2020 has been a unique year for all, and a roller coaster ride for our sponsored team’s and athletes, as they’ve had to adapt to a revised race calendar, reset goals and maintain focus, fitness and motivation through periods of uncertainty.
Here, we’ve taken some time to reflect on the professional cycling season that’s just been and the many successes achieved, despite the change and challenging curveballs thrown along the way.
Team Israel Start-Up Nation drew their season to a close on an all-time high at the Vuelta a España where Dan Martin rode to an exceptional fourth overall, claiming a stage victory and a string of podium performances along the road into Madrid.
This result, along with Alex Dowsett’s Stage 8 Giro d’Italia victory alone confirmed that the team’s first year in the World Tour was nothing shy of outstanding, given the less than ideal race circumstances and calendar amendments, in what was ultimately a very dwindled down, disrupted season.
To get some insight into the team’s eventful step into the World Tour from an insiders perspective, we spoke with dedicated team photographer, Noa Arnon, who has been a huge part of the team’s season from start to finish, present at most races and all training camps throughout the year.
Noa is an experienced photographer who has been a pivotal part of the team since their establishment in 2016. Here she reflects on Israel Start-Up Nation’s 2020 season through her eyes and her lens, sharing the highlights, challenges faced, and the lesser known moments captured through photography along the way, each with its own story to be told.
Words and Images by Noa Arnon
This year was definitely a bizarre, roller coaster journey, packed with emotion.
In the world of pro cycling, as much as we like to think that cycling is the most important issue on the world agenda… it’s not. Not even close. Do we live in a bubble? Sure. And this year it had an added meaning.
2020 was far from an ordinary season in pro cycling, ever since the virus with the crown decided to migrate and spread across the globe. I’ve now lost track of the number of Covid-19 tests I have done before races, during races and on team camps…
PRE-SEASON TRAINING CAMP, ISRAEL
The new season started as normal, with flying colours as the entire team and staff were present at a training camp in Israel in December, which was such an awesome and unique experience for the many new comers at ISN.
Israel is my home country – I was born not far from Tel Aviv, although I’ve lived in many other countries throughout my life and in recent years have been based in Girona, Spain. Having the camp in Israel brought some familiar vibes and emotions, as well as some other difficult, unforeseen challenges out on the road as a photographer in the field of pro cycling. For instance, when a sudden, crazy rare sand storm caught the riders in the midst of their training ride for a good 30 minutes. It happened in the Israeli southern desert Negev region which has a unique biblical and outstandingly beautiful setting. In that moment, I knew I needed to pluck up some courage, step out of the comfort of the vehicle with my cameras and capture the riders in the storm.
The calm before the storm
Riding into the storm
On the second day in Tel Aviv, the team visited the Gino Bartali School. The School offers a unique program focussed on developing the cycling skills of youth and with the ambition of helping them one day reach the front of pro cycling.
On arrival, we were led to a huge dirt field and the riders were given one mission to collectively build a cross country trail. With the help of shovels and other tools, several hours later their mission was accomplished and they celebrated their efforts with a little bike race with the kids – tired, but incredibly satisfied.
TEAM ANNOUNCE STEP UP TO THE WORLD TOUR
Of course, the team’s announcement that they would be progressing to World Tour level in 2020 while in Israel was an exciting and monumental evening on an international level. Local media gathered excitedly in Tel Aviv for this breakthrough moment in Israeli pro cycling and being part of that brought some emotions, together with being highly focussed on doing what I love most – my work in capturing these pivotal moments in the best way, through my eyes and senses.
RACE SEASON BEGINNINGS
After training camp, for me the season started in Mallorca with another small camp, followed by a few races including the Challenge Mallorca late January. By now, there was already consistent Covid talk in the media about what was happening in China, and throughout the race, word spread that a tourist on the island may have contracted the virus. Little did we know, this was only just the beginning of a season of uncertainty and setbacks.
By the time we got to the Tour of Rwanda in February, medical staff had new protocols in place and were all geared up to check the riders and staff’s temperature upon arrival in Kigali airport.
The smiles were still shining brightly in Rwanda
Corona quickly began to take over, and this became a reality in the middle of the night in Abu Dhabi at the UAE Tour late February, in the midst of history making as the first ever Israeli team to compete in an Arab country. The organisation gave the team such a special welcome and they had a great race until that surprising phone call was received –
“The race is cancelled. You need to stay in your rooms”.
Paris-Nice in March went on to mark the last race of the early season, which was also cut short towards the closing stages. From then, the cycling season came to a necessary abrupt halt.
From one extreme to the next…
A PERIOD IN LOCKDOWN
When the entire season came to a stand-still, we were all stuck with the consequences. I was in Girona, myself in full lockdown, grateful to get some outdoor walking time, thanks to my Cocker Spaniel that granted me special privileges to get out of the house without limits.
During that intense Covid period, most riders at the beginning and especially those in Spain spent a good amount of their time locked up at home on their trainers. Here, I captured Guy Sagiv underway with his morning routine in lockdown.
Eerie streets on the first ride back in Girona
The whole team impressively, quickly adjusted to the new reality, motivated and encouraged by the team’s many virtual group rides that resulted in donating thousands of masks to medical teams all over the world. It was so rewarding to see that we could actually do something to help the situation.
The new normal
THE RETURN TO RACING
At our first race back in Burgos, we got the first scare. One of our riders had been in contact with someone who had confirmed positive, and so was sent home before the race had even begun.
So it was much to my surprise and delight, a month later when I found myself covering our first ever Tour de France, and it was just tops.
This was a pivotal moment for myself and the team, lining up for their very first Tour the France that included the first Israeli rider to ever participate in such an iconic, monumental race. When they successfully arrived into Paris, seeing the team and especially Guy Niv finish was emotional for me, both as an Israeli and as the team’s photographer. By then, I’d accompanied them for three weeks through their debut Tour de France, so had been there to witness it all. To me, it felt like a massive accomplishment for Israeli sport in the field of professional cycling and made me proud to be a small part of making history.
One moment I will never forget is when I took position near the Arc de Triomphe and captured Guy Niv – the first Israeli to ever start and finish the Tour De France – leading the race in the breakaway on the last stage. I couldn’t believe I got that perfect and symbolic frame in that very fast phase of the final stage.
We later went on to win our first ever World Tour race in a Grand Tour at the Giro d’Italia with Alex Dowsett, but for me, the sweetest moments still awaited.
Soon enough, there I was at the Vuelta, capturing Dan Martin’s victory, but even more memorable: Capturing him collapsing onto the ground on Stage 8 atop the Moncalvillo – so empty, so fatigued. I remember asking myself – Is that an appropriate frame? But when Dan later shared his approval of the shot, he assured me that my instincts had led me well.
For me, this was the moment that maybe captured the whole season.
I’m an amateur cyclist myself and have spent enough time in pro cycling to understand what a rider of this calibre goes through, but as he lay there catching his breath on the asphalt, letting all the hard effort go to rest. It all became a lot more real.
I do love the unpredictable moments of cycling photography – there is always drama or other gifts throughout each day on the road that make your creative instincts act. In my view and in the work I capture, I am always ready. My first thought was that I hoped he was ok and knowing that the doctor and soigneur were already near him, I stood my distance, giving him some privacy without interfering.
In situations like this, I feel it is a more respected approach to keep some distance and shoot from the ground and especially in that moment, when I really felt for him.
Of course, there was also Stage 3 at the Vuelta, that travelled from Lodosa to the top of Laguna Negra – reaching 1735m on top of the climb, where Dan Martin took the win for Israel Start-Up Nation. Needless to say, that win was a blast to everyone on the team, as Dan and the team proved their ability to nail a Grand Tour Stage victory…Martin and the eminent rider he is!
On the Laguna Negra, I was just a few km from the top of the climb, where heavy rain and cold temperatures welcomed us just an hour before the first riders arrived. There was no service on the climb, so I didn’t even know who had won when the stage finished! I took the shot when the lead group that included Martin passed by me and waited for the rest. When I walked back, I realised he had won and was heading for the podium. I was so happy for him – what an incredible accomplishment.
That night at dinner a few special words were shared by Dan and team owner, Sylvan Adams, providing an emotional atmosphere as we all cheered and raised our glasses to this win and more to come.
We have been proud to see Factor Bikes back patrolling the World Tour peloton with Israel Start-Up Nation and have enjoyed closely following the team’s progress, while admiring their stamina and rise to success over the course of the unusual mixed season, that resulted in the best way possible.
In 2021, we look forward to seeing them continue to grow and the journey and stories along the way, via Noa Arnon’s photography.
Keep a close eye on the team’s progress and Noa’s work by following them here:
Noa Arnon: Instagram
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