Despite regional turmoil, U.S. racers feel safe at Tour of Turkey

Three American cyclists narrowly miss a visa freeze by Turkish government. So far, they've raced Tour of Turkey without incident.

KUMLUCA, Turkey (VN) — American cyclists say they feel safe racing in the Tour of Turkey despite heightened political tensions in recent weeks.

A war over the border in Syria and attempted coups in Turkey have not stopped teams racing in the 53rd Tour of Turkey. However, two days before the race start Sunday night, the Turkish government stopped issuing visas to Americans wanting to visit for work or holiday.

“From what I read, there were some repercussions from the attempted coup last year that included some American citizens,” said Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo).

“It sounds like the U.S. stopped issuing visa to Turks in retaliation, and the Turkish government stopped issuing them to American citizens. But that was the day after we came in. It doesn’t look like it has been very well-enforced on either side.”

Both sides have imposed travel restrictions on each other’s citizens in a worsening diplomatic spat. Thankfully for the organizer, it came too late to stop cyclists from beginning the national tour Tuesday in Alanya.

Three U.S. cyclists lined up for the six-day stage race along with cyclists from South America, Asia, Australia, and Europe. The race skirts the Mediterranean coast and flies north for its last stage in Istanbul.

“I’m a proud American, but I’m not showing off too much right now,” said Chris Butler, a South Carolinian who lives in Spain and races for Spanish team Caja Rural-Seguros RGA.

Butler is visiting Turkey for the first time. Despite a risk of being sent home just hours before a blanket ban fell on Americans, he was able to buy his visa on landing.

“Because I was rolling with a Spanish entourage, it may have been easier,” Butler said.

“I have raced in a lot of crazy places: Israel, all over Asia. At the moment, it is not too crazy here and let’s keep it that way.

“Normally, I just think about racing my bike but there is a one percent chance for something crazy to happen. I am careful about what I do. I don’t give them a reason to throw me in jail. I just keep quiet and go with the flow.”

Children waved red Turkish flags along the starting street this morning in Kumluca, a beach resort town that caters to Turkish as well as visitors including British and Russians. Rolling along the coast, the peloton would have found it hard to think about the Islamic State troubles in Syria or Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s clampdown on protests.

“Along the coast here it is very beautiful, we are almost every day by the beach. The weather is great and the people are really friendly,” added Reijnen.

“It’s all relative, we are pretty far west in Turkey and like the U.S., it is a pretty big country. If we were racing along the Syrian border, it might be different. We are racing here along the coast, it’s a big tourist destination and it certainly feels as safe as any race.”

The Turkish national team rolled by with Ahmet Örken, who raced in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I’ve been racing the Tour of Turkey for five years, I don’t think there’s a problem,” Örken explained.

“This problem between America and Turkey, not being able to go to Turkey to the U.S., it’s not good.

“Is it safe in Turkey? Yeah, there’s no problem.”