In recent times I’ve been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time in Turkey, in various regions. A couple of years back I took a spring road trip along the route of the annual Tour of Turkey to discover what lay on and off the track and to lift the lid on prime riding along the way.
My journey started in the coastal resort of Alanya, and then followed the coastline to Izmir, along the baseline of the Taurus Mountains. Actually taking time out beyond the race to find what lay along the way was something of a treat that uncovered some epic riding chock full of historical and cultural delights and at times often hard to take in.
Traditionally the race follows a similar route each year; rolling along the glorious Aegean/Turquoise coastline for a week before transferring to Istanbul for the final stage. This may well be a largely rolling parcours but in recent years the riders have taken on of a couple of significant deviations.
Flying into the start town of Alanya for the first time was quite an eye opener to me. Every few minutes the patchwork, desert-like landscape beneath would suddenly crumple up and turn pure snowy white. High mountains, with passes hitting 2,000 metres above sea level and knee deep snow lay beneath me serving as a backdrop for much of the route.
Perfectly calm and near pure turquoise waters are a trademark of this coastline but the towering gray Taurus Mountains, all dusted and coated in seasonal snow, makes the picture something extra special and in their own right would force any cyclist to want to ride here.
Ancient Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern; you name them this region of Turkey has more historical sites and wonders crammed in than almost anywhere else in the world and the race subtly passes by a ruck of them.
It’s tough to encapsulate just how amazing and varied this route is both geographically and historically. At times you can almost culturally overdose without even realising.
Turning away from the history trail and the race heads inland and directly for those snowy peaks that have patiently stood guard for the first couple of days.
Prolonged and steady climbing leads in from the coast and then traverses a high inland plateau. This highland area is surrounded by smoothly sand coloured and strikingly snow iced mountain peaks and peppered with big blue lakes. Small villages line the roadside, and you feel like you’ve passed through a backwards-bound time warp. This brash but welcoming interior is so far removed from the coastal resorts.
Climbing to the summit finish on the 1,850-meter high Gogubeli Pass is a twisted, steep and rugged ride. Think of it as a mini Angliru. It’s slightly shorter and less steep but has a very similar nature and temperament, thrown in to break up the sprinters' party.
On a few occasions, the race route has also headed inland to Pamukkale, which is famous for its huge white travertine terraces, formed by thermal waters that trickle down from the doorstep to Hierapolis, an ancient Roman Spa city. There’s some superb high mountain riding up here, with vistas to sweat for.
Although the race usually transfers to Istanbul for the grand finale, the last true battle for the overall standings takes place on a six kilometre struggle out of the historical town of Selcuk, a steep twisted climb through trees.
The route passes by and then climbs above Effes/Ephesus An Ancient Greek city (with a much older history), this place is truly humbling – and was believed to also be the home to the Virgin Mary in her later life.
I can’t even begin to delve into the history found along this route, as that would be a volume of books worth. What I can tell you is that as long as you skip the main bust roads used by the race and head inland then there is some great and illuminating riding to be found here, just avoid the prime June-August tourist season.
The rise and stumble of the Presidential Tour of Turkey
It was back in 2008 when the Presidential Tour of Turkey first pulled on its big boots and danced onto the world stage, going from strength to super strength in the years that followed. Until last year, where through a mix of political woes and a complete change of organisation it fell somewhat short of the mark.
Somehow or other the race still got the seal of World Tour status for 2017 but few of the major teams wanted to sign up for the ride, for the same reasons already mentioned. The event was put on ice and is slated for a potential running in October, but given the current tensions in the region it’s even less likely to happen.
The history of the Presidential Tour of Turkey goes back more than half a century, while bike racing in Turkey pre-dates the formation of the modern Republic of Turkey by a dozen years or more. This is almost as long as many of the greatest races in Europe have been in existence.
Somewhere around 1910, Turkey held its first recorded road races and in 1923 following the long drawn out war of independence the Ottoman Empire was deleted and Turkey as we know it was formed, as was the Turkish Cycling Federation (Turkiye Bisklet Federasyonu). Four years later the country held its first-ever national championships.
The Tour of Turkey first raised its starting flag on competition back in 1963 and has been running ever since (apart from in 1991).
With Turkey’s historic relationship with the Soviet Union and its geographical location, the race had always been popular with regional neighbours and former eastern block national teams. These state-supported squads all but ruled the “amateur” racing roost back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of mainstream communism.
So, just how did the race manage to transform its self from being a low-key regional tour to a real player? The short answer can be abbreviated to two small, yet very important letters – TV; although there is a whole lot more to the equation; much of that success was also directly due to the passionate organisation of Argeus, a travel and events company based in Cappadocia, who sadly missed the connection that earned the bid to organise the 2016 state controlled race.