Team Cycling Academy, Israel’s recently formed pro cycling team, did not win any medals in the recent USA Pro Challenge, August 17-23 in Denver. But they got a lot of love.
At the top of nearly every grueling peak of the mountainous route, the riders found presents from fans in the form of Israeli flags and even, in one memorable instance, a man blowing a shofar (ram’s horn), a potent Jewish symbol. On the asphalt, their wheels encountered hastily painted stars of David and thousands of spectators waving the blue and white.
“We are making people proud,” says Tsadok Yecheskeli, a journalist and team media consultant, speaking to ISRAEL21c from Denver. “It’s not just a cycling project; it carries some messages that we are only starting to grasp.”
Though the squad did win 13 races across Europe and Israel in this inaugural year, Team Cycling Academy is as much a social-action endeavor as a sporting endeavor.
In keeping with the vision of team founder and owner Ron Baron and team manager Ran Margaliot, Team Cycling Academy recruits promising young riders from any country where professional opportunities are lacking. The roster currently includes 13 male riders — five Israelis, four Poles, two Slovaks, a Czech and a Spaniard, ranging from age 19 to 24 – whose bike dreams would otherwise go unrealized.
This may not be a fail-safe recipe for snagging trophies, but it does yield heartwarming surprises.
For instance, teammate Dan Turek, 22, from the Czech Republic was first at the finish line at last May’s Tour of Azerbaijan international race. “This was our first win, and Dan was being cheered on in front of thousands of Muslims in the streets and at the finish line,” says Yecheskeli.
“Dan wasn’t able to get into a serious pro team in his native country, so we got him and we found a jewel. He’s a very aggressive rider and has become the star of the team. Before we existed, nobody gave him a chance to compete in major races, and we gave him a chance to shine. I think he’s on his way to a big pro team,” Yecheskeli predicts.
Then there’s Yoav Bear, 24, the only one of the eight Team Cycling Academy riders to finish the 620-mile Colorado race, in which altitudes of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) and higher take the starch out of even conditioned athletes.
“Yoav had retired from cycling a year ago and was studying in university. Ron persuaded him to have a comeback. So he joined the team and he takes his school books with him when we travel,” says Yecheskeli.
The team travels quite a bit in addition to its races in Israel. Soon after its founding last December at a public event in Jerusalem, Team Cycling Academy went to Argentina for the Tour de San Luis; in March they competed in three events in Croatia and one each in Austria and the Czech Republic.
Between April and August they were again in the Czech Republic and Austria, as well as Serbia, Croatia, Poland, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Germany, Slovakia and China. Before going to the USA Pro Challenge, they trained in the Alps and competed in the Czech Cycling Tour.
The last four months of 2015 will be busy with the Tour of Bulgaria, Tour of Bohemia, Tour Hradec Kralowe-Wroclaw, the UCI Road World Championships in Virginia, Tour of Alamaty (Kazakhstan), the Japan Cup and the Tour of Rwanda.
During a six-day race in Poland, Yecheskeli learned that the town where the riders started had been 50 percent Jewish before World War II and not one Jew was left alive. “It struck me as so symbolic that we had three Israeli and three Polish guys on the team, competing arm in arm.”
Tour de France star Peter Sagan, a Slovakian professional road bicycle racer for World Tour team Tinkoff-Saxo, agreed to be Team Cycling Academy’s international ambassador because he liked its “academy” approach to developing future talent from all segments of society. When they’re on home turf, Team Cycling Academy athletes help coach underprivileged youth in the Shimshon Riders Cycling School in Beit Shemesh.
In June, the team successfully recruited 19-year-old Guy Sagiv right after he became the youngest-ever winner of the Israeli National Championships road race in Beit Guvrin National Park. Among those he bested were three other Team Cycling Academy members.
Due to his distinction, Sagiv races in a special blue-and-white uniform (when he’s not wearing IDF olive drabs, that is.) Israeli pop star and biking enthusiast Ivri Lider designed the team’s official black-and-green uniform, which is notably free of sponsor patches.
“After the first year, maybe we’ll take sponsors,” says Yecheskeli. “Our visit to the US changed some of our outlook, and we see that the US could be a wonderful base for the team. We were treated to reception after reception and were urged to come and train in Colorado, so we think the team will pick up some American talent. We have our sights on a Jewish-American cyclist who is willing to make aliyah. This will reinforce the specialness of the team and inspire people even further than we have until now.”
It’s not only Americans who want to join Team Cycling Academy. “You cannot imagine how many appeals we’ve gotten in the last month from all over, even from Arab countries, and we are totally open to having a Muslim rider,” says Yecheskeli. “Friends follow our Facebook page from countries including Algeria, Morocco and even Iran.”
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