Rome (AFP) - The race for the Giro d'Italia's pink jersey risks being overshadowed by a political rumpus over the 2018 edition's departure from Jerusalem, with Israeli protests and US diplomatic policy threatening carnage.
The cycling Grand Tour has already run into difficulty long before the first pedal is due to be pushed on May 4, first by labelling the city "west Jerusalem" rather than Jerusalem, due to conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims over the Holy Land.
And the political headache has threatened to turn into a migraine over US President Donald Trump's recognition on Wednesday of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, while pledging to to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, provoking a torrent of protest from Middle East and Muslim countries such as Jordan, Iran and Turkey, as well as both major Palestinian factions.
Giro d'Italia race director Mauro Vegni said in September that the first three days of the 101st edition would be a time trial in Jerusalem followed by two sprint stages ending in Tel Aviv and Eilat, before the race returns to Italy for the final 18 stages.
It will be the first time any of cycling's three Grand Tours -- the others being the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana -- start outside of Europe and fans were thrilled.
Many also saw it as a homage to Italy's Gino Bartoli, a much-loved triple Giro winner who was recognised in 2013 as a "Righteous Among the Nations" -- someone who had helped shield Jews from the Nazis in the Second World War.
"It is a great privilege to host such an important sporting event and we invite all Giro enthusiasts to come to Israel," the country's sport minister Miri Regev said when the plan was first unveiled in September.
- 'Spectacular' -
His tourism colleague Yariv Levin was no less pleased, boasting that starting the race for the pink jersey in Israel would "show its spectacular landscapes to millions of spectators in nearly 200 countries".
That was before the "west Jerusalem" saga, however. Organisers had been keeping in line with most international opinion, which does not recognise Israel's claim to the entire city -- including the occupied east -- as its capital.
But an enraged Israel threatened to pull the plug unless organisers RCS Sport revised the stage start as Jerusalem, which they duly did.
According to the Jerusalem Post, RCS Sport is to get four million euros ($4.7 million) from Israel for hosting rights.
Putting out one diplomatic fire, however, lit another. The Palestinians promptly accused the Giro of being "an accomplice to the Israeli military occupation and its significant violations of international law".
Vegni pleaded with the Palestinians to leave politics out of it, admitting he feared the race could attract protesters.
Italy insists next year's Giro will go down in history on its own merit, as a race from Jerusalem to Rome starring Chris Froome, the three-time British Tour de France champion who hopes to win the first Tour-Giro double in two decades.