Giro riders face political hurdles next year in Jerusalem

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JERUSALEM — When the world’s cycling elite converge on Israel next year for the storied Giro d’Italia race, they will grapple with the rugged hills of Jerusalem, speed by the shimmering Mediterranean Sea and huff their way through the moonscape of the southern Negev Desert.

But one place the riders will skip is the crown jewel of the local tourism industry, Jerusalem’s ancient Old City.

Under a longstanding tradition, the annual multi-stage race has had some starts and stages take place outside of Italy. In a public relations coup for Israel, the 2018 event here will be the first time the race has taken place outside of Europe. The Giro is to start in Jerusalem and include two additional stages in Israel.

Race organizers said the route will not go through any land considered occupied by the international community. That means the course will circumvent the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians as parts of a future independent state.

Race director Mauro Vegni said he was aware of the political sensitivities and had drawn up the course with the “guidance” of the Italian Foreign Ministry.

“The reality is that we want it to be a sports event and stay away from any political discussion,” Vegni told The Associated Press.

Avoiding politics, however, is difficult when dealing with Jerusalem. Israel considers east Jerusalem an inseparable part of its capital, while the Palestinians claim the area as their capital. The conflicting and emotional claims to east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive holy sites, lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often complicate what might be routine events in other locales.

Foreign dignitaries rarely enter east Jerusalem, and when they do visit, such as President Donald Trump’s trip to the Old City last May, it is usually done privately.

In the case of the Giro, the opening stage in Jerusalem will carefully avoid the city’s invisible pre-1967 boundaries.

Riders will be able to glimpse the ancient walls of the Old City, but they will not enter it or any Palestinian neighborhoods. Other stages are planned along the Mediterranean coast, and in the Red Sea resort of Eilat.

The Italian Foreign Ministry confirmed it had helped Italian race organizers “get a better understanding of the broader political context” and make sure the “routes are inside the pre-1967 borders.”

The Giro is one of cycling’s prestigious Grand Tour races, along with the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta. The race in Israel will mark the first time that any of the Grand Tour events is held outside of Europe.

It’s an achievement for Giro organizer RCS Sport to go beyond the continent ahead of rival ASO, which organizes the Tour and the Vuelta. Giro organizers declined to say how much their Israeli partners had paid to bring the race to Israel.

Israeli leaders and local race officials said they are thrilled to host the Giro, labeling it as the biggest and most prestigious sporting event ever held in Israel. They expect tens of thousands of tourists and cycling enthusiasts.

“We understand that not everyone agrees with us,” said Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Gilad Erdan, who oversees the country’s efforts to counter an international pro-Palestinian boycott movement of the Jewish state.

Erdan said the fact the Giro is coming to Israel “is a huge achievement in and of itself that strengthens Israel’s legitimacy.”

The Sports Ministry, whose minister, Miri Regev, is so passionate about Jerusalem that she wore a dress decorated with the walls of the Old City to the Cannes Film Festival this year, called the race a symbol of “peace and unity.” The ministry said the Giro would promote Israel’s history, heritage, “magical views” and holy sites.

That does not mean the race organizers can just coast to the finish line. The Palestinians and their allies in the boycott movement have objected to promotional materials on the Giro’s social media that include photos and videos of the Old City of Jerusalem.

A photo on the Giro’s Twitter account shows the Spanish cycling great Alberto Contador with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barket in front of the Old City, and a video on Facebook shows footage of the Western Wall and other sites inside the Old City.

The Palestinian ambassador in Rome, May Kaileh, said her embassy is putting pressure on the race to remove the photos.

The Palestinian sports minister, Jibril Rajoub, called the photographs an “issue of misunderstanding” and said he hopes they will be removed. “The most important thing for us, the race is not entering the 1967 boundaries, including east Jerusalem,” he said.

However, Omar Barghouti, Palestinian co-founder of the anti-Israel boycott movement, called on the Giro to cancel the Israel stages altogether and move the race elsewhere.

Promotional material that “deceptively” portrays east Jerusalem as part of Israel, and working with an Israeli partner that does business in West Bank settlements, amount to “shameful complicity” with Israeli rights violations, he said.

Barghouti also promised pro-Palestinian demonstrations if the race takes place in Israel.

“Civil society organizations in Palestine, Italy and throughout Europe are mobilizing to convince participating teams, sponsors and cycling federations to pressure Giro d’Italia to relocate the race,” he said. “Giro d’Italia can expect nonviolent, lively protests if it insists on whitewashing Israel’s occupation and apartheid.”

Vegni, the Giro director, rejected the criticism.

“I hope that it’s treated as a sports event. And I hope it’s treated as a sports event by the Palestinians also,” he said.

 

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”