was completely blown away. Next week, I came back, bought myself a one-day racing license and jumped in the race. And I was racing right at the back of the peloton and guys were getting shelled, but every time I saw somebody get shelled I’d go around them and make sure I was glued to the peloton and I think my single proudest moment, even with all those victories and everything else, I think my single proudest moment in my entire cycling career was that very first race that I finished the criterium with the peloton. I was on cloud nine. And I kind of never looked back after that.

From left: Alberto Contador, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, Sylvan Adams, and Ivan Basso — two Giro d’Italia champions with the two men responsible for bringing the race to Israel in 2018.

Tell me about the Sylvan Adams Cycling Network in Tel Aviv — the goal, the cost, and what it means to have your name attached to it.

I have a number of initiatives in the sporting world, and, specifically, the cycling world. I’ve got the Cycling Academy Team, the Giro project, a sports institute that I’m doing at Tel Aviv University, which is an applied research, part of the faculty of medicine. We are building a high-performance sports institute to do applied research, identify talent, provide training, and eventually create elite athletes coming out of the institute — and publish our results. And to have athletes come from abroad and work at our institute, that’s another element. The biggest sports institute in Israel is the Wingate Institute, near Netanya. We’re starting off with four sports and then we’re going to expand into other sports. But our four sports are swimming, running, cycling and triathlon. We’re associated with the faculty of medicine at Tel Aviv University, so I think we’re going to be a little bit more academic, more targeted, and I hope we’re very successful.

What sort of personal fulfillment do you get from sponsoring the cycling network, the Israel Cycling Academy team, and this Giro Grande Partenza?

So look, I fell in love with the sport of cycling as a participant — which, by the way, still gives me the greatest thrill. My own results and my own competitions still give me a greater thrill than anything else. I feel like I’m a knowledgeable member of the cycling community. So when I meet these guys, when I’m training with the guys and I go to their training camps and I’m riding with those guys, this is part of the fun for me. So first of all, I get fulfillment as an athlete. I can’t describe how great it makes me feel. It’s kind of the fountain of youth for me, and I get to ride with the kids. My pride is at stake so I try to hold my own with them to the best that I can. And so I get great fulfillment as an athlete.

I get fulfillment as well as a Zionist, to see the team, which is called Israel Cycling Academy — our name is part of our identity. Our mission is both to develop cycling in Israel but also to project the country abroad in a sportsmanlike manner. So, I take great pride in that part, and to see the sport develop in Israel.

I forgot to mention my velodrome, by the way, as one of my things. I’m doing too many things. So I’m building, also, the first velodrome in the Middle East, right here in Tel Aviv, and that’s another thing to bring grassroots cycling. It’s slated to be completed in summer of 2018. It’s a roofed velodrome, fully roofed velodrome; but it has open walls. So it’s a hybrid, it’s neither indoor nor outdoor. We don’t need to air condition the place because we have perfect weather here in Israel, but for the sun and for whatever rain days there are, we have a full roof.

Video: Sylvan Adams Sports Institute launch event at Tel Aviv University, May 2017

The Israel Cycling Academy team made some pretty big signings for next year — established WorldTour riders like Ruben Plaza, Ben Hermans, and Nathan Earle. What is the goal in 2018?

So, the goal for this year … first of all, we’ve evolved. We’ve evolved from smaller beginnings. But the goal for this year is to participate in our first Grand Tour.

What is the relationship between the team and the Giro d’Italia start in Israel?

So, because of my involvement in both … I am the person who brought the Giro to Israel, and because of my ownership in Israel Cycling Academy, to me, the projects are intertwined and we made an application to RCS to participate in the Giro and our application, I understand, has been very, very well received and I’m very confident that we will be racing… they haven’t made the official announcement so I guess it’s never as certain until they make the announcement. But we’re … let’s put it this way; we are very confident that we will be racing in our first Grand Tour on home soil.

The Israel Cycling Academy’s 2018 roster was unveiled at a ceremony attended by Chemi Peres, son of the late President Shimon Peres.

Presuming the team will have a Giro under its belt in 2018, will it be chasing a Tour de France participation in the near future?

The answer is absolutely. So we’re hoping to perform in a Grand Tour. We also want to be in the Vuelta. But, eventually, our ultimate goal would be to race in the Tour de France.

Do you have a target year in mind for a Tour de France debut?

I’m an impatient person. So I’d like to believe that over the next two or three years we might make that happen.

Is it an issue that there are relatively few Israeli riders (five of 24) on the 2018 squad? Does that take away from the team’s stated mission of providing opportunities to young generation of Israeli cyclists?

I think that’s a good number so I would take exception. I think that’s a good number. We have two Canadians, we have two Australians, we have two Spanish guys. We’ve got five Israelis. So we’re building up Israeli cycling from scratch. These guys have never raced at this competition. They were all neo-pros last year, all those Israelis. We are building it from scratch. The fact that we were able to graduate two from our devo team into the main team, to me, is a signal of great success. And we will grow the number of Israelis over time. So five is, I think, a good number. But, obviously, we’d like to take it to an even higher level.

The 2018 Israel Cycling Academy team roster

Edwin Alvila (Colombia, 27), Guillaume Boivin (Canada, 28), Zak Dempster (Australia, 30), Jose Manuel Diaz (Spain, 22), Nathan Earle (Australia, 29), Sondre Holst Enger (Norway, 23), Omer Goldstein (Israel, 21), Roy Goldstein (Israel, 24), Ben Hermans (Belgium, 31), August Jensen (Norway, 26), Luis Lemus (Mexico, 25), Krists Neilands (Latvia, 23), Guy Niv (Israel, 23), Ahmet Örken (Turkey, 24), Ben Perry (Canada, 23), Ruben Plaza (Spain, 37), Mihkel Raim (Estonia, 24), Guy Sagiv (Israel, 22), Kristian Sbaragli (Italy, 27), Hamish Schreurs (New Zealand, 23), Daniel Turek (Czech Republic, 24), Dennis van Winden (Netherlands, 29), Tyler Williams (USA, 22), and Aviv Yechezkel (Israel, 23).

Are there extra security concerns for the team? Particularly attending races in the Middle East?

It’s an interesting question. Early in the discussions with the RCS people, I brought the issue out because I didn’t want to end up going down the road and eventually them saying, you know, we have a problem with security. So I asked them up front, and they laughed. Because they went to the chief of police in Italy who replied, he says, you’ll probably be more safe in Israel than you would in Italy. It never came up again. I have the Minister of Public Security put me in touch with the police. And I have an absolute dream team of police guys who have told me not to worry, that we will have a secure Giro.

How does a team from a politically charged nation avoid being thrown into the political discussion? The same question can be asked of Team UAE, and Bahrain-Merida.

So I don’t hear much political discussion about those two teams. And frankly, in our history, with our name being Israel Cycling Academy, it really has literally never come up. There’s always people who want to make politics out of any discussion, but this is about sport and I don’t know how many times … it’s almost cliché to say, let’s not mix politics with sport, and that’s really how we feel about our project.

A rider from the Israel Cycling Academy took a moment to reflect at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in the Jewish faith.

What sort of obstacles were there to bringing the Giro d’Italia to Jerusalem?

So, firstly, we had full support from Mayor Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem. He embraced us. He loves sport. He was proud to tell us a number of interesting sporting competitions that he secured for the city of Jerusalem in the past and this is, of course, the biggest one. So he fully embraced the project and I just don’t think it’s going to be a problem.

We were originally gonna hold a typical stage and go out of Jerusalem into the Jerusalem hills, and eventually the Giro people wanted us to focus on Jerusalem, and after hearing it from them, kind of a light bulb went off, and we can focus on the national capital, which has so many beautiful sights. So we decided to turn it into a short time trial to begin the race. So it suited the Giro people from the perspective of type of stages they wanted to hold here in Israel. They didn’t want it to be too hard. They didn’t want to decide the entire three-week Giro in the first three days.

And at the same time, they wanted to focus on Jerusalem. They fell in love with Jerusalem. I have to say, one of the more satisfying parts of working with them was the first time Mauro Vegni came, was about a year and a half ago. And I think he was a bit reticent. You know, he didn’t know what he was getting into. It’s the first time a Grand Tour has ever considered going outside of Europe. And I think he was a bit reticent about the whole idea, but once he came here and saw that it’s a modern, open, safe, and organized country, then they started to fall in love with the place. I can tell you that the VP from RCS, when he saw the Western Wall, he was moved. He was moved.

I told him, listen, we can put on some skull caps, let’s go. I’ll take you to the wall. You know, you can come. He says, no, no, no, no, no, no, I’m gonna come back here by myself, you know, and have a spiritual moment. So, they actually fell in love with the place and the discussions really took on a whole new life and things went very well after that.

What do you say to those who ask why the Giro isn’t visiting any Palestinian areas during its three stages in Israel?

Listen, this is a Giro in Israel. It’s not a Giro of Palestine. So, if they want to do a joint project with us in the future, we’ll talk to them. But this is the Giro in Israel. It’s like asking, you know, when they did the Giro start in Holland, well why didn’t Belgium get involved? Because it’s a different country, that’s why.

What do you say to those who suggest that the Giro in Israel is using sport to whitewash the image of the country? Rouleur recently published a commentary piece that stated that boycotting is the only appropriate response.

I think you need a fertile imagination to call it anything than a purely positive story. And frankly, that’s not the Jerusalem that I know and visit all the time. I get served in hotels and restaurants by Arabs who work disproportionately in the service industry in Jerusalem, and we all seem to get along. I’m new here, so I don’t know what he’s talking about. This is an interesting vision of somebody wants to create a polemic out of something. But as I said, I’m new in this neighborhood and we all seem to get along. I live right here in Tel Aviv and on Shabbat, when I’m walking down this foot path in Tayelet here, and I see the Arab families playing in Charles Clore Park, and the kids are playing and there’s barbecues and we’re waving hi to each other… to me, I don’t see what that guy wrote. So, if you want to create division, you write stuff like that. We actually try to get along with people.

And look, we have a Turkish rider — a Muslim rider. We have a Druze guy on our development team. We are open. We’re an open society and we want to use sport to encourage cohesion in Israel and this type of stuff, you know, I don’t have any time for it.

What does Israel get from hosting the Giro? Is it simply a tourism play, or is there something greater?

I think it’s certainly a tourism play and I think it’s something greater. I think that because of the kind of things that reporters typically write about Israel, you know, if you are always focusing on conflict and terrorism and stuff, that do take place here, but they take place in other places, as well, but if you’re only reporting those stories here, you’re kind of delivering a negative message. And in my experience, first-time visitors to Israel are almost always universally, positively surprised.

So, they come here and they say, wow, this isn’t what I expected. If we are showing what I call ‘normal Israel’ to maybe 800 million or a billion people, and if we’re showing the normal Israel and it maybe gets them to think, wow… I like to use this expression, ‘who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?’ Right, so if they’re seeing this with their eyes and they say, wow, this this place looks … first of all, it’s beautiful. The country is beautiful. It looks, you know … everybody seems to be having a good time there. Everything seems to work. It looks like Italy.

By the way, that’s one of my goals is to get Israel to embrace the three stages and make it look like Italy and create this cycling culture, which already exists here in Israel, but to further deepen this appreciation of cycling. I would like cycling to be the number-one sport in Israel.

Was there was some sort of issue with Orthodox Jews, about starting the time trial on Shabbat, on a Friday afternoon?

Yes, so we are going to make sure that we are respectful and we are going to end at least two hours before Shabbat. Because we have to be respectful. And they don’t want TV cameras. They don’t want all that free for all, that, of course, the race will be. So we’ve had this discussion with the mayor. The Giro people know we’re gonna pack it in around 3:30 or something like that. I think the sunset is at 6:30 or something like that. So we’re gonna be finished quite early so it’s not going to interfere. And I expect them to line the streets like everybody else and watch the race.

Video: The 2018 Giro d’Italia’s Grande Partenza in Israel

Can you talk about the logistics for the teams, getting here, getting equipment here, getting set up with team cars. Teams are probably going to get here a week early to train, to see the sights. It’s no small task.

Yeah. I hope they do. It’s a big deal. They did it last year. They started it in Sardinia. So it’s an island, but it’s an island that’s just about 100 miles away from the mainland. So, logistically, it’s a little bit easier. So here it’s a three-hour flight and we are going to leave the Port of Ancona. We have already started to work on our logistics. And we are going to have boats and planes and bring all the equipment over here and we will, of course, have to use things like vehicles, they will all have to be sourced in Israel. We have to book a whole bunch of hotel rooms. You know, this is not a huge country, but it does have a very good tourism industry, so the hotel rooms are here. Tourism is one the main businesses here. I think high tech may argue with that, and agriculture, as well, might argue with that. But tourism is one of the big businesses. So yes, we have good tourism infrastructure but it is also getting into high season. So, there are challenges, but I’m sure that we’ll overcome those challenges. It’ll be a little more costly to take care of all those things when you’re moving further away from Italy. And, of course, we have to bring them back. But we’ve budgeted for all of that and I’m sure we will pull it off.

At the end of the day, the Giro d’Italia takes place in Israel. There are three stages — a prologue and two stages…

Yeah. They don’t want to call it a prologue, by the way. I kept calling it a prologue. They said no, a prologue is only six kilometers or eight kilometers. We’re 10 kilometers so we are officially a time trial.

So there is a time trial and then two stages. The Giro is going to leave, and head back to Italy. What do you hope to feel was accomplished, when the race has left, when that last plane takes off for Italy?

So I have a few goals. One, I want the Giro people to tell us this was the best Grande Partenza we ever had in our 101 years, and I want them five years from now to remember the time they did it in Israel, and say, wow, that was great. So I want that recognition from Italy, and from the Giro. And I want for Israel, for us to host this event, to have the world come to our living room, and watch us, and see our beautiful country, and to move the needle a little bit on what people’s perceptions are about Israel. So I think that would be a great legacy.

And then finally, I want this to help develop the sport in Israel. And for them to see Israelis riding in this very, very important race. And, at the grassroots level, when parents are thinking about enrolling their kids into sports, to pick cycling and to develop the sport further.