There’s little doubting that Irishman Sam Bennett of Bora-Hansgrohe was the star of this year’s Tour of Turkey. He won an incredible four out of six stages, and probably only missed out on a fifth stage victory due to a crash coming into the final finishing straight of Stage 6.
Yet he was not the rider earning the lion’s share of the crowds roars each day. That honour fell on the promising shoulders of young Turkish national team rider Ahmet Orken, a quiet and humble 24-year-old rider from the city of Konya in Central Turkey, a place known as the hotbed of Turkish cycling.
Just days before the start of the race Orken had signed a two-year contract with the pro-continental Israel Cycling Academy Team, becoming the first ever Turkish rider to make the step up from the domestic based continental level. This is a big leap for Orken, but also for Turkish cycling in general.
Over the years several riders from smaller cycling nations have been ‘granted’ contracts with major teams, often under pressure from sponsors rather than based on performances, and they rarely last long. This cannot be said for Turkey.
“No Turkish rider has ever gone outside (of Turkey) to race for a team before, so everything from me next year will be a first – maybe even the Giro d’Italia," said Orken.
“Everybody here has congratulated me, they are very proud that a Turkish rider has made the step up.”
The Tour of Turkey has become huge in recent years and has had a major impact on the popularity of cycling the country, including on Orken, who had watched the race on TV as a youngster.
“I started cycling when I was about six years old and racing from about 2008,” he said.
“A friend of my brother was racing and told me I should come along and try. I got to go to the UCI regional training centre, which is where I was introduced to the track.” There is no velodrome in Turkey.
“In 2011 I won the European Omnium Championships,” said Orken. By that time he had already won the European Junior Points Race Championships, the first ever of such titles for a Turkish rider.
Riding for the Turkish based Torku team for his entire senior career has seen Orken take numerous stage victories and points classification titles. These have mostly been in Asian races, such as in the Tour of Qinghai Lake, where he took two stage wins this year, both in sprint finishes.
Orken is a four-time Turkish individual time trial champion too: “I’m a sprinter, I can manage small hills up to two to three kilometres okay, but really it’s the sprints where my focus lies. For GC, that’s not possible for me.”
This year he managed a close second place to the almost invincible Bennett on Stage 5 of the Tour of Turkey, clearly demonstrating that he has what it takes to mix it at a higher grade.
“Racing the Tour of Turkey is very good for me. (It’s not like in smaller races), here sprinters are sprinters and climbers are climbers – it’s very clear cut, not like in amateur races, so I learn a lot,” Orken said.
Throughout the six-day race the Turkish riders were racing aggressively, placing riders in the main break on every stage. “It’s our main race of the year, and we prepare a long time for this and come every day to try our best.”
From here on in life will change a whole lot for Orken, as he leaves behind the familiarity of a team he’s been part of since he started and heads to Europe. “I will be based in Girona in Spain. Maybe I will get to come back home to Turkey two or three times in the year, but that’s all.”
Winning races or not, Orken’s move is already an inspiration to young Turkish riders and things can only get better. “Every year cycling gets bigger and more popular in Turkey, and I really hope that me going here will encourage and inspire young riders to follow.”
Being an Islamic rider racing for an Israeli team Orken may well carry more in his musette than pure racing expectations. This can only be a good thing for cycling. We wish him well.