Team Sky riders prepare for a training session for the Giro d’Italia along with members of the Israeli junior team, in Jerusalem, May 2, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

Israel enters uncharted territory on Friday when it begins hosting the three opening stages of the Giro d’Italia, the biggest international sporting event to be held in the country.

The Giro, along with the Tour de France and Spain’s Vuelta comprise the world’s three major tours and the Italian race’s “Big Start” in Israel will mark the first time a cycling classic has included stages outside Europe.

Dedicated to the memory of Gino Bartali

This year’s race has been dedicated to the memory of Gino Bartali, one of Italy’s great cyclists who won the Giro in 1936, ’37 and ’46, and the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948. He was honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Wednesday.

Gino Bartali: The Holocaust’s Hidden Hero, a 10-minute long film being released on YouTube tells the story of how Bartali confronted fascism in his native Italy and risked his own safety to smuggle documents that would eventually help over 800 Jews escape from Nazi-occupied Italy leading up to and during World War II.

Bartali leveraged his celebrity status as an accomplished cyclist as well as his athletic prowess to transport perhaps thousands of kilometers between cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome. Hidden in the frame of his bike were falsified identity cards and other secret documents.

He spoke little of his actions even after the war, living with the mantra “Good is something you do, not something you talk about.” Only after evidence produced by a survivor, several years after his death, Bartali was recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations,” the designation given to those whose heroic actions saved Jews from Nazi capture.

Who to Watch

The main focus during the race will be on Team Sky’s four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, who has not competed at the Giro since 2010 but is aiming to be the first rider since 1983 to hold all three major tours concurrently.

However, the Briton is under investigation by the sport’s governing UCI over an adverse doping test result after a urine sample showed excessive levels of an asthma medication at last year’s Vuelta. Froome has denied any wrongdoing.

Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-born Israeli entrepreneur and cycling enthusiast credited with bringing the Giro to Israel, has set up the Israel Cycling Academy team that will compete in the race. It includes two Israeli riders, another first.

“The Giro d’Italia is the largest sports event ever to be held in Israel,” Sports Minister Miri Regev said, “this is a huge production and an unprecedented logistical operation.”

The 101st Giro opens with a 9.7-kilometer individual time trial on Friday in Jerusalem followed by road races on the next two days between Haifa and Tel Aviv (167 kilometers) and then Beersheba and Eilat (229 kilometers).The event has also attracted state funding aimed at boosting tourism. Tourism Ministry Director-General Amir Halevi said he hoped an investment of several million euros would yield a much larger income from TV exposure of about one billion viewers.

As part of a cycling drive, Adams has also backed the building of a new velodrome in Tel Aviv, which was unveiled on Tuesday. He said he hoped Israel would copy the British model and make it a cycling power.

“We are hoping to take a page out of British cycling, who became the world’s pre-eminent cycling power after they built their velodrome in Manchester and the National Cycling Centre …  so we are hoping to develop cycling amongst the youth and reach the highest level of the sport,” Adams said.

Yoni Yarom, the head of Israel‘s cycling federation, said there were some 2,200 competitive riders among a population of nine million and a cycling culture has developed over the years, with more than 165,000 enthusiasts at all levels.

With reporting from