Let’s face it, more often than not, news about Israel is usually controversial and confined to the political sections of international media. But last week there was refreshing news of a 23 year old Israeli rider joining Team Saxo Bank Sungard for 2012 broke away and climbed into the sports section.

I was intrigued to find out more about this young gun and learn about his hurdles, determination, self-belief, hard work, discipline, dreams and ambitions which ultimately led him to this momentous signing.

Lucca, Italy, Wednesday, 12pm. Ran Margaliot is about to head out for a 2hr training ride with a few intervals. He’s racing the Franco-Belge/Tour de Wallonie-Picarde on the weekend and his racoon eyes and sharp jaw line make me wish I had done an ergo session that Melbourne morning instead of sleeping in. How did Ran end up 2000km from Israel racing his bike professionally? Here’s his story.

The Warm-up ~Beginnings~

“I used to catch a bus from a small town hidden in the Jerusalem Mountains to Tel Aviv with my mountain bike to train with some distinguished local riders, who would race road and mountain bikes in Europe every year. I was fortunate to join them on such a trip in 2004 for a summer in Holland and man, I got a huge reality check! The speed and duration at which those juniors could spin a 50×16 restricted gear was incredible”

Ran realised two things on that trip. One, he needed to be in Europe and two; he needed to be on a European team if he was going to fulfil his childhood dream of becoming a professional cyclist. The desire had been ignited and after some initial intimidation from fellow competitors, he realised that “besides their nice looking bikes and kit and family support on the start line, they have nothing on me”.

The Prologue ~Making a mark ~

Ran spent the next 3 years racing for a Belgian club during his school holidays. He struggled through just to finish, while other locals were winning and placing in these tough regional races. One of those locals happens to now be a soigneur for Saxo Bank Sungard, and both marvel at how things have turned out. Surviving these challenging trips made Ran realise that he could take care of himself and create his own reality – to become a professional rider.

KOM #1 ~Military ~

After finishing school, Ran was drafted into the Israeli Defence Force as conscription is part of being Israeli. Ran’s father was in the air force and having grown up on bases it was obvious from an early age he was going to serve, probably as a fighter pilot. Due to being Israeli National Road Cycling Champion and having support from the Israeli Cycling Federation, Ran served as a ‘Sportsman of Excellence’, which entails completing a shortened version of the defence force’s rigorous basic training course, serving 6-7 hours a day at a base located away from conflict as close as possible to his residence and the having the flexibility to travel abroad 3 months a year for races. These special conditions helped facilitate a ‘normal’ training regime (riding before and after army duties) but apparently are nowhere near as good as what the country’s top soccer players experience. Israeli conscription is 3 years for males and Ran served every one of those required days. Ran felt that 3 months a year was simply not enough time to get noticed in Europe, so he put his case forward to increase this allowance in order to spend more time racing abroad. The army approved his request but it meant that every day over and above the 3 month period spent abroad would have to be served at a later stage. As a result it took Ran 4 years to complete a 3 year service, which spanned 2007-2011.

“It definitely made me tougher, and helped me appreciate everything I have”, Ran says of his military service.  His character and ambition enabled him to jump the hurdles constantly laid out before him. “As hard as bureaucracy can be, I am proud I fulfilled my national commitments and served my country. Now I hope to represent Israel in another way”.

The Tailwind ~ A Bit of Help~

Tuscany, 2008. Through a mutual friend, Ran was tested by Massimiliano Lelli, who after realising his potential organised him a spot on the Saunier-Duval under-23 team. (Later becoming Footon-Servetto). He rode the U-23 World Championships and European Championships in 2009 and due to some impressive results he got an invite in 2010 to race for the UCI’s World Cycling Centre Programme, funded by the Olympic Solidarity Committee based in Switzerland. “This was the best a non pro rider could ask for”.

So what is a day at the World Cycling Centre like?

Ran explained that first of all each athlete has their own room- a luxury as an amateur in Europe. After breakfast, there is usually a stretching / core session. Then a 2-4hr ride escorted by the team coach in the surrounding hills. Lunch is followed by an afternoon rest and then a second session in the afternoon. “I think I used to train more then, than I do now!” he jokes.

There are also classroom sessions where anything from race tactics to English lessons are taught. “All the athletes are motivated and focused on becoming professional cyclists. Their discipline and passion are phenomenal.”

KOM #2 ~ Stagiare with Saxo Bank~

Last year Ran had some good amateur results (including the KOM in the Giro dell’Emilia) but had yet to sign a contract for 2011 (a goal of his was to have a contract by the time he finished his military service). In April this year his agent, Giovanni Lombardi, arranged a stint for him with Saxo Bank Sungard. Ran attended a team training camp in Alps with the riders who didn’t do the Tour de France and then raced as a stagiare for the team, prompting his recent signing.

The Cool Down ~ Form ~

I asked Ran how he gauges his form when in Israel, given that European riders have the convenience of racing and training with other pros. By using a power meter, doing time trial efforts, mountain biking during the off season and motor pacing after local bunch rides, he ensures he arrives in good condition for Europe. For now it’s about “how much power I produce and how good I am. This is a huge opportunity and it’s up to me to do what I want with it”.

The Finish ~ Stories from the road~

Ran, what kind of rider are you: Tour or One-Day man?

“At the moment I am a bottle carrier!” Ran is still figuring this one out, but he does like the stage races and would “love to race Liege-Bastogne-Liege”. At 59kg, he’s not so sure about Paris Roubaix.

What was your most recent ‘epic’ training ride?

“I did a training ride with Taylor Phinney a few months ago. People think he’s a TT specialist, but he’s simply a tough, professional hard worker. After 7hrs in the saddle, 5000m of climbing and 5 mountain passes, Taylor suggested we sprint up a notoriously steep climb to ‘earn’ our gelato! Epic.” Ran adds that he doesn’t like easy days or days off as you need to watch what you eat and always question if you are doing enough. Sound familiar?

Who are some of the more personable pros in the bunch?

“Bernie Eisel, Taylor Phinney and Nick Nuyens. Nick is so humble and personable. He always makes a point of thanking me for getting him bottles.” Ran commented on how the friendly winner of the Tour of Flanders moves so effortlessly through the bunch and always finds time to chat to fans.

What was your most embarrassing moment in the pro peleton?

“I crashed in the first feed zone when taking a mussette in my first race for Saxo Bank this year”. Enough said.

Lastly, do you do any core or strength and conditioning training?

I believe in core work but it is a personal preference”, adding that it helps him break up his training routine and keeps his body aligned. “The old school guys spend so much time on the bike that they miss quality sessions. Core allows me to ensure that my upper body and leg muscles are maintained, while ensuring I am fresh for my quality workouts. I prefer to go for quality not quantity.” Ran also has learned that “the difference between amateur and pro is the responsibility to rest”. I asked him what other differences he’s noticed between the ranks, to which he replied “a professional cyclist is able to control his speed. When you need to go fast you go really fast” and that “racing is easier than training sometimes!”

Debrief

Talking to Ran was an absolute pleasure. He is intelligent, insightful, and ambitious and is writing an important chapter in the history books for his country. His story is an example of how we can all set personal goals and achieve them with self-confidence and belief.