Israel Cycling Academy's team manager and co-founder Ran Margaliot says that stage wins are the aim for the team if they make it to the Giro d'Italia next May. The wildcard announcement will not be made until early next year but it is more than likely that Israel Cycling Academy will be at the start given the location of the Grande Partenza.
If they do earn the much-desired berth in the Italian Grand Tour, it will be a historic moment for the team as the first Israeli registered squad to ride a three-week race, but Margaliot is not content with making up the numbers.
"We are after victories," Margaliot told Cyclingnews at a recent team camp in Israel.
Margaliot, who was Israel's first WorldTour rider back in 2010 as a trainee for Footon-Servetto before moving on to Saxo Bank the following year, has been busy over the winter shoring up the team in a bid to achieve this goal. He has brought in ten riders for 2018, including Tour of Oman winner Ben Hermans from BMC and the vastly experienced Ruben Plaza from Orica-Scott. The team hopes that the signing spree will be the last piece to the puzzle in earning that wildcard spot.
"It was pretty strict from RCS that we had to gain our invitation like everybody else sports-wise, which is why we were active in the transfer market," said Margaliot. "Obviously, we had some weaknesses that we had to fill. We didn't really have a proper climber this year, and now we do with Ben, Ruben and Nathan [Earle], who are all good climbers.
"We didn't really have a top sprinter last year. We had Mihkel [Raim], who achieved some solid results, but now we have Sondre [Enger] and Kristian [Sbaragli]. They're not the Cavs and Greipels, but they can get there one day. Maybe not Kristian, but Sondre is the real thing. We also brought experience. It was a development team two years ago, I had a few more older guys last year but now I've got Ruben who is 37 years old, he's a grandfather. I like the way that it has changed the dynamics."
Thrown in at the deep end
The Giro d'Italia coming to Israel and racing it are all part of a detailed plan that Margaliot, still just 29, laid out at the start of the project three years ago. First, set up a Continental team and help convince race organisers RCS to bring their showpiece race to the country in 2018.
Next, step up to Pro Continental level and give the riders a chance to experience some of the toughest races on the calendar. Riding the Giro d'Italia is the next rung on the ladder that Margaliot hopes will ultimately put the first Israeli rider in the Tour de France.
"I'm a big believer in throwing them into the deep end and seeing how it goes. We had to face the consequences of that," Margaliot said of the team's first year at Pro Continental level.
"I think we ended this season in a good place. I think that we ended the year closer to reaching the season's potential than when we started. It wasn't obvious and sometimes you have a lot of ups and downs but we finished the season on a high. It's good because it leaves a nice taste in the mouth but it also means that you really have to work the next season."
Controversy and developing Israeli cycling
The visit of the Giro d'Italia to Israel has not come without its controversy. There have been questions about security from the offset and the inescapable fact of ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine. The Israeli government refuses to recognise Palestine as a state and has multiple settlements within the country, which has repeatedly been condemned by the United Nations.
The Giro d'Italia offers a shop window for Israel and its government as it looks to present the country in a much more positive light to the wider world. Earlier this week human rights groups called on RCS to move the Grande Partenza from Israel citing "grave and escalating violations of international law and Palestinians' human rights" and asked teams and sponsors to boycott if they didn't. Stages 1 and 3 have been a particular bone of contention with the route heading past several Palestinian areas. The groups also called out RCS on some of their publicity material for the way it represented Jerusalem as a unified capital of Israel.
The team did not gloss over the issues during the camp and encouraged the riders to discuss it, whatever their opinion. However, for Margaliot, the Giro d'Italia is less about presenting Israel to the world but showing cycling off to Israel. "We have to teach everybody what the Giro is. Nobody knows what the Giro is, they don't know what cycling is. We have to make sure to use it as a turning point for cycling in Israel," he explained.
"On our social media, we have almost spoken no Hebrew, we always spoke English and we always spoke from an international aspect and now we're paying the price. If the Israel Cycling Academy remains like this then Israeli cycling will stay this way. We want there to be a change in Israeli cycling with real riders, real coaches and real infrastructure. So, for now, it is more important to invest over here."
With this focus at home, there is little question for Margaliot that there will be at least one Israeli rider on the start line in just over five months' time.
"If we have a team in the Giro, I will take an Israeli rider. No doubt," he told Cyclingnews. "This has been one of the team missions. At some point, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself why you are doing this. I could maybe find a sponsor tomorrow, start a WorldTour team and put the name Israel in it and have one Israeli rider in the team for decoration and that's it. What have we achieved?
"Nobody would believe in this story, nobody would be inspired and nothing would be changed. You can say the same thing now, maybe I only have five Israeli's and not 20, but I believe those guys are legit. They race and they race hard, they are not just participating but they are contributing to the team's final success and they are going in the moves. Israeli riders are now winning races in Europe. It wasn't like this 25 years ago."