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Tour of Turkey, Cookson undeterred after rocky 2016 race

UCI's Brian Cookson reiterates support for race's WorldTour bid amid declining team support and increasing security risks.

ISTANBUL — Once considered a near slam-dunk addition to the UCI WorldTour calendar, following the race’s increased popularity, the Presidential Tour of Turkey took a major step backward last month when only 16 teams, and just two WorldTour squads, lined up for the 52nd edition’s opening stage in Istanbul.

Only Lotto – Soudal and Lampre – Merida returned from the previous year’s group of six WorldTour teams; 2015 had a solid field of 21 squads, including 14 UCI Pro Continental teams. This year, only eight second-division teams raced the UCI 2.HC event, alongside six Continental squads.

A last-minute change in leadership, causing delayed communication and race organization, as well as heightened terrorism risks in the area, hampered interest among teams. The U.S. government even issued warnings to its citizens about “credible threats” to tourist areas in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul and the southwest coastal resort of Antalya.

“The teams never heard any [from the race] until last week before our refusal to participate due to travel warnings by the government,” UnitedHealthcare sport director Hendrik Redant said. “I did not have any information at all, while last year everything (travel, accommodation, race profiles, and logistics) were already organized at least one month before the race.

“We canceled the race, as we had not so good travel advice from the government.”

Lotto – Soudal sport director Mario Aerts made similar statements as Redant in pre-race media a day before the opening stage. “It’s a different organization this year and it’s clear that they’re not well-prepared,” he said. “We didn’t get much information about the course for instance. That makes it difficult for us because we were unable to prepare for the stages.”

Lotto rider Adam Hansen, who finished fifth overall, also spoke to VeloNews, saying the team only received flights two days prior to the start and actually did not expect the race to proceed. “We thought that we would be turned around once we arrived in Istanbul. So we were pleasantly surprised to see the race commence as scheduled.”

Although the detractors were vocal in the lead-up to the event, one person to show steadfast support was UCI president Brian Cookson, who made the trip to reinforce the governing body’s commitment to the race.

“From time to time, events have perceived problems,” Cookson told VeloNews prior to stage 1. “The issue of safety and security is certainly relevant in every country in every part of the world, so I am here as a demonstration that I think the Tour of Turkey is a great race with a great future.

“We are doing an appraisal during the course of this year about the future for the WorldTour, and I am optimistic that this race is going to go on to be bigger and better in the future.”

Aside from the heightened terrorist activities, the eleventh-hour change in event organizers from longtime event coordinator Argeus Tourism & Travel to CEO Events, which had no previous cycling event experience, led to a decline in participation.

“There were two faults in front of us to make it better,” said team relations advisor and project coordinator Gürol Çaydaş, who served a similar role with Argeus previously before working with CEO Events on behalf of the Turkish Cycling Federation this year.

“One was time, as we started very late because of the decision to put the contract to tender just 78 days prior to the event.

“The other one, as everybody knows, was doubts about traveling overseas to a country that has had its fair share of trouble in recent months, not unlike the bombings in Paris and Brussels.”

In light of the pre-race confusion and fears, as well as a opening-stage crash inside the first 10km that caused several riders to go down with injuries, Çaydaş concurs with Cookson about the race’s potential to increase its standing and improve upon its execution.

“Nobody can guarantee 100 percent safety at any sporting event anywhere in the world, that is just a sad fact in the current state of the world we live in,” explained Çaydaş. “But our presidency left nothing to chance and provided the highest level of security to protect the riders, the teams, the volunteers, the media, and the spectators.

“Other than the early crash on stage 1, which we take full responsibility for in terms of providing proper signage along the parcours, we enjoyed an amazing, trouble-free race.

“And I personally apologized to each and every team following the first day.”

Çaydaş, who is a UCI-licensed commissaire, also believes it will be important to allow for extended contracts to future organizers to avoid a repeat of this year’s growing pains.

“We are talking to both the cycling federation and the presidency to make the contracts for five years,” he said. “At the moment, the contact is set to go out to bid each year, but hopefully whoever wins the contract, whether it is CEO Events, Argeus, or someone new, they will have the contract for the next five years, otherwise we run the risk of starting over each year.”

As far as WorldTour status is concerned, Çaydaş is adamant that the Tour of Turkey has all the ingredients to be featured at the sport’s highest level.

“Should we hope to be WorldTour next year? Yes, I think so,” he said. “We are committed to growing this race and all of our sporting events in Turkey to the highest level.

“Life is going ahead normally,” Çaydaş concluded. “Yes, there are things happening here and around the world, but we will continue to strive to be a global leader in sport and ask that the UCI and the citizens of the world not be afraid to give Turkey a chance.”

Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a contributor to VeloNews