For the first time in its history, the Giro d'Italia has started in Jerusalem. The Israeli government is hoping to use the event to improve its international image, but it comes amid heightenend tensions in the region.
For days, a commercial for the world's second-biggest cycling race has been running on Israeli radio. For Israel, hosting the Giro d'Italia is a big deal: It's the biggest sporting event in the history of a country that just turned 70.
Ran Margaliot is the manager of the Israel Cycling Academy, the country's only professional cycling team. The team has been granted a wild card for the start of the Giro. The riders will find themselves cycling past places where the history of Jews began thousands of years ago. The country also has a lot to offer topographically: deserts, mountains, forests and the sea.
"It is a wonderful opportunity to present our country to the world," Margaliot told DW.
Israel is a small country and is isolated by its neighbors. In terms of sports, it is focused towards Europe. Margaliot is proud that the Giro came to Israel. From the Israeli team manager's point of view, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will not be an issue during the race.
"We want to give cyclists from all over the world a different perspective on our country," Margaliot said. "We don't want to be a place that is only seen from a political point of view; rather we want to show that there is normal life here."
Tony Martin: 'You hear a lot of bad things about Gaza'
This is a legitimate wish, and certainly it is also not the wrong approach. After all, the Giro will be televised in 197 countries and organizers estimate an audience of one billion viewers. The first three stages of this year's Giro are meant to showcase Israel. They are: Jerusalem (individual time trial), Haifa and Tel Aviv (second stage) and Be'Er Sheva to Eilat (third stage). For years, Israel has been using advertising campaigns to try to attract more European tourists.
The Giro is part of this strategy, and it will cost the country a pretty penny: The hosts forked out almost €28 million ($33.5 million) to have the Giro start in Israel, according to the country's tourist ministry. A quarter of that is being footed by the government, with sponsors paying the rest.
But is the picture of Israel that the organizers are trying to portray actually accurate? Four-time time-trial world champion Tony Martin arrived in Israel with an uneasy feeling.
"Of course you hear many bad things about Gaza. I have to trust that the organizers made a good assessment of the security situation. Unfortunately no one could have predicted what happened here in recent months," he said, referring to the planned relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the friction this sparked between Israelis and Palestinians.
Some human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch don't at all like the way Israel is trying to use the Giro to spruce up its image. And some critics fear protests or other threats to the event, especially since a cycling race is particularly hard to protect.
"We athletes are the ones who suffer," German cyclist Robert Wagner told DW. "The sport should come first, but unfortunately that's not the case."
Also casting a shadow over the event is the doping scandal involving Giro favorite Chris Froome.
Read more: Chris Froome: The damage is already done
The aim? Pretty pictures from the course
Even the Israeli government is concerned about possible unrest. When the Italian organizers announced that the Giro would start in Jerusalem, they spoke of West Jerusalem. It's a commonly used term, as the Palestinians lay claim to the east of the city.
Israel's sports minister, Miri Regev, was beside herself. She stressed that there was only one indivisible Jerusalem, which is is located in Israel. Regev threatened the organizers with the cancelation of state subsidies. A few days later, the Giro organizers spoke only of "Jerusalem."
The beginning of the Giro — an individual time trial in Jerusalem — will only run through the western part of the city, and the security situation is tense. This has nothing to do with the Giro, it's just the way things are in Israel at the moment. The Israeli police will be pulling out all the stops to secure the race – using CCTV, helicopters and anti-terror units.
For weeks there have been clashes between Israelis and Palestinians on the border between the Gaza strip and Israel. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed.
Nonetheless, German cyclist Rüdiger Selig of Team Bora-Hansgrohe is trying to focus on the positive aspects of the race. Jerusalem and the historic old city are something special, he notes. However, Selig's team manager Ralph Denk won't have time for a city tour.
"It is my job as team manager to ensure that the riders can prepare for such a big even like the Giro in peace," Denk told DW. "Therefore, this start [in a different country] is quite a challenge."
Up to 40-degree temperatures in the Negev desert
Temperatures in the Negev desert (third stage) can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
"That is added stress for the riders," Denk said.
These temperatures are much higher than those in Italy at this time of year. Denk is demanding that his riders to stick to the regeneration times set out by the team in order to prevent them from coming down with the flu amid a stark change in temperature .
The teams are to fly with their equipment to Catania on Monday. Seven planes are waiting at the Uvda airport, north of Eliat, while a second supply train is already waiting for the riders in Italy. One day later, the riders will be attacking the hills of Sicily.