The world-famous Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s three grand tours, will begin in Jerusalem next May, before continuing with stages between Haifa and Tel Aviv and Beersheba and Eilat, it was officially announced on Monday.

It will be the first time one of cycling’s three historic grand tours will break ground beyond Europe and will arguably be the most prestigious sporting event ever held in Israel.

Government ministers from Israel and Italy, the Mayor of Jerusalem, race officials and some of the biggest names in world cycling gathered in Jerusalem on Monday to launch the ‘Big Start’ to the 2018 Giro.

The race will begin on May 4, with 176 of the world’s top cyclists to get the competition under way against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Giro d’Italia, which takes place annually in Italy over 21 stages during a three-week period, is watched by hundreds of millions of viewers in 194 countries. Next year’s race will be the 101st edition of the Giro.

Since 2006, the Giro has commenced every other year with a high-profile “Big Start” outside Italy. Previous “Big Starts” have brought the Giro to Holland, Denmark, Northern Ireland and Belgium.

Next year’s “Big Start” in Israel will be the first time the Giro, the Tour de France or the Vuelta a Espana has been held outside Europe.

The dignitaries at the launch event in the Waldorf Astoria, Jerusalem included Italy’s Sports Minister Luca Lotti, Israel’s Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev, Israel’s Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and cycling legends Alberto Contador and Ivan Basso.

The race will be a major boost for cycling’s growing popularity in Israel. The country’s only professional team, the Israel Cycling Academy, founded in 2014, currently competes on the UCI Continental circuit and is hoping to receive a wild-card for the 2018 Giro.

“It is our great privilege, to be a host country for a sporting event so great and important,” said Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev. “I call on you, all lovers of the race, to come here to Israel.

“This cycling tour across the Holy Land will become a fascinating journey through time covering thousands of years. I’m sure it will be a thrilling experience for everyone.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said: “We are proud to host one of the biggest and most prestigious sports events in the world, and the biggest sporting event ever held in Israel, here in the city of Jerusalem. Hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe will watch as some of the world’s best cyclists ride alongside the walls of Jerusalem’s ancient Old City and our historic sites.

“Our message to the world is clear: Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel, is open to all.”

Next year’s race will also be used as an opportunity to pay tribute to legendary Italian cyclist, Gino Bartali, a three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia. Bartali helped rescue hundreds of Italian Jews during the Holocaust and was recognized by Yad Vashem in 2013 as Righteous Among the Nations.

“The start from Jerusalem is a metaphorical bridge between our two lands, made up of history, culture and traditions,” said Luca Lotti.

“There is another aspect that makes me particularly proud: the fact that this edition of the Giro d’Italia will celebrate the memory of the great Gino Bartali. It is beautiful that he is remembered right here in Jerusalem because the great ‘Ginettaccio’ – as he was named by his fans and all his fellow sportsmen who loved and followed him – was not just a great champion of sport. He was also an extraordinary champion of life, and a man of heroic virtues, and this needs to be commemorated, and shared, especially with the younger generations… never to be forgotten.”

Source: Jerusalem Post (with edits)