In the spring of 2014, two cyclists met at the summit of Nes Harim, the legendary climb near Jerusalem that draws hundreds of cyclists from the Israeli cycling community every weekend.
The older of the two, Ron Baron, is an Israeli businessman. The younger, Ran Margaliot, who was barely 25 at the time, had just seen his professional cycling career come to an end, ending his dream of becoming the first Israeli cyclist to compete in the Tour de France. These two men had a vision of generating a revolution in this underdeveloped sport in Israel, which – at the time – provided few opportunities for aspiring young cyclists.
Six months later, the pair launched a unique Israeli start-up – Israel Cycling Academy – the first professional cycling team in Israel. The team’s vision was to provide an opportunity for talented young cyclists to compete in the international arena and launch their professional careers. This team, Ran and Ron hoped, would provide inspiration, hope, and faith to future generations of Israelis.
Sylvan Adams, an Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist, soon joined the project as co-owner with Ron, greatly accelerating the team’s development. Israel Cycling Academy rose to the Pro-Continental rank internationally and began competing in more and more important races. Meanwhile, ICA also established an all-Israeli development (Devo) team, whose purpose was to serve as a greenhouse for U-23 local cyclists, to help them graduate to the parent professional team.
By the third year of ICA’s history, the team had already made impressive headway, exceeding its founders’ expectations. With a diverse roster of promising young cyclists from all over the world, ICA participated in hundreds of race days, winning dozens, while promoting several qualified Israelis from the Devo ranks to the Pro team.
In 2018, something truly astonishing happened as Sylvan Adams negotiated to bring the Giro d’Italia Grande Partenza (the opening three days of the Italian Grand Tour) to Israel, the first Grand Tour to race outside of Europe. As a Pro-Conti team from the home nation, ICA received a wild card invitation to participate in cycling’s second most important stage race, beginning, in almost surreal fashion, on home soil. The slogan “from Jerusalem to Rome” was used to describe the team’s historic journey. The 2018 Giro began in Israel’s ancient national capital of Jerusalem. In the following days, the race traversed a large part of Israel’s geography, from Haifa in the north all the way to Eilat in the south. The 2018 edition of the Giro finished symbolically three weeks later in Rome, allowing Guy Sagiv to become the first-ever Israeli to complete a Grand Tour. This Giro also placed Israel and Israel Cycling Academy firmly on the map of the world cycling scene, as nearly a billion TV viewers tuned in, making this the most successful Grande Partenza in the Giro’s then 101-year history. Additionally, a million Israelis came into the streets to watch and support the home team.
ICA began 2019 with the largest and most international roster of all professional teams, counting 30 riders from 18 countries. It was also the team’s most successful season to date, taking home no less than 29 victories.
However, the best was yet to come, as for the 2020 season, the team was granted a WorldTour license, providing automatic entry in the sport’s biggest races, including the iconic Tour de France. “Our destiny was to become a WorldTour team,” stated Adams. “We are now at the pinnacle of the sport and hope to prove that we firmly belong.”
There was also a name change, to Israel Start-Up Nation, as the team received an important sponsorship commitment from the Israeli non-profit incubator Start-Up Nation Central. Additionally, a new minority owner has also come on board, Kevin Ham, together with his Reinvent brand.
The team signed decorated and experienced riders such as André Greipel, Dan Martin, Nils Politt, and Dani Navarro to its roster of 30 riders, which included four Israelis.
The philanthropic investors also increased their commitment to developing young Israeli talent by creating a new 15-rider Israel Cycling Academy Continental squad, a majority of whom are Israeli.
The two biggest victories of the 2020 season came when Alex Dowsett (photo) and Dan Martin, respectively won a stage in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, giving the team its first-ever Grand Tour triumphs.
After a successful 2020 season, the team decided to upgrade its roster once again. This time in a big way by bringing on multiple Grand Tour and four-time Tour de France winner, Chris Froome, together with Grand Tour stage winners such as Daryl Impey and Michael Woods and top Classics specialist Sep Vanmarcke. Upon signing with the team, Froome made it clear that he was in it for the long haul. “This is very much a long-term commitment for me. I have committed to the end of my career. I’m in to give everything I can to help the team in every way possible as well as improve myself and get back to the top.”
However, Israel Start-Up Nation is much more than just Froome’s new home. “More than just a cycling team, this is a project,” Adams said. “There are two sides. On one side, we are promoting cycling in Israel, and on the other side, we are there to promote our home country of Israel. We are representing our home country around the world with true sportsmanship and determination.”
The team begins each year with a pre-season training camp in Israel, where new and returning riders and staff are (re-)introduced to the country, both on bikes and off, as they are exposed to the diversity of Israel and the history of the Jewish People. There is an absolute requirement for each rider and staff member to conduct him or herself at the highest level of sportsmanship, as they represent and act as ambassadors for the home nation.
Within Israel, the team uses bicycles to bridge the gap between social classes and religions by establishing several programs for children from disadvantaged communities across the country. Specifically, the team has founded cycling schools in various Youth Villages in Israel, as well as the first-ever Arab Youth Cycling League in Shefa-Amr, an Arab Israeli city in the north of the country. It has also built a mentorship program for young coaches, to establish the next generation of professional cycling coaches in Israel.
The team ethos extends well beyond sports, with ISN and ICA acting as Israeli ambassadors abroad, translating the exposure received during races on six continents to promoting Israel as an exciting tourist destination. ISN and ICA are non-profits with ambassadorial, touristic, social, and sporting missions, heavily relying on the energy of our fan engagement and appreciating the warm support we receive all over the world.
As part of the team’s commitment to making positive change beyond cycling, in 2021 ISN launched its Racing for Change initiative and took on several projects under this banner, with the aid and support of partners and sponsors. The first endeavor saw the team “adopt” the only women’s cycling team in Rwanda by supplying both equipment and professional training, as well as providing access and opportunities for young Rwandan children to benefit from cycling. The second undertaking addressed the environmental impact of professional cycling and saw ISN introduce electric vehicles into the team’s fleet, with the goal of ultimately replacing gas-powered vehicles with green alternatives. Finally, the team has started a project to promote safe riding with a series of videos that will target kids, young cyclists, and, most importantly, motorists.
As Israel Start-Up Nation concludes its second year in the WorldTour, its 17 wins and spot in the top ten teams in the world is undoubtedly a success. But more than that, the vision of the team as a catalyst to change and grow cycling in Israel by nurturing the best talent in the country is bearing fruit. 2021 saw Omer Goldstein complete an impressive Tour de France, an achievement followed shortly by the first-ever WorldTour victory by an Israeli when Itamar Einhorn defeated ex-world champion Peter Sagan in a sprint finish.
And as we say: We are just. Getting. Started!