On the verge of a WorldTour slot, the Tour of Turkey has lost momentum. Here’s why.
It’s a race which has attracted some of the sport’s top teams in recent years. It’s also one which had looked poised to join the WorldTour in the future. However recent months have been trying ones for the Presidential Tour of Turkey, which has gone from having six WorldTour teams in 2015 to just two this year.
The 2.HC race gets underway in Istanbul on Sunday and will feature Lampre-Merida and Lotto Soudal as the sole top squads.
According to the provisional start list, these will be joined by eight pro continental teams – Caja Rural-Seguros RGA, Southeast – Venezuela, Delko Marseille Provence KTM, Team Roth, Funvic Soul Cycles, Verva Activejet Pro Cycling Team, Nippo – Vini Fantini and CCC Sprandi Polkowice, as well as the Continental teams Torku Sekerspor, Parkhotel Valkenburg CT, Alpha Baltic – Maratoni.lv and Team Hrinkow Advarics Cycleang.
In all that makes for fourteen squads. It’s a far much lighter lineup than the six WorldTour, fourteen Pro Continental and one Continental outfits of a year ago.
So what has happened in the meantime, and what does this mean for the race’s future?
Upwards trend interrupted
Let’s begin with a brief look at the race’s history. The event was first run as the Marmara Tour in 1963 and two years later came under Presidential authority, leading to a shift to the current name.
In 2006 it became a 2.2-ranked event on the UCI calendar, and two years later it stepped up to 2.1.
These upgrades helped attract bigger teams and better riders, with the winners in 2009 and 2010 being Daryl Impey (Barloworld, now Orica-GreenEdge) and Giovanni Visconti (ISD-Neri, now Movistar). In the second of those two years the race was given a further boost when it moved up to 2.HC on the calendar. It has remained there since.
In that time, the quality of teams has been impressive. In 2011 six WorldTour teams took part, with the numbers of top squads since then being nine in 2012 and 2013, eight in 2014 and six last year.
And while that 2015 edition had a slight reduction in their numbers, it was run to the same high standard as before. It also enjoyed wide international TV coverage, earning valuable publicity for both the event and the country.
The general consensus was that a future WorldTour slot was drawing closer.
UCI president Brian Cookson indicated as such, saying that the race might be considered to become part of the sport’s top series as early as 2017.
In that light, hosting just two WorldTour teams this time around is jarring.
The first signs that something was different came earlier this year when rumours, later confirmed, suggested that the previous race organisers were no longer involved. Argeus Events had run the previous eight editions and had spoken of their own WorldTour aspirations for the event.
CyclingTips understands that the running of the race was put out to tender each season. This year, that was done on February 8 and the outcome was announced nine days later.
That decision was for a company called CEO Events to be given the role of organiser. It had no previous experience of running a major cycling race, but had been involved in other sporting events including tennis tournaments.
Since then things appeared to move slowly. The previous race website was down but a new one, www.tourofturkey.org.tr, went live several weeks ago. It was initially in Turkish only but an English version was added after that.
Three WorldTour teams were listed but this number then dropped to two.
Those low numbers created uncertainty, and so too the delay in media being contacted about invites to the event.
Press and photographic contacts who had covered the race in recent years heard nothing for a long time, leading to questions about whether it would go ahead. However invites were issued earlier this month and the event is due to start on Sunday.
The show will go on, even if the line-up is the lightest in many years.
What went wrong?
In tracing how the race appears to have lost traction, CyclingTips spoke to several teams who have previously participated. All preferred not to go on record, but one commonly stated concern was that of security.
Conflict in neighbouring Syria and a number of suicide attacks in Turkey in recent months have heightened fears about safety in the region. Indeed in March its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the country was suffering “one of the biggest waves of terrorism in its history.”
This unease has played a part in teams deciding not to come this year. It’s also had a wider consequence for the country, with tourism being badly affected.
In Turkey that industry accounts for around 11% of the country’s GDP and provides employment for over a million people. It took a knock in November when a Russian fighter jet was shot down and the related loss of 4.5 million Russian tourists plus a drop in figures from other countries have had a devastating effect.
In March media reports stated that summer bookings were down by 50 percent when compared to the 2015 figures.
Given the President’s admission that there is a wave of violence, it’s not hard to understand why some teams are wary about travelling. Even if there have been attacks in Paris and Brussels in recent months, the uncertainty is greater from afar.
A second factor in teams not attending this year appears to be the change of organiser. One squad – which wished to remain off record on the subject – said that the related delays which cropped up led to concerns when the team was planning its rider schedule.
Worried about those delays and wary of being possibly left short, it opted instead to send its riders to other races.
Another team suggested that budgetary cutbacks at the event may also have been a concern for some. “Big teams are offered money to attend races like these. If that money is reduced, there is less incentive to go,” a team official said.
A new rival
If those three factors acted as a push, there was also a pull. A new event, the Tour of Croatia, was introduced last year and is held nearby. Ranked 2.1 on the UCI calendar, it is a smaller event than the Turkish tour. However it has grown rapidly in the past 12 months.
In 2015 it featured no WorldTour teams and just three Pro Continental squads.
Perhaps due in part to the uncertainty about Turkey, the quality of the lineup has soared this year. The race began on Tuesday and five WorldTour teams lined out.
Astana, Dimension Data, IAM Cycling, Trek – Segafredo and Tinkoff were joined by seven Pro Continental teams and nine Continental squads, with riders such as Mark Cavendish taking part.
According to several teams CyclingTips spoke to, the Tour of Croatia was seen as a viable calendar replacement for the Tour of Turkey. Perceived as safer and without organisational uncertainty, it has proved to be a popular Plan B this time around.
The Tour of Yorkshire is another rival and, being organised by Tour de France organisers ASO, carries some clout.
So what’s the future for the Turkish event? Time will tell, but a number of factors will play a part.
First off, the political situation: if regional conflicts settle down and terrorism attacks don’t reoccur in Turkey, teams will be more confident about returning in the future. The next few months will be crucial in that regard.
The second consideration relates to the organisation of the race. This year’s event will likely play a big part in determining what happens in the future. If things go smoothly, CEO Events will likely have a chance of securing the tender again in 2017.
If things don’t go well, other organisers will be in a position to challenge. It remains to be seen if Argeus Events will bid again to run the race, or if the events of 2016 will have caused it to lose interest. The company organises other events in Turkey and may simply decide to focus on those.
Something which may ramp up its interest and those of other companies is if the tender process is changed from the current year-by-year system. Finding out in February whether or not it would be running a race in April is not an ideal situation for any organiser.
When some events such as the Tour of Britain awarded multi-year deals, the season-by-season setup in Turkey prevents the kind of long-term planning necessary for the race to really reach its potential. It also prevents organisers from making investments and building for the future.
The goal of this analysis is not to harm the race, but to explain what has happened after the highs of recent years. Having attended the Presidential Tour of Turkey several times, the quality of the race and the warm, welcome nature of its people was obvious. In fact, the event was one of the very best-organised on the calendar.
For the riders who competed in it and the media who reported on it, the hotels, the various arrangements and the hospitality shown were second to none.
In that light, a WorldTour future really seemed to be on the cards.
Time will tell what happens next, but many will be hoping that things turn around and the event builds up again.
In the meantime, teams will likely keep an open mind. An official from one said that missing the race this time around was unfortunate.
“We just didn’t know what was going to happen with Turkey this season,” he said. “But most people liked to go to Turkey in the last couple of years. That shows they were doing something right.”