Home > Feature

Is a WorldTeam based in Israel also Canada’s team?

Israel-Premier Tech's mission is to elevate cycling in the Middle Eastern country as well as the state's image. Yet, with five riders and many staff members from the North, the outfit could bring Canadian cycling to new heights, too

Photo by: Noa Arnon/Israel-Premier Tech

The riders of Israel-Premier Tech—or Israel Start-Up Nation as it was called at the time—headed out of Jerusalem. It was Saturday, the best day of the week to ride into the pine-covered hills west of the city. With so many people observing Shabbat, the roads were quiet. The pro riders headed to Bar Bahar, a restaurant at the top of a climb in Nes Harim, about 25 km west of Jerusalem. It’s not only the place where cyclists of the area grab coffee or lunch during weekend rides; it’s also the place where the team got started.

The story of Israel-Premier Tech’s genesis goes like this: Ron Baron, an Israeli businessman, and Ran Margaliot met at Bar Bahar in early 2014. Margaliot’s career as a pro rider had been over for a few years. In 2012, Bjarne Riis dropped Margaliot from Saxo Bank after 26 race days. The rider’s dream of going to the Tour de France was over, yet Margaliot wasn’t done with cycling. If he couldn’t go to the Tour, maybe he and Baron, who had caught Margaliot’s passion for cycling, could get other Israeli riders to the top of the sport. By the end 2014, they had a continental-level team: Israel Cycling Academy.

Since then, the squad has not only grown in status, but has developed Israeli talent. It became a pro continental team in 2017. For 2020, it acquired the WorldTour licence of Katusha Alpecin. That season, Guy Niv became the first Israeli to finish the Tour de France. This past September, on the final stage of the Okolo Slovenska, Itamar Einhorn beat Peter Sagan – an early supporter of Israel Cycling Academy.

Sylvan Adams Guillaume Boivin
Team co-owner Sylvan Adams and 2021 Canadian road champion Guillaume Boivin at Bar Bahar, west of Jerusalem. Image: Noa Arnon/IPT

This past November, as riders pulled into Bar Bahar, fans were waiting. They mingled with their national riders and swarmed four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome for autographs. This event was a homecoming of sorts for Israel’s team. The country was open to tourism during a calm trough in the pandemic following Israel’s fourth wave from July to October and just before the Omicron variant led to the country’s closure to all non-Israeli citizens. For the first time since late 2019, the riders of IPT could gather in Israel and build the bonds that would carry them into the upcoming season. While the focus was naturally on the team’s country, there was another nation – a country with more riders on the squad than any other – that was experiencing a reunion. Guillaume Boivin rolled up to Bar Bahar wearing his Canadian road champion’s jersey. The Montreal native is one of the longest-serving IPT riders, having joined the team in 2016. James Piccoli, another Montrealer, was there. It was his second time in Israel. Two riders from Ottawa, Alex Cataford and Michael Woods, were part of the group. Hugo Houle pulled in still wearing his Astana kit. Although Houle’s move from the Kazakhstan-based squad to IPT had been known for a month, he couldn’t sport his new team’s colours until the new year. As he rode his new bike – so new that it had a piece of masking tape on the top tube with “Hugo” written on it – the team photographer was careful not to distribute shots of the rider on the Factor Ostro Vam, which was not sponsor or contract correct for Houle at the time. Steve Bauer arrived by car. He had been recently added as a directeur sportif. Olympic track rider Derek Gee was new to the continental squad, which held the team’s original name, Israel Cycling Academy. He joined Victoria’s Riley Pickrell, who’s entering his second year on the team. One of its new directors was Ottawa native Gord Fraser. Staying at the same hotel with the team was Jean Bélanger, the CEO of Quebec-based Premier Tech. He was in the midst of sponsorship negotiations with the organization. With so many people carrying passports with “from sea to sea” written on the covers, could this team – this team based in the Middle East – be Canada’s team, too?

It’s been nearly 10 years since Canada has had a high-level cycling team that it could call its own. From 2011 to the end of 2012, there was the pro continental squad Team SpiderTech powered by C10. Steve Bauer and his Cycle Sport Management led the group. He built a strong conti team, which grew into the second division of world cycling. It brought Canucks to Europe, where they took on one-day races in the spring and even some stage races, such as the Tour de Suisse. SpiderTech powered by C10 helped launch the careers of Boivin, Houle and Antoine Duchesne. Bauer’s team also furthered the development of riders such as Ryan Anderson and François Parisien.

Guillaume Boivin
Guillaume Boivin rides for Team SpiderTech powered by C10 at Tro Bro Leon, 2012. Image: Cycle Sport Management

“When I first started racing, my goal was to get on SpiderTech,” said Woods, who is heading into his second season with IPT. “Then SpiderTech folded, and there was a real vacuum.” He noted that the vacuum was filled a bit by the Circuit Sport project, which has gone by Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies, Rally Cycling and now Human Powered Health. Canadian continental outfits, such as Silber Pro/Floyd’s, H&R Block/DC Bank and Garneau-Québecor, helped riders such as Woods, Cataford and Piccoli. “But there really wasn’t a Canadian-ish team racing at the highest level of the sport,” added Woods. “That’s why I ended up on EF Education. That’s why you saw Hugo going to Ag2r-La Mondiale. That’s why you see Antoine Duchesne at Groupama – FDJ. There was no place for Canadians to land in the WorldTour. Now there is with Israel-Premier Tech.”

Was this Guillaume Boivin’s best season ever?

“What I found was lacking as I was coming up as a cyclist in Canada was a real knowledge of the sport at the highest level,” Woods said. “Now you have a generation of riders who will probably come back to Canada and be able to teach young riders. I think that’s going to have huge repercussions. No longer will young riders coming up in a club hear about the guy who only raced a couple of kermesses. That was basically my source of information when I started. Now, there’s the likelihood that someone coming up in Canada in the next couple of years will be able to rub elbows with someone who’s raced the Tour de France and guys who’ve raced Paris-Roubaix, and that goes a long way.” Three of IPT’s Canadians have ridden the Tour (five if you include Bauer and Fraser). Boivin finished ninth at this past edition of the Hell of the North. The reservoir of cycling knowledge among Canadians is probably the deepest it’s ever been.

James Piccoli
James Piccoli at the 2021 Vuelta a España. Image: Stefano Sirotti

A key member of IPT is a very ambitious Israeli-Canadian masters rider. Sylvan Adams, got into cycling in his early 40s, more than 20 years ago. Fellow Montrealer Paulo Saldanha of PowerWatts noticed Adams had a drive and an ability to suffer that would make him well-suited to the sport. (“He’s a source of power. He’s a force of nature,” Saldanha said of Adams.) Adams went deep into cycling. In his two-storey apartment overlooking the waterfront in Tel Aviv, there’s a large training room. It has a bike treadmill – bigger than your average parking spot in the city – that’s similar to the one Tony Martin has. On one wall, Adams’s many medals hang. He’ll tell you he’s won close to 150 races. His victories include Canadian and Pan American titles, as well as two masters world championships.

The billionaire, philanthropist and former head of the real-estate firm Iberville Developments Ltd. – founded by his father, now run by his son – has not only participated in cycling, he’s supported it, too. During the SpiderTech powered by C10 years, his company was a sponsor. He supported Woods as the former runner started making progress into his new sport. In late 2015, once Adams and his wife, Margaret, relocated to Tel Aviv, Adams became intently focused on his new country. His passion for cycling didn’t change.

Guillaume Boivin, Hugo Houle and Sylvan Adams lead a team camp ride outside of Jerusalem, November 2021. Image: Noa Arnon/IPT
Froome and Boivin
Chris Froome and Boivin climb Mont Ventoux during the 2021 Tour de France. Image: Stefano Sirotti

Adams got involved with Israel Cycling Academy soon after it started. Today, he provides most of the financial support that the team needs. He was instrumental in bringing the Giro d’Italia’s grande partenza to Israel in 2018. There are three major cycling projects in Tel Aviv that bear his name: the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute at Tel Aviv University, the Sylvan Adams Cycling Network and the Sylvan Adams National Velodrome. With the commuter network, he’s trying to foster a bike culture in Tel Aviv, not only with the hopes of building an Amsterdam or Copenhagen of the East, but of nurturing future athletes as well. The track is mostly focused on high-performance. “The velodrome is a page out of British cycling,” he said. “They built the National Cycling Centre in Manchester. From there, they’ve used it as a platform to become one of the most successful cycling nations on Earth. I don’t mind trying to emulate success. I am prepared to borrow from any place that has good ideas.”

That process of borrowing ideas and building isn’t confined to Israel. Adams has donated $2 million toward a major renovation of the velodrome in Bromont, Que. The new facility, unlike the old one, will be a covered track. In November, during a team reception at Adams’s Tel Aviv apartment, Saldanha mentioned that there are two other projects in the works in Canada. Adams couldn’t speak to them at the time because they were still being finalized. One, however, is likely the Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute, which is mentioned in a 2019–2020 McGill University financial report as a development project. Its name is so similar to the project at the Tel Aviv University, that it appears to be a twin research centre for sport performance.

Alex Cataford
Alex Cataford time trials at the 2021 Critérium du Dauphiné. Image: Stefano Sirotti

As for riders, Adams keeps an eye on the country he was born in. “We’ve got Cancon philosophies,” he joked. “We want to be a home for all of the Canadians who have the level to reach the WorldTour. We now have every single one of them, save for Antoine Duchense. Five out of six.” He said there’s room for more.

Israel-Premier Tech appears to be a reflection of Adams. “Yeah. There’s not some sort of master plan, but the way it evolved, I guess it is sort of a reflection of the things that are important to me. My two nations: Israel and Canada,” he said.

Nationalism, to various degrees, runs through all WorldTour teams. It’s easy to see Movistar as Spain’s team with the Spanish telecom as the sponsor, and most of its riders and staff from that country. Ag2r-Citroën and Groupama-FDJ are French – no stretch there. Ineos Grenadiers? Sure, let’s continue to call it a U.K. team, but it does have a lot of riders from South America. Trek-Segafredo? Tricky. It’s registered in the U.S., but there are only a few Americans on the team. UAE-Team Emirates is based in the United Arab Emirates. It’s named for the country and the nation’s airline. Yet the team is quite international. It also seems to retain some of its Italian heritage from the Lampre era.

Canucks Israel
Michael Woods, Guillaume Boivin, soigneur Jon Adams, Hugo Houle and directeur sportif Steve Bauer. Image: Noa Arnon/IPT
Woods and Froome
Woods and Froome in Old Jerusalem. Image: Noa Arnon/IPT

In the early 2000s, pro cycling began to expand into the Middle East. The five-stage Tour of Qatar was one of the earliest events in the area. Later came the Tour of Oman, and the UAE Tour. Roughly five years ago, teams registered in the Middle East entered the WorldTour: today’s Bahrain-Victorious and UAE-Team Emirates. The motives behind these team acquisitions by rich countries seem to come under more scrutiny than nations or companies in traditional cycling nations, or simply in the West. Are British fans that concerned that their team, Ineos Grenadiers, is backed by a petrochemical company? Lotteries often harm low-income earners. Lotto and FDJ have long supported cycling in Belgium and France and their presence seems a given. In the case of Bahrain and UAE, the teams are public relations vehicles not for corporations that merit criticism, but nations that have concerning human rights records that include the suppression of the media and dissent.

Israel-Premier Tech is a public-relations endeavour. Adams is quite candid about one of the team’s roles: a means of presenting Israel as more than a place of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It appears that he’s not trying to present a different picture of the country, just a wider one. The team has approached riders from countries that have had strained relationships with Israel. In September 2017, Ahmet Orken, a rider from Turkey, was signed to the team. By the end of that year, Orken asked to be released from his contract. When Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Turkish rider and his family found themselves under pressure. In a statement, he said his mother and brother were in “a dire situation.” The team later dissolved the contract. In February 2020, the conti team announced that El Mehdi Chokri, a Muslim rider from Morocco, had signed. Before the end of that month, there were reports that he was off to AC Bisontine, based in France, to be close to his family in Switzerland.

Michael Woods
Michael Woods dons the polka dot jersey at the 2021 Tour de France. Image: Stefano Sirotti

Adams says he’s not trying to “sport wash” – distract from real problems with athletic competition. A recent example of sport washing, according to Human Rights Watch, is December’s Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which featured a closing concert with Justin Bieber, A$AP Rocky and Jason Derulo. At IPT’s team camp in November, Adams said to journalists that he’s not a propagandist. He wants people, especially riders on the team, to see Israel and come to their own conclusions.

The team’s itinerary at the camp was tourism-focused, including stops in Old Jerusalem, Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market and the ancient fortress of Masada. Many riders and staff went mountain biking and kayaking. That’s the Israel riders saw. While there are no equivalents to those places in Canada, in a way, a similar exercise here for international riders might include the North Shore, Banff, Toronto’s Kensington Market and the Plains of Abraham. Those tourist destinations would only give a visitor a certain, and not very deep, sense of Canada – and a perspective with no mention of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Oka or Wet’suwet’en territory.

Guillaume Boivin
Guillaume Boivin in the national jersey. Image: Noa Arnon/IPT

While sport washing can have many layers, nationalism and sport can often be very surface-level. This past season, Canadian fans were excited to see Woods put on a polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France. They were equally excited to see Boivin, in his national champion’s jersey, race through the mud of northern France with the chance of a Paris-Roubaix podium. Who thinks of a team’s wider goals in those moments? Who sees anything but a contest in which an athlete, a cyclist from Canada, has a chance to do well, and maybe even win?

During the Israel-Premier Tech camp, riders stayed at the Royal Beach Tel Aviv Hotel. Late in the afternoon on the day of the reception at Adams’s apartment, which was a five-minute walk away, Jakob Fuglsang sat in the lobby. Like Houle and Bauer, the Danish rider had recently come to IPT from Astana, officially Astana Qazaqstan Team for 2022, a team controlled by Kazakh interests, especially after the departure of Canada’s Premier Tech as a co-sponsor this past fall. (Premier Tech became the Israeli team’s co-title sponsor in early January.) Within Fuglsang’s new team, the Danish rider didn’t see nationality playing too big of a role, at least among the riders themselves. There might be many Israelis and Canadians. Those nations might be Adams’s focus. Yet, within the squad itself, Fuglsang felt no country seemed to dominate. “One thing that is a little special with this team is that you have so many different nations and no big group from one nation,” he said. “Let’s say it’s normal that if you have a sponsor from Germany or from Italy or for that matter Kazakhstan that you have a bigger group of riders from that place that can often, of course, lead to small groups within the team. For now, I see that here it’s different. It’s one big family.” It’s a perspective Woods shared, too. It seems there is something beyond nationalism at work – a form of cycling diplomacy.

Israel-Premier Tech Canucks Behind the Scenes

Adams Saldanha
Co-owner Sylvan Adams and performance director Paulo Saldanha at Adams’s apartment in Tel Aviv. Image: Noa Arnon/IPT

Sylvan Adams calls Paulo Saldanha a guru, a mentor and a mad scientist. Officially, the Montrealer is the performance director of Israel-Premier Tech, in charge of helping riders race at their best. Saldanha has coached Boivin and Woods for years. In 2021, he began working with Chris Froome, helping the four-time Tour de France winner to explore new approaches to training and to continue his recovery from his crash in 2019. Roughly three years ago, Saldanha brought Vancouver entrepreneur Kevin Ham into the fold. Today, Ham is a minority stakeholder in the team. When Michael Woods joined IPT, Jon Adams came with him. The St. Catharines, Ont., native spent many years on EF Education/Garmin. Before that, he worked with Boivin, Houle and Bauer at SpiderTech powered by C10. Early this year, Premier Tech’s Jean Bélanger became a major partner of the team. His company, which is involved in industrial, agricultural and environmental processes, is based in Rivière-du-Loup, Que.  The company, along with Houle, is also behind an under-23 development team with a focus on Canadian riders.

This story first appeared in the February & March 2022 issue of Canadian Cycling Magazine. It has since been updated.