It had been a tense Team Sky press conference in the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem, but as Chris Froome got up to leave, he was at least greeted by a friendly face. The 2018 Giro d'Italia was in Israel thanks to the efforts of Israel Cycling Academy's chief backer Sylvan Adams and, as a courtesy, he went to introduce himself to the marquee name.
"I came up and said, 'Hi, I'm Sylvan Adams, I'm the honorary president of this Giro Big Start,' and he said, 'Yeah, I know who you are' and we had a really nice, quiet and intimate conversation," Adams told Cyclingnews on Friday. "I asked him about his impressions of Israel and how he was enjoying it. He was, of course, the consummate gentleman, and he only had complimentary things to say, which were greatly appreciated."
Froome arrived in Israel while still awaiting a verdict after returning an adverse analytical finding for salbutamol the previous year – the case would be dropped the following July – and the clouds over his Giro darkened still further when he crashed during his reconnaissance of the opening day time trial. At the start of stage 2 in Haifa, Adams went to enquire after his health and they would continue to exchange pleasantries at starts and finishes when the race reached Italy, where Froome staged a remarkable late comeback to claim overall victory.
"I kind of kept bumping into him from time to time during that Giro and we had a rapport," said Adams, though he refuted the idea – reported again in L'Équipe on Friday – that he had played any particular role in enticing Froome to participate in the event in the first place.
"I was the guy who had the crazy idea of bringing the Giro to Israel and convinced all the powers that be – both RCS and the government of Israel – that this would be a good thing, but the fact is that Chris had never raced the Giro at that time, so I would have to say I played no role in that part. It was really RCS who were very keen to have Chris ride the Giro. Chris had already won the Tour and the Vuelta, so I guess this completed his trifecta of Grand Tours."
Two years on, Adams' team has developed into WorldTour outfit Israel Start-Up Nation and on Thursday, they announced the biggest transfer deal of the year by confirming that Froome will join the squad in 2021. Yet despite their easy rapport at the 2018 Giro, Adams says that he and Froome "really hadn't spoken" in the intervening period.
It was also well publicised that Froome's existing deal with Team Ineos expired at the end of 2020, but despite Israel Start-Up Nation's growing ambitions, Adams insists that they hadn't planned an attempt to sign the Briton until news emerged in May that he was minded to move elsewhere.
"No, this was fairly recent, it was something that began only in the last few weeks. I don't remember how long ago or when exactly it started, but it became a conversation that led to this conclusion," Adams said.
"We couldn't have dreamt that Chris Froome might have been available, even though, you're right, he was coming off of contract. It was an opportunistic thing. We described the team philosophy and the atmosphere that he was coming into, and I guess that he was very comfortable with it.
"I indicated to him that ISN is really a family type of a team and that we're very tightly knit, and we care about each other. It's not a corporate team. Nobody is making any money out of this. It's a philanthropic project from my perspective and I am by far the largest investor in this venture. He liked what he heard."
Cyclingnews reported in May that Froome was considering making a mid-season transfer in order to be a lone leader at the rescheduled Tour de France, with Bahrain-McLaren another potential suitor. Such a move would have involved the complicated matter of buying out the remainder of Froome's existing contract, however, and the four-time Tour winner reportedly told Ineos teammates last month that he would see out the year with the team.
"It was and it remains clear that Chris is under contract until December 31 to his current employer so I can't really have any comment about that," Adams said. "There's really nothing to say, because Ineos have the contractual rights to race Chris Froome until his contract expires. So we'll see where he races, how he races, if they put him in the Tour squad or some other Grand Tour – however they decide to race him – and I'll be a fan like everybody else."
Tour de France
Whatever his eventual race programme when competition resumes in 2020, Froome's overriding objective in his first season in Israel Start-Up Nation colours will be the 2021 Tour de France. In the longer term, other Grand Tours might be on the agenda, and "long-term" appears to be the operative expression. Announcing the transfer on Thursday, Israel Start-Up Nation stated that Froome would ride with the team "until the end of his career," though Adams declined to say precisely when that would be.
"It's written in our press release that Chris will stay with us until his retirement so we talked about how much longer he felt he would want to race and he feels very, very comfortable about his capacities going forward so we came to an understanding," Adams said.
"I can't give you the exact terms of the deal because they're confidential, but the duration was established by Chris' desire to race for so many more years and that's how we settled on the terms of the contract."
Froome turned 35 in May and has raced just once – at the UAE Tour in February – since he sustained severe injuries in a crash at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné. Adams evinced no misgivings about investing in a rider of the Briton's age – "He came to the sport fairly late so he's actually a little bit younger than those years in cycling terms" – and added that Israel Start-Up Nation had satisfied itself, too, that Froome has recovered from his Dauphiné crash.
"We check out every single prospect with whom we have discussions. We look at everybody's power files and that would be the case even had Chris Froome been younger and not lost last season to injury," Adams said. "We would have wanted to know: who is this rider and what are his capacities? Because you can watch him in a bike race, but you really don't know, you're not privy to that information.
"We have a fantastic sports performance director who sifts through all that data, so he could compare Chris to other athletes whose data we have. So we were very comfortable – Chris' numbers are exactly where they're supposed to be for a champion of his ilk."
Froome will aim to add to his seven Grand Tours during his tenure at Israel Start-Up Nation, but he will also be expected to serve as a mentor to the team's emerging Israeli riders. Adams, who regularly describes himself as "self-appointed ambassador for the state of Israel," also highlighted that an express part of the team's mission is to promote a country that most often makes international headlines in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. "These guys are ambassadors for the nation. We use the sport as a bridge for new friendships and relationships and, of course, to represent the home country to the rest of the world."
Israel Start-Up Nation began life in 2015 as the Cycling Academy Continental team, under the management of former Saxo Bank professional Ran Margaliot – who since left to found the Gino Bartali Youth Leadership School – and backed by investor Ron Baron. Adams, born and raised in Québec, was CEO of the Iberville real estate development company before moving to Tel-Aviv in 2015. A keen cyclist, Adams was approached to join the team's ownership in their second season.
Year on year, the squad has expanded as it moved through the ranks. In 2018 and 2019, Israel Cycling Academy raced the Giro as a wildcard. For 2020, the team moved up to the WorldTour and signed riders including Dan Martin, André Greipel and Nils Politt after taking over Katusha's licence. They will look to add to the quality of stage racing talent around Froome in 2021, though Adams did not suggest a radical overhaul of the roster.
"We're pretty comfortable that we have maybe a couple more missing pieces to add to the puzzle, but we're close to being ready to race next year with Chris our leader," said Adams. In the interim, the team is set to make its Tour de France debut in 2020 with Martin leading the line and with at least one slot reserved for an Israeli rider.
"There's a historic Tour de France coming up for us," said Adams, whose contribution to Israeli cycling also includes the construction of a velodrome in Tel-Aviv with the aim of emulating Britain's rapid development as a cycling nation. "I like to say I stole a page from British cycling," said Adams, who has now signed their most successful rider to boot.
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