Many more cyclists have joined the circle of professional bicyclists in Turkey as initiatives were taken for further events in recent years, according to the Turkish cycling body head.

Erol Kucukbakirci, the president of Turkish Cycling Federation, told Anadolu Agency that the number of Turkish cyclists has increased from 85 in 2016 to 4,470 in 2020.

Kucukbakirci drew a parallel between the huge growth in the group of Turkish cyclists and the rise in the number of events organized by the federation as races were held across Turkey in cooperation with the private sector for the last three years.

“We planned to organize 55 international races this year,” he said, however, most of them, Kucukbakirci added, were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic that claimed thousands of lives across the world.

“We could have already undertaken 25 cycling tours so far if the coronavirus did not emerge,” he added.

This Wednesday marks World Bicycle Day as it was declared by the UN in 2018 to stress “the uniqueness, longevity, and versatility of the bicycle, which has been in use for two centuries, and that it is a simple, affordable, reliable, clean and environmentally fit sustainable means of transportation.”

As the world was hit by the COVID-19 virus, this year’s events to celebrate World Bicycle Day — normally marked with races across the country — were canceled.

In a similar move like the majority of the world, Turkey imposed measures to stem the spread of the novel virus and lockdowns as well as stay-at-home calls which dropped the air pollution in the Turkish metropolitan city of Istanbul around 30%.

Similar figures were recorded across the EU cities, which led Milan, Geneva, Brussels, and London to invest in flexible bike lines.

For Kucukbakirci from Turkey’s central Konya province which is famous for wide usage of bicycle among public and professional riders, what the country needs most for success is velodromes, an arena for track racing.

“We were laying the base for a velodrome basis in Konya but it was suspended due to coronavirus,” he stated.

Turkish cyclist at 1976 Montreal Olympics

Kucukbakirci competed for Turkey at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and the country had to wait for over 30 years to join the games in 2018 held in Beijing with another cyclist Bilal Akgul.

Without cancellation, Turkish cyclists Ahmet Orken and Onur Balkan were set to join Tokyo Olympic Games this year.

Orken, who is racing for Indonesian team Sapura, came to Turkey at the beginning of February and his last tour was in Antalya, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, with his team around the same time.

“We made all our plans for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” the 27-year-old cyclist said. “The cancelation is sad, but health comes first.”

2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are among many international sports events canceled or postponed due to coronavirus. According to the new schedule, the Olympics will begin on July 23, 2021 and run through Aug. 8.

Although it is difficult to maintain motivation under quarantine, he tried to continue his training at home and on the road when allowed to outdoors, he said.

Later Orken acquired permission to train outside during partial curfew as Turkey has imposed stay-at-home rules over the weekends for nearly two months to curb the spread of the contagious disease.

“While the process got better, I was motivated more,” he said. “I continue my training by taking all precautions.”

Turkey Championship will be held in August, and “I am working to be a champion as I did last year,” he said.

Orken underscored that the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey is important to popularize cycling in the country.

This year’s Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey, which was scheduled to take place in April, was also canceled due to the pandemic. The tour will be held in the western Marmara region in April next year.

“Having an organization which is broadcast live for 6-8 days enables the improvement of bicycle culture,” he said.

Turkey has potential to join major tournaments

For Orken, one of the biggest reasons why Turkey cannot show a large presence in professional racing is the lack of teams in the senior category.

Municipalities and clubs support athletes when they are young, he said. “But if they switch to the senior category, they leave the sport because they cannot find a team.”

“When athletes understand that they cannot earn an income when they reach a certain age, they have to quit the sport.

“We have two Continental teams but not enough,” he said.

The Turkish Cycling Federation initiated the Spor Toto cycling team at the beginning of 2020.

“If it hadn’t been initiated, our cycling community would have lost valuable athletes,” according to Orken.

On World Bicycle Day, Orken plans to practice his longest workout. “Of course, if the weather conditions and the quarantine process allow, I am thinking about pedaling 250-300 km/6-7 hours.”

Orken described cycling as a “developing sports branch” in Turkey.

“Under really difficult conditions, my athlete friends continue this job with great sacrifices as they love it.

“I believe that if better conditions and opportunities are offered, our athletes have the capacity to compete in France, Italy and Spain,” he added.

“I believe that one day we will see Turkish athletes on those big tours.”

Oceans away, Gurkan Genc is not a race rider but traveling around the world by bike for the last eight years, and he is currently stranded in South American country Chile due to the pandemic.

Genc, who has traveled 62 countries by bike so far, believes that it is important for the future of humanity to popularize the usage of bicycle in daily life.

“Bicycles are a means of transportation that pollute nature less than other means of transportation and keep the human body fit,” he said.

“Not only Turkey but all countries should raise awareness as soon as possible and embrace life with bicycles.”

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