Israel Cycling Academy began life as a development squad at the end of 2014 with the help of Peter Sagan. They became the first Israeli registered Pro Continental squad earlier this season and aim to be the first to make it to a Grand Tour, with the Giro d'Italia set to start in Israel next May.
Should the team gain that much-desired wildcard spot, team manager Ran Margaliot has confirmed that at least one of the team's home riders will be in the starting eight. The team have five Israeli's on their roster, and Cyclingnews sat down with three of them at the end of their bonding camp in November.
Guy Sagiv is the team's longest standing Israeli rider and was there in 2014 when Sagan helped launch the team. He is a two-time road race national champion and reigning time trial national champion. Roy Goldstein, the current national road race champion, had a spell with the team in 2015 but didn't join them properly until the following season. The 23-year-old Aviv Yechezkel came to the team last year and is a former national time trial and cyclo-cross champion.
Cyclingnews: How did you all get into riding and what was it like getting into racing in Israel?
Aviv Yechezkel: I guess you grow into more from the touristic side. Your dad might ride a bike or someone else where you grow up might ride a bike just for fun. As a 10-year-old you just get a bike and start riding with them and then you slowly start liking it more and at one point you start doing an after-school activity with bikes. With the years, you sort of grow into racing and I guess we liked it enough to suffer everything that we suffer during the day. You just get sucked into it.
Guy Sagiv: I am really competitive in my character so I was riding with my father, that's how I started, and then I realised that I really liked riding and I was good at it so I started to look for a club to join and race with them. When I was about 11 or 12, I joined one of the clubs in my hometown and then I started racing at 12 years old as a mountain biker and I started to get better at it and win some races. I then started to do some road cycling and I realised that was really what I loved so I did just that.
Roy Goldstein: For me, it is a similar story. I started for fun with my family, just riding on a Saturday morning. Then I began racing with a mountain bike club and I got into the national team and I went to Europe for some races. From there, it wasn't an easy choice to go for the professional life, but I went with my heart. It's what makes me happy every morning.
CN: Are their many junior clubs? Is there a big culture of that?
GS: Yes, I think that in Israel the cycling scene is big in the non-competitive area. There are many people cycling every day, especially at the weekends, but the competitive scene is not so big and that is what we are trying to do. We are trying to attract more amateur people to come and race their bikes and we hope that in the future there will be more competitive riders in Israel.
CN: Is there much knowledge of professional racing in Israel? Do you have the opportunity to see it much?
AY: Not much, but it's growing all the time. I'd say that cycling is one of the fastest growing sports in Israel these days, but mainly it is to do with the tourism side and less of the competitive side. Of course, we only have five professionals and that is mainly because we have this project.
CN: What was your first encounter with professional racing?
GS: I think we were all together. I had an opportunity with the national team, it was some sponsor was interested in turning the national team into a semi-professional team and it gave us the opportunity to race in some really big races. That was more or less our first experience with professional racing.
AY: Off the bike, I think my first experience was watching the Tour de France. It is the only bike race that really goes on Israeli television. It must have been 2005, one of Lance Armstrong's last victories. I think that was my first encounter, and after that I started to ride more with the same club that Guy was mentioning before. We started going to races in Belgium when we were 15, probably, and the first physical encounter with professional racing was that project, which was 2014 I think.
CN: What are your thoughts on this project and what does it mean to you?
RG: I think for us, it is the best opportunity. It is a dream come true that we can actually race and do what we love to do and what inspires us.
GS: I think it is the biggest gift that we could have from an Israeli person. Otherwise, let's be honest, the three of us would probably not be sitting here with a professional contract, this year at least. It's a gift and an opportunity for us.
AY: It's a dream come true and something that everyone dreams of but not everyone can do it, and we have. It definitely started like that, but I think I have become to feel a bit different about it. Of course, I still have my sporting goals and challenges and my life is still an athlete's life but what drives me more now is also being an ambassador. We received the ambassador for peace certificate today and this is the other side of this team.
CN: You're all still young. How has it been having some of the more experienced riders, like Ruben Plaza, joining the team?
GS: I think it is great, because we have an opportunity to learn from the real pros, what they think and what they know. From what I know so far, they are really happy to share their knowledge with us and explain. It's a huge thing.
AY: You gain something, which is not something that you can explain to anyone. You gain out of having this relationship and knowing a person really well. You gain confidence when you talk to someone like Ben Hermans, or Dennis [Van Winden]. Dennis has spent so many races leading out…
The interview is momentarily interrupted by the rest of the team riding city bikes down stairs in the background, to the mirth of Yechezkel, Sagiv and Goldstein
AY: These guys have so much experience and you can get so much out of them, but really there isn't any difference between them and us. That, with racing together with the peloton's biggest names, gives us the confidence that with some hard work and over the years we can start to bridge the gaps and become a cycling nation. One day.
CN: What are your personal ambitions?
GS: I think for most of us, it is a dream for us to race in one of the biggest races in the world, which are the three Grand Tours, the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España. We really hope that it can be a dream come true for all of us. To be more specific, I would like to win a stage in one of them. I would like to be part of a strong team that can achieve big results and can make these races not just as a wildcard, but to be there every year.
RG: I think that I will be able to get up there and I will do everything possible to get to the highest level in sport and race in a Grand Tour. My goal is to be able to come back here to Israel and give my knowledge to the young guys in Israel and even to change some small things so that another Israeli can come after me.
AY: It's hard to say, we're only 23-year-olds. How many ambitions can we have? I think, my ambitions are indescribable. I can't really touch it. I don't really know what I want to achieve. I do know that I want to fulfil my potential. I came to a point this year that I thought I had fulfilled my potential and that there wasn't a way of developing further, but now I don't think so. I think that there is more to come and I think that this is my main sporting ambition. There's no limit.
CN: The Giro d'Italia is coming to the country next year, and there's quite a high chance that the team will be there. What does that mean for you?
GS: It's not yet confirmed that the team will take part in the race, but we all really hope so. I think it will have a big impact on the cycling scene here. I think that more people will be aware of cycling in Israel, and maybe the young children will have dreams about cycling and they will want to achieve them with our team or another team. I think it will be a great event and it will have a big impact on the country.
RG: I think that is a great opportunity for the world to see Israel through sport, and I think all the riders and the teams that will be here will see that we are not different from the others. We have the cycling scene here and there are good riders, it's safe and you can really grow up and develop as a rider.
AY: I think that it is 100 per cent I will be here. Whether or not the team gets an invitation, I will be here. It's the biggest thing that Israel has ever seen and I want to be here. It's my sport, it's my passion, my work and I definitely want to be here. The course goes 20 kilometres from where I'm from. I will be here maybe a month before to help promote the event in my local places to get the people out to see it and hopefully I'll be able to start it and ride it. There's nothing like it.