Cycling for a nation: Israel-Premier Tech kicks off post-Oct. 7 Tour de France

Fifteen million spectators will watch the Tour de France in person over the next three weeks.

The Israel-Premier Tech riders in Florence, ahead of the start of the 2024 Tour de France cycling race, June 29, 2024. Credit: Israel-Premier Tech.
The Israel-Premier Tech riders in Florence, ahead of the start of the 2024 Tour de France cycling race, June 29, 2024. Credit: Israel-Premier Tech.

Israel-Premier Tech on Saturday kicked off its fifth appearance in the Tour de France, cycling’s most prestigious race, with riders tackling a hilly 206-kilometer (128-mile) opening stage taking them through the heart of Florence and on to Rimini.

The team was founded by Ron Baron in 2014 and is co-owned by Sylvan Adams. Its squad for the Tour features riders Pascal Ackermann (Germany), Guillaume Boivin (Canada), Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark), Derek Gee (Canada), Hugo Houle (Canada), Krists Neilands (Latvia), Jake Stewart (Britain) and Stevie Williams (Britain).

“We have a very good squad, high goals and expectations and I hope we excite our fans,” Adams told JNS. “The people of Israel are the wind in our backs.”

 IPT co-owner Sylvan Adams speaks to the riders before a training ride, June 28, 2024. Photo by Amelie Botbol.

Twenty-two teams are taking part in the 21-stage race (2,174 miles), which ends in Nice on July 21 (for the first time, it will not end in Paris, due to preparations for the upcoming Summer Olympics in the French capital).

The event comes on the backdrop of the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, sparked by the Palestinian terrorist group’s Oct. 7 invasion and massacre of some 1,200 people in southern Israel.

Adams invited to Florence Avida Bachar, from Kibbutz Be’eri, who lost his son, wife and one of his legs in the Hamas assault, and Sharon Shevo, also from Kibbutz Be’eri, who was wounded in the attack while riding his bicycle.

The team co-owner also invited Oded Gelbstein, an Israel Defense Forces combat engineer wounded by a Hamas sniper in Gaza on Nov. 2. Gelbstein is being treated in the Italian city.

Sharon Shevo (left) and Avida Bachar at the entrance to the Tour de France fan zone in Piazza Santa Croce, June 27, 2024. Photo by Amelie Botbol.

Adams, who cycles just ahead of the team for half of each stage, emphasized the need to promote Israel through top sporting events.

“As I drive on the road, there are fans on both sides. Fifteen million spectators are watching the Tour de France live [in person] over three weeks. They see my jersey, they recognize it and they go, ‘Israel, allez, allez, allez,’” said Adams. (Another approximately 3.5 billion people will see the race on television.)

“We have a lot of friends around the world, it feels good. The haters are out there, small in number. They are not cycling fans. Four guys with one [PLO] flag may show up but then we don’t see them again. Let’s hope this year will be the same,” he added.

A group of young Israeli cyclists who survived Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Kibbutz Nahal Oz came to cheer on the team along with former IPT cyclist Guy Niv, who in 2020 became the first Israeli to participate in the Tour. 

“Unfortunately, in many places in the world we are not getting the right image. It’s important that through big sports competitions we are represented and show our flag and show ourselves,” Niv told JNS. 

The trip was organized by Bartali-Youth in Movement, which works across Israel to educate children by taking them to cycling events and practicing with them.

“To see the juniors of Nahal Oz come after probably the hardest moment in the history of Israel, to see what they achieved over the last eight months, it’s amazing and we are proud of them,” added Niv.

From left: Avida Bachar, Oded Gelbstein and Sharon Shevo hold posters in Florence of residents of Kibbutz Be’eri abducted to Gaza, June 29, 2024. Photo by Amelie Botbol.

Other Israelis came on their own initiative and will be following the riders in caravans throughout the Tour.

Brigitte David, whose daughter-in-law lost her parents, Meni and Ayelet Godard, on Oct. 7, came to support the team.

“We have been coming to the Tour for 15 years. We bring our bicycles and we drive the stages. We see the Israeli team and we are proud and happy,” David told JNS. 

“This year, it was difficult to leave the country with everything that was happening. Some of our family members lived in Kibbutz Be’eri and were deeply affected by the attack. It’s very hard for us,” she said. 

Meni Godard‘s body is still being held by Hamas in Gaza.

IPT sporting director Dror Pekatch told JNS the pressure usually peaks as the race kicks off. “We are all ambassadors [of Israel] but in the end we are here to win,” he said.

The team has thus far had its best-ever season with 16 stage victories across all competitions. 

IPT won two Tour stages in 2022 and last year scored a spectacular win by Michael Woods in stage 9 at the Puy-de-Dôme.

“The team was tactically built based on the profile of the riders. We have climbers like Derek Gee, who proved in the preparation race, the Dauphiné in France, that he can be up there,” Pekatch explained. (Gee came in third overall in the mountainous eight-stage, 737.9-mile 2024 Critérium du Dauphiné that ended on June 9.)

“There are eight flat stages that Pascal Ackermann can fight for as a sprinter; he can also go on hard climbs,” Pekatch added.

“Stage 2 [from Cesenatico to Bologna on Sunday] fits Stevie Williams well. We also have Jakob Fuglsang, who brings experience, having competed in the Tour de France 12 times. We have a team that combines different characters, we will adapt according to the situation,” he said. 

The Israel-Premier Tech squad prepares to go on a training ride in Italy, June 28, 2024. Photo by Amelie Botbol.

Ackermann, who is racing in the Tour for the first time, told JNS he was itching to go.

“It’s super exciting. It’s the biggest event you can achieve in cycling. It’s one of the most special moments of my career. I hope I can make everyone proud,” he said.

Canadian rider Boivin likewise was champing at the bit.

“We’ve been waiting for this day for quite a few months and it’s finally starting. It’s time to get on our bikes and try to win some stages,” he told JNS.

“It’s my eighth year on the team. I’m really proud to be here representing Israel-Premier Tech in the biggest race in the world. I’m excited to show that jersey in front of the bikers and fans. Come on over and cheer us on as we do our best to make you proud,” said Boivin.

From the equipment they use to their level of hydration and calorie intake, every element of the riders’ routine leading up to and during the Tour is meticulously planned by a team of 40 professionals accompanying them throughout the event. 

“The bikes are top of the range, super light and super fast, they’re all set for each rider down to the millimeter,” IPT mechanic Andreas Back Watt told JNS.

“They are calibrated to fit each rider’s specific measurements, the bikes are made of carbon fiber in Taiwan. The frame costs about €5,000 [$5,360]. We have three spare bikes per rider. We hope they use the same bike from start to finish, unless there is a crash,” he said.

While crashes make headlines and could put riders out of the race in a second with a fracture, IPT’s Dr. Joost De Maeseneer said that he takes equally serious sore throats and respiratory tract infections, which could become problematic if left untreated. 

“Our goal is to keep riders in the race, and to do so we must stay close to them,” De Maeseneer told JNS. 

“You have to visit the riders, go to their room after dinner and check that everything is okay. If there is something, we need to know so we don’t lose time. While a stomach issue can be minor, we have to jump on it immediately,” he said.

 Chef Olga Belenko prepares a white mushroom turkey stew for lunch for the riders, June 28, 2024. Photo by Amelie Botbol.

To maintain their strength during the grueling three weeks, the riders eat at their own restaurant-on-wheels, in which chef Olga Belenko prepares them healthy and nourishing dishes.

“I prepare three meals, it’s non-stop work from the morning until midnight,” Belenko, who collaborates closely with the team’s three nutritionists, told JNS. 

“We build the meals based on stages and how many calories they use in a given day that need to be replaced,” she added, while preparing a white mushroom turkey stew for lunch.

“The riders basically have two breakfasts, the first part being red fruits, juice, cereal and coffee. The second often includes rice, crepes, pancakes, porridge,” said Belenko.

Each day during the race, the riders can consume about three-to-four times the caloric intake of an average adult male.

“In bigger stages, it can be upwards of 7,000 calories a day. A lot of it comes from carbohydrates, which are the main source of energy for the brain and muscles,” IPT nutritionist Vanessa Zoras told JNS.

“We monitor them closely, run medical tests and control calories through the year as well to make sure that when the time comes they are just ready,” she said.

The controlled environment is essential, as something invariably pops up. Just days ago, rider Williams had a toothache, giving the entire team a scare.

“This was quite minor,” recounted Pekatch. “We found a window and fixed an appointment with the dentist, we coordinated it with the help of the local Jewish community.

“Setbacks will come, it may be in the form of a crash, sick riders or a flat tire during the race. As you see, it’s a huge production. Everybody is a link in the chain. Luckily enough, we have the best possible team,” he said.

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