Canadian-born Sylvan Adams has big plans for Israel Start-Up Nation cycling team

·7 min read

With British star Chris Froome and Ottawa's Michael Woods leading the way this year, Canadian-born co-owner Sylvan Adams has big plans for the Israel Start-Up Nation team.

And they go well beyond mere success in the cycling world.

In convincing the Giro d'Italia to start the 2018 race with three stages in Israel, the 62-year-old from Montreal showcased his adopted country.

"The entire country was on display, for three glorious days … Basically we had hundred of millions of first-time visitors to Israel, via their TV screens, seeing it in an unvarnished way" Adams said.

Staging the start of the race in Israel reportedly cost millions, with Adams stepping up to help make it happen.

After emigrating to Israel with his wife in late 2015 following a successful career as president and CEO of Iberville Developments, a large real-estate company, Adams had business cards printed up with the title "Self-appointed ambassador at large for Israel.”

"And I decided I'm going to devote this chapter of my life to promoting my new country, my adopted country, using sporting and other cultural activities to show what I call the true face of Israel," Adams said in an interview from Spain where his team was in pre-season training.

For Adams, Israel is a country open, tolerant, diverse and fiercely democratic.

'"And of course we're a safe country. People don't realize it because of the news cycle," he said. "My projects are kind of trying to show the rest of the world this normal Israel."

"I'm not blaming the journalists. Good news doesn't sell," he added with a laugh.

Adams is spreading his largesse. He helped build a velodrome in Tel Aviv and donated some $39 million for a new emergency care wing at a Tel Aviv hospital.

He has also created the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute (SASI) at Tel Aviv University, a facility dedicated to sports science that has partnered with Montreal's McGill University. There is also the Sylvan Adams commuter cycling path network in Tel Aviv.

In addition to being co-owner of Israel Start-Up Nation, Adams is also team CEO. He negotiated the deals to bring Woods and Froome into the fold.

"I'm very actively involved in the team. It does take up a significant amount of my time," said Adams.

Asked if anyone makes money from pro cycling, Adams chuckles.

"Not me, that's for sure," he said. "If somebody does, it can't be big money … You'll not get rich in the sport of cycling, sadly. And for me it's quite the opposite. I've put a lot of my of my own personal funds into the bike team. And I'm hoping with success, we'll bring on some more commercial sponsorships."

By having Israel rather than a sponsor in the team name, he knows he is missing out on a major source of sponsorship. But he pledges that Israel will always be front and centre.

Still, that doesn't stop him from hoping the Israeli government ups its current support of the team. Right now, he gets "very small sponsorship" from the Israeli ministry of tourism.

While Adams' cycling team had moments to savour in 2020 — British rider Alex Dowsett won Stage 8 of the Giro while Ireland's Dan Martin took Stage 3 of the Spanish Vuelta (Woods won Stage 7 with his former team) — Adams is looking for significant improvements this season.

That's because his team didn't get its WorldTour licence until the last day possible before the 2020 season, buying it from the Katusha-Alpecin team. In essence, last year's squad was built as a lower-tier Pro Continental team.

"We had some good riders certainly — Andre Greipel and Dan Martin — so we were a fair team," said Adams. "But this year we're a real WorldTour team. We built the roster because we know we are in the WorldTour. And we built the roster with certain goals in mind.

"We're a vastly improved team and we hope to make some noise this season."

Adams goes back with Woods, whom he first heard about from Montreal's Paulo Saldanha, now Israel Start-Up Nation's performance manager.

A former Ironman triathlete, Saldanha runs a string of training studios under the PowerWatts name.

Saldanha was working with another rider, who tipped him off to Woods' potential in 2013. A former elite distance runner, Woods had switched to cycling after a string of foot injuries — breaking his foot for the final time in the fall of 2011.

Adams had worked with Saldanha before, telling him to keep him posted if he came across a promising prospect who needed some financial help. They had tried it a few times without much success.

Then came Woods.

"I get a call from Paulo and he says 'Sylvan, I've just tested this guy and he's the best athlete I've ever tested from an endurance sport, natural physical gifts perspective.'"

Adams provided the help anonymously until Saldanha eventually introduced him to Woods, who had been working as a bank teller as well as weekends in a bike shop, as his benefactor.

Older than most aspiring pros, Woods was not that attractive a prospect for some.

"If it wasn't for Paulo and Sylvan, I wouldn't be a pro cyclist," Woods said. "They took a big chance on me and helped me out when I first started."

Adams' message to Woods was simple. You have a job any time with my team, but best you wait until it reaches the top echelon.

"The rest is history," said Adams. "He climbed through the ranks at various level of the sport."

In September 2019, Adams went to the UCI Road World Cycling Championships in Harrogate, England. As member of the Canadian camp, he rode with the team on their reconnaissance ride before the race.

He reiterated his job offer. A year later, Woods opted to leave the Education First Pro Cycling team to join Adams in 2021.

Adams is no stranger to digging into his pocket for cycling, backing the Canadian-based SpiderTech team — run by former Canadian star rider Steve Bauer — that eventually ceased operations in 2012. After moving to Israel, he had a chance to get back into the sport by buying into a team that was then called the Israel Cycling Academy.

"Instead of being a small player like I was in SpiderTech, well I became the biggest player," he said. "It's worked out really well. I think the team is a great ambassador for the country."

Other Canadians on the Israeli team include Ottawa's Alex Cataford, and Montreal's Guillaume Boivin and James Piccoli. There are three other Canadians on the team's developmental squad and more on the team staff including the chief mechanic.

"There's a lot of Canadian content on our team … And I'm eager to have our team seen not only as Israel's team but also as Canada's team," said Adams.

"I'm here for Canada," he added.

But the marquee addition in 2021 is Froome, a four-time Tour de France winner who came over from Team Ineos.

"One of the reasons I'm excited about having Chris Froome and having a much better team is everybody pays attention to the winner," Adams said. "So it brings us more positive attention and I'm all for it."

Woods also points to the addition of South Africa's Daryl Impey, a two-time winner of the Tour Down Under, and Belgian's Sep Vanmarcke.

"We've got a really strong roster," said Woods. "I think we've certainly going to be one of the top teams this year."

An avid cyclist who took up the sport at age 41, Adams' masters' resume includes six Canadian titles, four Pan American gold medals, four Maccabiah Games gold medals, two World Championships titles and the Israeli championship.

"He's larger than life in many ways. A great guy," said Woods.

"Sylvan has done a lot for cycling in Canada. Most of the time in a quiet way," added Quebec's Hugo Houle, who rides for the Astana-Premier Tech team. "But he's definitely a big big helper. I have a lot of respect for what he's doing now with Israel Start-Up Nation. The team's getting really big and really great."

Adams remains connected to Canada with one of his kids in Vancouver and another in Montreal. Two others are based in Los Angeles.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press