Despite the political conflict and the traffic headaches, for a few hours at least, the focus on the bicycles whooshing through Jerusalem streets pushed all else to the background
The photographer grinned at me as he ducked underneath the police barrier. “Can you even believe this?” he asked me, gesturing to the crowds. “Can you even believe this is Jerusalem? Can you believe this atmosphere?” Another biker whizzed up the hill to the finish line, so fast we almost missed it.
And the truth is, he was right: For a few hours on Friday afternoon, the Giro D’Italia transported us to a completely different place. Among the crowd of spectators perched along Friday’s race course, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Europe, surrounded by cheering hoards of people complete with the cowbells that accompany major races.
The first three stages of the 21-day race are being held in Israel, after which the race will return to Italy and finish in Rome. A total of 176 cyclists from 22 teams — including an Israeli delegation for the first time — were taking part in the time trials which began just outside Jerusalem’s Old City. The 9.7-kilometer (6-mile) route took riders near some of Jerusalem’s holiest sites, though organizers were careful to avoid any politically sensitive areas.
After the Jerusalem time trials, the 167-kilometer (104-mile) second stage Saturday whizzed down the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to Tel Aviv. Stage 3 on Sunday will follow a lengthy 229-kilometer (143-mile) route — the second-longest leg of the entire race — from Beersheba in the Negev Desert down to Israel’s southern tip of Eilat along the Red Sea.
The event, the second most prestigious cycling race after the Tour de France, consists of 21 days of racing, totaling 3,546.2 kilometers (2,203.6 miles) with 44 kilometers (27 miles) of vertical elevation.
Yes, it was annoying that the roads were closed, trapping thousands of Jerusalemites in their homes for an entire day. Yes, it’s even more disruptive when the country’s major highways are closed on Saturday and the entrance to Eilat is closed on Sunday.
The phrase “sports have no politics” is tired and overused. Of course all of those initiatives that bring people together via sports are praiseworthy and important, but the story is so repetitive it gets old.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised “riders from the Arab world”in a pre-race message on Friday. There are no Arab riders, though there are two teams sponsored by Arab countries: UAE Emirates Team and Bahrain-Merida. Race organizers pointed out that it’s because cycling is a new sport in the Middle East, and it takes time to build up a cycling culture that can produce champions. This is the first year that Israeli riders have taken part in the Giro D’Italia, and only because the Israel Cycling Academy snagged a wildcard spot as hosts of the first three stages of the 21-day race.
When I called the spokespeople of the United Arab Emirates- and Bahrain- sponsored teams on Friday to get a response to Netanyahu’s message, I could hear them sigh audibly over the phone as they churned out the time-worn phrases that they have polished with overuse these past few days. “We’re here to race, not to talk politics.” “Sports can build bridges where politics failed.”
But there was something about the crowds on Friday that, for me, cut through the cynicism that has built up over almost a decade of reporting in this country.
Watching the gaggle of photographers swarm over the race course reminded me of covering riots in East Jerusalem, with similar scrums of international journalists. Sometimes I’d show up to report a riot at the Qalandiya checkpoint and there would be about a dozen kids throwing stones and more than 50 reporters, cameras at the clocked and ready to broadcast those photos to the world, regardless of whether or not the “riots” were actually a news story.
This weekend, by contrast, more than 600 journalists arrived in Israel to cover the Giro D’Italia race and frankly, didn’t give a flat tire about the political situation. That can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it, but it was the reality. They were there for the race, not the setting.
Sports journalists are a special breed of journalists: well-versed in the tiniest minutiae of their sport, with a razor-like focus on the race itself. At the media center after the first stage ended on Friday at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, spandex made way for shtreimels in an instant as the Giro D’Italia organizers and support teams rushed towards Haifa, the start of the next stage, and a 200-strong Satmar Hassidic family celebration got ready for Shabbat in the hotel.