Dec 28, 2021

A SEASON OF STEPPING UP: ISRAEL START-UP NATION

This October Israel Start-Up Nation rounded out what was their most successful season to date, closing out the race calendar with seventeen victories and significantly jumping the UCI team rankings. Since their step-up to World Tour level in 2020, they have only continued to develop and prove their strengths at the sports most elite level, now a prominent force to be reckoned with amongst the world’s best. Adding to the success of the World Tour team, the Israel Cycling Academy development squad can also reflect on the 2021 season with great satisfaction having come away with several big victories at competitive UCI events.

To celebrate their efforts, the entire team came together again in November for a week-long team building camp in Israel that included an action packed schedule of tourism, team bonding, scenic riding and off-the-bike activities. Proving a fantastic opportunity to develop stronger bonds and to warmly welcome new riders and staff.

With the new year now just around the corner, every rider is in full preparation mode, putting in the miles and the hard work at home, before they next join forces in January for their final pre-season training camp ahead of the first races of the season. With the addition of big names, Jakob Fugslang and Giacomo Nizzolo to the roster, their continued trajectory to becoming one of the best teams in the world is looking more promising than ever before.

At Factor, we are incredibly proud to continue our close partnership with the team, working together to achieve great things on the World Tour. Over the past two season’s, Israel Start-Up Nation’s riders and staff have played a pivotal role in providing the feedback and input we needed to create two of our latest developments: The OSTRO VAM and the HANZŌ. We now look forward to seeing the team continue their rise to the top through 2022.

We recently spoke with team Sports Director, Zak Dempster to hear his thoughts on the race season that’s been, to learn more about the team’s Israel expedition and chat 2022 team ambitions.

Photography by Noa Arnon and Bettini Photo

WORDS BY ZAK DEMPSTER

2021 SEASON SUMMARY.

As a whole, this season was a success. We were in the top ten of the UCI rankings, we led the Giro d’Italia, won a stage there and clocked up 17 victories across the season. We had a lot of bad luck as well, losing key riders to crashes at important parts of the season, including Alessandro De Marchi and Daryl Impey. So, it’s pretty amazing what the team was still able to achieve. I think it’s been the natural progression of the team from a Continental team, to a Pro-Continental team and then to a World Tour team in 2020. We’ve only continued to climb the ladder over the years and it’s still fairly early days. The results that Dan Martin has been able to achieve with the team, the comeback of André Greipel to winning form and special moments like that have been solid proof that we are on the right track to continuing our rise to the top. Overall, this season was a definite success and a key steppingstone to what we’re really after next year.

SEASON HIGHLIGHTS.

I think Alessandro De Marchi’s time at the Giro d’Italia donning the Maglia Rosa was super special. To have an Italian on our team wearing that jersey in Italy was incredible. Then of course, Dan Martin’s epic victory at the Giro’s Stage 17. On top of that there was Mike Woods’ exemplary exploits across the entire season. His consistency is really impressive and he’s been a great addition to the team.

On a personal note, I was obviously quite involved with setting up the Israel Cycling Academy development team from the start a couple of years ago. My involvement began to change when I started working more closely with the World Tour team, gaining experience at the Tour de France and the Vuelta. This meant that I wasn’t in the race car at the Continental races this year, so I had less direct involvement than previous seasons, but I obviously still really cared about the team, the riders and their progress having invested a lot into their development. So, from my point of view seeing the guys really take a step up this season, especially when Mason Hollyman took a huge win on Stage 5 of the Volta Portugal was something special. They’ve certainly proved that they are a world-class development team. This was a very personally satisfying moment because I know the riders and I could see how they’ve improved, how they’ve worked hard together, how happy they are and also the way the staff around them have really stepped it up. To see them get a reward for all that work and for the great team culture that they have created meant a lot to me, and I wasn’t even in the race car!

For me, it’s been quite a gradual progression to working with the World Tour team. I’m happy and felt like I was ready about halfway through this year when I got more involved. Now I’m just really looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting deeper into planning and strategizing to make this team one of the best in the world.

CHALLENGES FACED.

I think the main challenge in the world through 2021 and for the future is the ongoing pandemic. It’s a whole new enemy in a way. It just adds so much extra work and planning and everyone involved has to be super careful. Although, I’d say it’s somewhat normalising now –  becoming habitual and part of what we do. It’s super important for us to continue to be very strict with our protocols, but I think we’re on top of it. We had some issues this year obviously, as everyone did, but I feel like we’re on the right track. We can’t rest on our laurels but we need to be stringent and remain positive that racing can go on as it has now for the last two seasons.

EQUIPMENT.

I think what’s clear is that the team is progressing. Not only progressing in terms of our athletes, but also in terms of our material and the sponsors that are our partners, and Factor is a huge part of that. It’s not about creating a bike and resting on that. As you can see, this partnership is constantly evolving and Factor and the team have both been putting in work on a daily basis to better their products and obviously to make our riders faster. Developments like the OSTRO VAM and the HANZŌ are the product of that and you can see their positive impact not only in the way our riders talk about the material that we have at our disposal, but also in the results that they are achieving. The most obvious example this year is the time trial bike and the welcoming of the HANZŌ. It was clear that in the past we weren’t performing at the highest level in time trials and now we are right up there. Not only competitive, but winning. It’s a process, but that’s what we’re about and that’s what Factor’s about as well.

ISRAEL TEAM BUILDING CAMP.

It had been a couple of years since the team travelled to Israel due to Covid. Before that, it was an annual thing and especially important for the new riders to go and see the country that the team originate from, as well as being a great opportunity to get to know each other off the bike. In previous years we’ve held this camp later on, just before Christmas or in the new year, and that’s created a little bit of stress because guys are in full training mode, so we needed to factor in proper training days as well as team building and exploring. This year, the team were able to hold it early November, so we actually only did three or four rides, and the rest of the time we were off kayaking, mountain biking and visiting historical sites, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. It was more about enjoying a wide range of activities to see Israel, but also to get to know each other. From my point of view, it was the best trip I’ve done there because we were just coming off the back of the 2021 season, so the mood was relaxed and the riders weren’t yet needing to train 30 hour weeks or worry about preparation for next season.

CAMP HIGHLIGHTS.

I really liked the vibe in Tel Aviv because we stayed on the beach there and it’s just a really cosmopolitan city. Everyone had time to go off and explore a bit – see the markets and do other touristy things. It was a nice mixture of structure and down time.

We were having a lot of fun every day. To be honest, I was calling home saying, ‘I’m at camp working, but I’m off kayaking on the Sea of Galilee’! From my point of view, it was hard to call it work sometimes and you could see everyone by the end of it had definitely grown closer as we had some great opportunities to get to know each other in a more relaxed environment. And now when the team go into these stressful situations at the races next season, we’ll be more prepared as we have those stronger bonds.

PRE-SEASON PREPARATIONS.

We’ve just rounded out a mini training block in Girona with the riders that were available and needed bike fits. We worked with Gerardo Lozano Real at Clinica Podotec to get the riders nice and dialled on their equipment for 2022. We had Jakob Fuglsang here, Chris Froome, Mike Woods and all of the young riders as well as a few members of the Continental team. On top of this minicamp, over the previous weeks, Andy Gerrans (Osteopath) has been doing the pre-season screenings for the riders, so a lot of those necessary pre-season jobs have already been done, and the riders are now just at home doing the hard work which is the cool part. The small training block we did here was all about getting some good miles in together and in standard sunny Girona conditions. 

The plan from now is that we leave everyone be through to the end of the year, and they can just get stuck into work. December is a super important time. There’s been years where we have and many team’s do still run camps through December. That makes sense too, but it’s also nice for everyone to be at home and just put the work in, because that’s an important part of being a pro. Then the whole team will come together – Continental, World Tour, everyone in January on the Costa Brava to do a structured 12 day training camp before racing commences. So, right now we are in a good place. Everything is set up and the riders are just training it up on the bike and doing the work in the gym to be ready.

2022 GOALS.

We’ve had a number of Directors meetings discussing plans and ambitions for next year. What has been super clear across all meetings and what I can share now is that we’re obviously aiming higher for 2022. As mentioned, the team has taken a big step forward which is proven through the level of results that we’ve already achieved, but we’re definitely aiming for greater things next season and there will be some communication about what that means for more specific goals pretty soon. Even in the signings that we’ve made, I think that it’s clear that the team will be super competitive at the highest level and if one thing’s for certain – we want to be one of the best teams in the world. Now’s the time for hard work, creating our strategy and then we will go from there.

NEW RIDERS.

We are especially excited about the signing of Jakob Fugslang who pretty much needs no introduction – he was second at the Olympic Road Race in Rio and he’s won countless big races across the World Tour throughout his 15 years as a pro. He’s just a super solid rider and he will form a pivotal part of that GC climbing group with Mike Woods, and hopefully Chris Froome coming back. He is one of the top riders in the world and he will without doubt really strengthen the team. I think we can expect some big things from him.

Hugo Houle who is a very trusted domestique from Canada will also be joining us next season. He’s a solid all-rounder – there when it’s hard and will be a super present force on the team for when we need soldiers basically! So, his strengths and reliability will be very welcomed.

Then we have Corbin strong – a young kiwi coming off the track and the Olympics in Tokyo. He’s fast but he’s also fairly quick uphill. He’s won a number of races in New Zealand and he’s been gaining experience with SEG Racing Academy over the past few years. With him, it’s a bit of an unknown – we could hypothesise what type of rider he is, but at the same time, it’s almost like, ‘let’s let that play out’. So, I think with Corbin we need to start by trying him in a few different races to let him evolve as a rider.

The final rider to bolster our roster next season is Giacomo Nizzolo. Nizzolo is fast. He’s been very successful in a number of teams before, last year winning a Stage of the Giro d’Italia and the Clásica de Almería. I think one of the main reasons that Nizzolo decided to come here is down to the strength of our lead-out train with Matthias Brändle, Rick Zabel, Alex Dowsett and the other core riders that form a part of that train. I believe that he sees our team as one of the best lead-out trains in the world and a great opportunity to deliver him to some big success. Everyone talks a lot about the other teams and the best sprinters. But I think Nizzolo has been there or thereabouts so often fighting on his own in the biggest races in the world. From now on, that’s not going to happen – he will have that essential support around him and we look forward to seeing what his speed and our lead-out train will be able to achieve together.

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