Israel Cycling Academy confirmed today that Turkish time trial champion Ahmet Örken, the Pro Continental team's first and only rider from a Muslim-majority country, has decided to leave the team after recent Middle East tensions led to increased pressure for him and his family.
The team announced Örken's two-year contract to much fanfare back in September, and as recently as the team's early December bonding camp in Israel, the four-time Turkish time trial champion, who has raced in Continental teams since 2012, was in good spirits and giving interviews about his future with the team.
In a statement sent to Cyclingnews on Thursday, the team said increased Middle East tension after US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6 had a direct impact on Örken and his family in Turkey. The team said Örken soon contacted management and requested release from his contract, citing "the effect that the recent events in the Middle East had on me and my family."
Israel Cycling Academy General Manager Ran Margaliot traveled to Örken's hometown of Konya, Turkey, and spoke with the rider and his family, persuading them to take some time to reconsider the decision, according to the team. Pressure continued to mount on the rider, however, and he eventually requested a formal release. On Wednesday, the team agreed to grant his request.
"This is heartbreaking for all of us," Margaliot said. "Ahmet is a great athlete and a great person. He joined our program with a vision and commitment to putting sport – and with it, peace – above politics. It was a brave decision and one that was received with widespread support and approval among the Israeli and Turkish people."
That support was ultimately not enough to overcome the pressure to leave the team that was placed on Örken and his family. Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Israel were downgraded following the 2010 Gaza Flotilla raid, a military operation by Israel against six civilian ships of the "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea. Nine people were killed in the raid. Although their ambassadors were restored last year following intense negotiations, relations remain cool. As a pilgrimage destination for Sufi Muslims, Konya, a city of more than 2 million people, is one of the most religious in Turkey.
"I am so thankful for the opportunity I received from Israel Cycling Academy," the 25-year-old said in a statement released by the team. "Unfortunately, recent events have forced my hand. My family in Konya – and especially my mother and brother – have found themselves in a dire situation. While I am thankful to be a professional cyclist, I am a dedicated son and brother first and foremost."
Örken, who has ridden for the Torku Sekerspor squad since 2012, has three stage wins at the Tour of Qinghai Lake to his credit and would have been the first Turkish rider to compete at the Pro Continental level. He was introduced to the media during the team's presentation in December wearing the star and crescent-bedecked skinsuit of Turkish time trial champion, taking his place on stage alongside Israeli road race champion Roy Goldstein and time trial champion Guy Sagiv.
After completing the team's first camp, Örken and his teammates were named 'Peace Ambassadors' by the Peres Peace Center as part of the Israel Cycling Academy's commitment to enhancing peaceful coexistence through sport.
"I remain deeply thankful to the team," Örken said. "I have been treated like family from the very beginning. This was a unique opportunity for me both on and off the bike. I will continue to cheer for this program moving forward – both on and off the bike."
Margaliot said that despite the setback, the team would not be deterred "from our deep belief in this team's message of peace and coexistence."
"While we are disappointed by his decision, we only want what is best for him and his family," Margaliot said. "The doors of Israel Cycling Academy will be open for Ahmet, and we certainly hope to see him rejoin us."
Israel Cycling Academy first took shape at the end of 2014 with the help of Peter Sagan. The team became the first Israeli-registered Pro Continental squad in 2017 with the aim of being the first to make it to a Grand Tour, with the Giro d'Italia set to start in Israel next May. In 2018, the team will feature riders from five Continents and 15 countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Holland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the United States. A team spokesman told Cyclingnews that another rider will likely be added to the roster soon.