Samuel Mutter is an MPhil/PhD researcher in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. His interests include issues of urban politics, security, space and aesthetics, while his current research project examines the governance of circulation and disruption on the London Underground network.
The 2018 edition of the Giro D’Italia, one of the three ‘Grand Tours’ of men’s professional cycling – alongside the Vuelta a España and, of course, the Tour De France – began in unusual fashion. Rather than starting in any part of Italy, the cyclists set off from the Western, Israeli-controlled side of Jerusalem. The 2nd and 3rd stages were also held in Israel – from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and then from Be’er Sheva to Eilat – before the race returned to more familiar territory for the 4th stage in Catania, Italy. At first, this could simply be taken as an indication of the sport’s increasingly global reach and popularity (while in France, its homeland, it has begun to be thought of as out of date; an old man’s game). Indeed, this is by no means the first time the opening stage of a Grand Tour has set off from abroad. In its 101st edition, this was the 13th time the Giro had started outside Italy. Nor are the other Grand Tours strangers to foreign beginnings: the ‘Grand Depart’ of the 2014 Tour de France, for instance, was held in Leeds, Yorkshire, before making its way south to London, and skipping across the channel.
However, two things make the Israeli Giro stages stand out. First of all, unlike the UK, where cycling as a sport (as well as a middle-class urban lifestyle; all lycra, sourdough, and frothed milk) has boomed over recent years – especially since the success of the Great Britain track team in the 2012 London Olympic velodrome, and the subsequent Tour de France victories of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome under the auspices of Team Sky (asthma and Jiffy bags notwithstanding) – Israel cannot be said to be in the grips of cycling fever. While thought of as a trendy way of getting around in Tel Aviv, the country has little to no historical pedigree in biking as a competitive sport. If the Israeli Giro is representative of an infectious uptake of cycling in Israel, it is not the symptom but the first case.