I started pedalling beneath the Old City’s turreted walls, built from the locally quarried limestone that gives Jerusalem its distinctive lemony-white hue. This might not be a natural cyclists’ city — the heat can be ferocious in summer and, since the holy conurbation sprawls across the rolling Judaean Hills, there’s hardly a flat bit of road. And yet this Friday the world’s best cyclists will converge here — along with the attention of millions of cycling fans around the globe — for the start of the Giro d’Italia.
Since its foundation in 1909, Italy’s biggest bike race has made occasional forays outside its home country but has never left Europe. In fact, none of the Grand Tours, the trinity of great bike races that also includes the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, have ever been outside Europe. For the organisers, coming here is a shortcut to boosting the race’s international profile; for the Israeli government, it’s a bid to market the country as a leisure destination. “This bike race across the Holy Land will be a fascinating journey through time,” said Miri Regev, minister of culture and sport.
On days two and three, the race will pass through Haifa, Tel Aviv, the Negev Desert and Eilat, but I set out to ride the opening stage, a 10.1km individual time trial through the streets of Jerusalem. Turning my back on the hallowed confines of the Old City, I set off through the modern, upmarket development of Mamilla with its shopping mall, art galleries and jewellery boutiques. On the crest of the first hill, I stopped to catch my breath in front of the King David Hotel. Opened in 1932, it has hosted numerous dignitaries and celebrities but is, perhaps best known for being bombed in 1946 by the militant Zionist organisation, Irgun when it was the HQ of British Mandate Palestine.
Security around the Giro will be tight and controversy has accompanied it from the very start. Only a day after the press conference to announce the route, the government threatened to withdraw its sizeable financial backing because the start was described as being in West Jerusalem (a reference to the competing Israeli and Palestinian claims over the city). The “West” was swiftly dropped. Meanwhile, Palestinian campaigners have complained of “sport washing”.
From the hotel, the course drops down Mount Scopus past the irrigated parks and the neat, red-roofed town houses of the Yemin Moshe district, before rising again, steeply in places, through Talbiya, an architecturally interesting, gentrified neighbourhood where I passed a plaque dedicated to Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s greatest modern poet. He wrote: “The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams.” It’s also thick with pollution. Weaving my way west down Rambam Street through a queue of stationary cars, I sucked up a lungful of hot fumes.
Another hill. This time up to Givat Ram, the government precinct built following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. I pedalled past the austere, fortified Knesset or Parliament building, the Supreme Court and the National Library. As no one was recording my time, I locked my bike up outside the enthralling Israel Museum and spent an hour in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition. The majority of cyclists in Jerusalem ride electric bikes. Climbing the penultimate hill up Betsal’el Street, back to the teeming heart of the city, I knew why. While I was out of the saddle, wrestling my hired bike from side to side with sweat forming on my brow, the locals whirred cheerfully past. Over the top on King George Street, I stopped again, at a stall under a cypress tree, for a reviving glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, a plate of hummus and hot, soft pitta.
In the final kilometre, I paused beneath the imposing façade of the Great Synagogue, completed in 1982 and at Mamilla Pools, the 2,000-year old water cistern thought to have been commissioned by Pontius Pilate. Not that Chris Froome will observe any of this. He will be flying down Agron Street at 70kmh and sprinting back up towards the finish line, in Tsahal Square. Still full of chickpeas and pita, I laboured more sedately up the final, steep incline to the walls of the Old City and the throng of tourists flocking in through Jaffa Gate.
The pro-cyclists will complete the course in a few minutes. It had taken me all afternoon, but I had seen more of the Holy City than many of the 3.5m annual visitors ever will.
Get alerts on Cycling holidays when a new story is published