“Before I became some sort of a big shot owner of a professional cycling team I came into it as a participant,” says Israeli-Canadian businessman Sylvan Adams, co-owner of the Israel Start-Up Nation team.
“I love training camp rides with the team. It’s great to ride with the boys. It’s rare for them to see a team owner riding alongside them.”
Team riders do not have to ease off to humor a wannabe; Adams has the sort of palmarès—the French word used in cycling for racing victories—to make any pro proud. For instance, the 62-year-old billionaire, who only took up cycling in his 40s, has two Masters World Championship titles.
“The guys know that I understand a little bit about bike racing,” he smiles. “And, of course, none of them has a world championship jersey.”
Adams is the son of Quebec real-estate tycoon Marcel Adams, a Holocaust-era forced labor camp escapee who died at the age of 100 in August last year.
When I put it to Adams that, because of his healthful cycling lifestyle, he too would likely live a long life, he quipped:
“There’s a Jewish proverb, ‘May you live to 120,’ so [even if I live ten years longer than my father] I’ll still be ten years short of the [biblical] ideal.”
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This blessing refers to the supposed Bronze Age lifespan of Moses. Still, cycling’s health benefits are no myth—Tour de France cyclists can live for an additional eight years, revealed research published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. Even just cycling to work can add years to your life—a large five-year study of U.K. commuters, published in the British Medical Journal in 2017, found regular cycling cut the risk of death from any cause by 41%.
Adams’ aptitude for going fast on a bike was discovered by Canadian sports scientist Paulo Saldanha, owner of PowerWatts, a Montreal training studio. Once an internationally ranked Ironman triathlete, Saldanha has coached Olympic-level athletes in several sports and is now Israel Start-Up Nation’s performance director.
“Sylvan, you’re pretty good at this,” Saldanha told newbie cyclist Adams, suggesting he start racing.
“I went to a local mid-week [velodrome] race and found I could keep up with the group,” remembers Adams.
“A little later, I raced with some professionals; I survived, whereas others were getting shelled out of the back [of the pack].”
The newbie started on a long winning streak, notching up six Canadian Masters titles, four Pan American golds, four Maccabiah (Jewish “Olympics”) gold medals, and the all-important Masters World Championship titles, which entitles him to wear “rainbow stripes” on his cycling kit for the rest of his life.
“I’ve had some nice accomplishments,” he says modestly.
“Racing has given me a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment.”
He also enjoys owning a team. The Israel Start-Up Nation competes at the UCI WorldTeam level with the best teams in the world at the world’s best-known races. This doesn’t come cheap. Adams won’t reveal the team’s budget—“that’s kind of a confidential subject,” he says—but he agreed with my cheeky question asking whether it might be half that of the €50.78 million spent in 2019 by Team Ineos Grenadiers, owned by the British chemicals billionaire Jim Ratcliffe.
“Half is about right,” he says.
“We have an average WorldTour budget; we are not spending the kind of money that Jim Ratcliffe is putting [into cycling], but then nobody is.”
A fair chunk of Israel Start-Up Nation’s budget is currently going on the wages and expenses of four-times Tour de France winner Chris Froome. The former Ineos Grenadiers rider (who won his yellow jerseys while riding for cycling’s winningest team in its previous incarnation as Team Sky) is unlikely to finish first in any major stage races with Israel Start-Up Nation but signing him was still a coup for the fledgling team.
Israel Start-Up Nation’s co-owner is banking lawyer Ron Baron, founder of Livermore Investments Group, an investor in the U.S. credit market for senior secured bank loans.
Baron and Adams share 50-50 ownership of the team—which was founded as Israel Cycling Academy along with Israel’s first professional bike racer, Ran Margaliot—but it’s Adams signing most of the checks.
Adams signs lots of checks: besides cycling he backs a dizzying number of projects, including hospitals, medical scholarships and SpaceIL, a privately-funded moon mission which, in 2019, saw Israel attempt to become only the fourth country—after the U.S., Russia, and China—to complete a controlled lunar landing.
As it was, Beresheet, the Israeli lander named after the Hebrew word for the first book of the Bible, crashed during its descent, smashing the craft’s plaque sporting the slogan “Small country, big dreams.”
Back on earth, and in the same year, Adams paid for Madonna to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Tel Aviv.
The previous year he had funded the Sylvan Adams velodrome in Tel Aviv, the first indoor cycling track in the Middle East.
He also paid for, and helped organize, the 2018 staging in Israel of the start of the Giro d’Italia bicycle race, the first cycling “Grand Tour” to travel outside of Europe.
Adams lives with his wife Margaret in a luxury apartment overlooking the Tel Aviv beachfront. The couple—who met on a kibbutz in the 1980s and who, in 2016, signed up to the Giving Pledge, the philanthropic commitment created by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to divest wealth—moved to Israel full-time in 2015.
A short distance from their apartment is a spur on to the Sylvan Adams Commuter Path, a putative bike path network that, should it ever be completed, aims to get Israelis out of cars and on to bikes.
However, despite warm words from the powers-that-be at the inauguration of the first stretch five years ago, the network has stalled, which pains the seed funder.
“The idea was to encourage people to leave their cars at home, get a bit of exercise, do something good for the environment, and get to destinations more quickly by bike than you would by car—but the network is not being implemented,” says Adams.
“Frankly, I’m a little bit disappointed,” he adds.
“I made the lead investment to show vision in the future. [City and national] government have got to finish what I started.”
Adams’ father Marcel moved to Canada from Romania, changing his name from Abramovich and initially working in the leather industry before starting in real estate. He founded Iberville Developments in 1958. At its height, the property company owned and managed nearly 8 million square feet across 100 or so shopping centers, office spaces, industrial properties, and residential assets.
Worth $1.5 billion at the time of his death, Adams Senior, like his son later, was a philanthropist.
“My father wanted to die as a pauper,” says Adams Junior.
“He didn’t quite achieve that, but he did divest himself of much of his wealth during his lifetime.”
Adams took over the family business in 1997. It’s now run by his son, Josh, but it’s much smaller than in its heyday.
“I downsized the company before I left,” says Adams.
“We sold off a whole bunch of real estate assets,” says Adams.
“I am no longer involved.”
Instead, he is “devoting this chapter of my life to promoting Israel,” and writing those checks.
“I am a self-appointed ambassador [for the country],” he states.
His role in promoting cycling at home and abroad and helping with moon shots aims to convince the world to accept Israel as a technological powerhouse and as a “normal, civilized nation.”
“I’m happy to spend my money on projects to promote my country,” he stresses. And spend money on promoting bicycle racing and bicycling as transport, too.
“Cycling is my favorite thing,” he says.
“Can you tell?”