Casting your eye down a start list prior to this year’s Giro d’Italia, if you had been looking for names or even teams you’d expect to be in the mix for stage wins, you’d have been forgiven for passing over the riders of Israel-Premier Tech. But in a Giro where the breakaway has taken centre stage, the ProTeam have relished their wildcard opportunity and upset expectations, figuring prominently in proceedings almost every day, though they are yet to take a stage win for their troubles.

Israel-Premier Tech suffered relegation from WorldTour status at the conclusion of the three-year UCI cycle in 2022 and had built a reputation as a ‘retirement home’ for the seasoned pros of the peloton in recent seasons, signing a number of riders in the twilight of their careers.

They arrived at the Giro not only with the oldest rider in the race – Domenico Pozzovivo – but also with the youngest – Matthew Riccitello – perhaps an indication that the tide was beginning to turn. Besides that, they boasted whole host of young, fresh talents – 5 of their number were Giro debutants, with 3 riding their first ever Grand Tour.

Another debutant was team DS Sam Bewley. Retired from the pro peloton at the end of last season, the New Zealander’s first Grand Tour in the role might be perceived as something of a baptism of fire, given the adversity that this race has entailed, but with an irrepressible bunch of young riders throwing everything at the race, Bewley was buoyant when I caught with him on the second rest day to see how he was finding life on the other side of the fence.

‘It's been a good one to be on the other side of the fence, considering it's rained every single day,’ says Bewley, ‘it's been much nicer in the car than on the bike.’

In terms of goals, he admits the bar was set relatively low initially, but that the team have surprised everyone. ‘We wanted to win a stage. But we also knew we were coming here with a really young group, five guys that haven't done a Grand Tour before, essentially. So for those guys it was about learning and understanding what Grand Tours were all about. But man, I think it's safe to say we've been a bit of a revelation in this race.’

The exuberant youth have brightened up an often grim Giro, lighting up the race with their effervescent, attacking style. Canadian Derek Gee has achieved a Wout Van Aert-worthy three second places; Sebastian Berwick and Marco Frigo have both scored a third place, on stages 12 and 15 respectively, and Simon Clarke narrowly missed out to the sprinters after taking a two-man break with Alessandro De Marchi almost all the way to the line on stage 6.

‘It's young guys that just want to get stuck into racing,’ says Bewley. ‘They don't complain, they just pin their numbers on every day, put a rain jacket over the top if they have to, but they get out there and they just race and it's created such a cool vibe in this team. We've got so much momentum ever since Clarkey’s stage in Napoli, when he was so close, it showed that it can happen. We haven't got the win but I don't think it would really change much with the spirit within this team, everyone's so pumped and looking forward to the last week now.’

'Confidence and momentum'

The loss of Domenico Pozzovivo to covid after stage 9, perhaps prompted a shift in focus away from GC towards a more opportunistic style of racing, but Bewley insists that going out and attacking was always part of the plan.

‘Obviously, we had Pozzovivo who was focusing on GC, but that wasn't going to be at the expense of taking opportunities and having a crack for stages on multiple days. And I guess a typical approach to GC is you build a team around one rider and you support them throughout the whole race, but with Pozzovivo’s experience, he was happy as long as he had some support to let the other guys have a crack at winning stages. We had a dual focus, really, so our plan didn't change in that sense.

‘I guess once he did unfortunately go home, that created a team that was only about stages, we didn't have to worry about any GC focus, didn't have to worry about losing time – it was even a benefit for us to lose time, some days, and the guys would have days on, days off. So it did provide us with a little bit more of a platform to go for stages.

‘But some of the days that we said for guys to have days off they were in breakaways anyway, so we've been part of the race for the whole of the last 10 days, which has been so cool. And it's just confidence and momentum. The guys are so proud of their teammates, and they think if my teammate can do it, why can't I? And everything's just clicking for us because of the confidence these guys have and the exuberance they have to get out there and race.'

A team spirit like this isn’t always something you can engineer. Bewley agrees it’s been more of an organic process, but one that has clicked just at the right time.

‘Yeah, it's just happened,’ he says. ‘We've got a couple of guys here that are new to the team. We had a couple of guys who have been here for a few years and are a bit more experienced. The youth is always the future, anywhere in life, I suppose. And we signed these guys for this year, knowing they were firstly top bike riders, but secondly good people as well. And they get on really well. We've got guys from all different cultures. We've got a British guy here, a Canadian, an Italian, an Australian, so different cultures, but they seem to get on really well and mix together well. And they inspire each other and they're proud of each other and they're encouraging each other and they push each other up and it just creates an awesome atmosphere.'

Bewley is relishing his new role (image: Israel-Premier Tech)

Fresh from the peloton having only retired at the end of 2022, Bewley himself is inspiring the crew. The video clip of him encouraging Sebastian Berwick from the team car on stage 12 went viral, as he advised the young Aussie ‘don’t be afraid to be an arsehole for 7km of your life.’ But Bewley claims he hasn’t needed to offer a great many other pearls of wisdom to keep the fire lit under his team.

‘Initially at the start of this race, I sat down with the younger guys, I wanted to share my experience from doing Grand Tours and how to deal with three weeks in front of you,’ he explains. ‘How they had to expect some good days and some bad days and things going wrong and how to deal with those things and overcome them and put bad days behind you and focus on the next day. And just to try to help them through a three-week stage race, from a psychological side of things, and also from a physical side of things.

‘But I haven't really had to do much. I planned to go around and see the young guys every couple of days, just make sure everything's okay, but I haven’t needed to. The physical side, they're handling it very well. Often with young guys, you start to think at this point of the race and the second rest day, how are they handling it, is it going to be more beneficial to maybe send them home now, so we don't put them in a big hole or push them too far when they're young and haven't had these big races before? But from a physical side, they're having no trouble with the race. And from a psychological side of things, I don’t think things couldn’t be any better. The guys are just super pumped and the spirit is good. They focus on the races, but then they go to dinner, and they laugh and talk about other things. And the chemistry is just really good. And that's a massive part in helping you get through three weeks on the road.’

‘What have you got to do to win one of these things?'

With a tough final week ahead, Bewley doesn’t necessarily agree that the opportunity to take a precious stage win has slipped through their fingers.

‘I think probably the reality was, if we were going to win a stage it was going to be in the first two weeks. Obviously Rome is a sprint stage, and there's a time trial. And it's one more basically guaranteed sprint midway through this week, and then the three days that everybody in this race has been fearing since the start of it. That's probably why the GC riders have been holding back a little bit because they know how big this last week is. So the opportunities to win a stage are certainly less.

‘But at the same time, we thought that about a quite a few stages that we've had success on, and without having a GC focus we have really only one focus, just to take opportunities and have a go. I think if the guys were on their hands and knees by now and they were physically pretty wrecked then we’d probably just looking at getting them through to Rome and just looking after them but they're not, they’re in such good shape still, that we'll still have a crack at the breakaways. Yeah, some of those days it's unlikely but you also never know so we haven't got anything to lose by trying.’

While the team has a reputation for having older riders, this new generation seems to represent something of a reinvention for Israel-Premier Tech, and with Bewley as a fresh face in the team car, he too is a part of that reinvention. Bewley agrees.

‘Yeah, for sure. You always need to have older, experienced guys, it's super important. And we also have a good young crop now as well, and half those guys are here and they're performing. So I think we've got a pretty good balance now and we're heading in the right direction.

‘And obviously, this three-year point cycle provides an opportunity to develop the team more and look at ways we work in areas we can improve and keep doing things we do well. So it's given us a good opportunity to bring in some young guys give them experience, give them races, give them opportunities, and so far, it's going well.’

Bewley summarises what has been a hell of a Giro d’Italia for the team. ‘We're super happy for sure. Like, I mean, when Derek got second in that first stage, we were over the moon with the ride he had there and then he was second again and it was like, shit, he's having one hell of a race, then he was second again, and at that point, it was starting to be like, ‘What have you got to do to win one of these things, you know?’ He laughs. ‘But that aside, when you look at the results we've had just in the last 10 days, we've been on the podium five times. Been top five a couple of times. So, with the exception of not winning a stage. I don't think you can really ask for much more in a Grand Tour.’

Reflecting on his decision to move on from life on the bike, Bewley is in positive frame of mind, with no regrets. ‘I've maybe I've had one or two little moments where I've missed racing,’ he says. ‘But ultimately not at all, and that's good, because that's how I wanted to end my career, on my own terms and at a point when I was ready to stop racing.

'But I wasn't ready to leave the sport. I love the sport, I love being around the people. So I'm really enjoying the new role and sinking my teeth into it as I start to learn and understand how it works, and getting to know the people on this team. When I came here, I went to a training camp in December, there was 100 people there, I think I knew two people. So it's taken me some time to put names to faces and get to know everybody, but it's going well. I'm really, really enjoying the role.'

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