Turkey's cyclists bike for a cause

In Turkey, bicycling is not only a means of transport and leisure but also, for one group, of social activism.

al-monitor Members of Turkey’s Don Quixote Cycling Collective pose with their bicycles, May 1, 2017. Photo by Facebook/donkisotbisikletkolektifi.
Nazlan Ertan

Nazlan Ertan


Topics covered

Social Media

Aug 3, 2017

For Turkey’s Don Quixote Cycling Collective, biking is not only a way of transportation but also a means of social activism. The embryo of this cycling group was formed in 2013 with Turkey’s Gezi Park events, which started initially when a small group contested the government’s urban development plans and then turned into a wide-scale protest movement to push for civil liberties and secularism. Some of the founding members have met under tear gas and pressurized water as police brutally tried to quell the protests.

“We define ourselves as activists who cycle,” Emre Tepe, one of the founders of the movement, told Al-Monitor.

“We are against the culture of consumerism, and we advocate sustainability, pro-environment policies, liberties, human rights and social inclusion in our manifesto,” Tepe said. “To us, cycling is a manifestation of all the things that we advocate: an environmentally friendly life where we consume fewer resources and enjoy more freedoms.”

The group, which takes its name from Cervantes’ hero who fights windmills, has a high social media profile due to its biked presence in major demonstrations. Its members cycled through the Gay Pride march in Istanbul on June 19 and biked with banners that called for disability-friendly cities in May for Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Last month, they pedaled in a parallel route in the Justice March of the Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as he walked in Maltepe on the Anatolian side of Istanbul.

The Istanbul-based group holds training sessions for people who cannot cycle, as well as bike repair courses and rides in Turkey’s archaeological and historical areas, including the historical peninsula in Istanbul. Tepe, an architect, said that they consider creating awareness of the country’s heritage part of their mission.

Don Quixote is not the only biking group with a socio-political agenda. In the Aegean port city of Izmir, a smaller group called Karsi Bisiklet, which defines itself as an anti-nuclear and anti-racist group, has been lobbying for the protection of Kulturpark, 420 square kilometers (162 square miles) of green area in the heart of the city. They have regularly organized cycling groups in the park since the beginning of the year to raise awareness on how the park’s reconstruction would lead to the destruction of the trees there. They seem to have won for the time being, as the city’s municipality — faced with widespread opposition — has shelved the plans.

The most colorful social activism, however, comes from Chic Women’s Bike Tour, held every September since 2013, in which thousands of women put on their most colorful clothes, decorate their bikes and hair with flowers and ribbons, and pedal for a woman’s “natural right to bike and do whatever she pleases."

This year’s event comes at a time when Turkish women are protesting across the country against the violence and animosity they face from men demanding they dress more conservatively. The demonstrations, called “Don’t Mess with My Outfit,” bring a large spectrum of women’s groups together.

Sema Gur, a history teacher who started the Chic Women’s Bike Tour, told Al-Monitor that she has already started preparations for this year’s bike event, which for the first time will include fundraising for girls' education. Asked whether she thinks this year’s event will be used as a platform to support the “Don’t Mess With My Outfit” campaign, she said, “Undoubtedly this will be one of the messages, but my tour has advocated this from the very beginning. We have always urged that women dress in the way they like, without outside interference. In my tour, you can see a transgender biker’s colorful hair next to another biker with a headscarf.”

Last year’s tour, on Sept. 25, 2016, protested the harassment of Aysegul Terzi, a nurse who was attacked by a man for wearing shorts on a bus. Many woman cyclists wore shorts in solidarity, and Gur opened the cycling event with a clear message: “We demand respect for bicycles, for female bikers. We demand respect for women.”

It is not only Turkish civil society that uses cycling to push for key causes. The Turkish government also considers cycling to be a great vehicle for its health agenda. For the Turkish Ministry of Health, cycling is one of its best weapons to beat obesity in Turkey. According to Eurostat, Turkish women are the heaviest among European countries: 56.7% of Turkish women are overweight. The corresponding figure for men is slightly lower at 56.4%. While there are slight disparities between the figures of the World Health Organization, Eurostat and the Turkish Institute of Statistics, the result is the same: Turks have an obesity problem caused by unhealthy eating and lack of physical activity. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ministers love to say that alcohol consumption, which increases the calorie intake, is also one of the reasons for obesity in the country.

To reduce obesity, the Health Ministry launched a three-year-plan with the long and complicated name of “Healthy Nutrition and Active Life Program and Physical Activity Stimulating Project.” The plan has been high on the ministry’s agenda, although three ministers have changed since its launch in 2015.

Under this scheme, 1 million bikes will be turned over to elementary or high schools, universities, civil society groups, state-run orphanages and municipalities. “As of 2016, we have given out a total of 275,000 bikes,” said an official from the Health Ministry’s Active Life program, who asked to remain anonymous in line with her institution’s rules.

A seven-member committee — with representatives from the ministries of education, transport and urban planning — studies the specific criteria before making the donation. Schools are required to teach cycling courses, and the municipalities either need to have safe and separate bike lanes or at least have concrete plans to build them. Most of the requests come from Istanbul, which is not surprising given its population. Ankara, Antalya and Bursa follow.

Many local governments have taken the initiative on bike-sharing schemes. Istanbul — a metropolis of 15 million people and 3.8 million cars that cause frequent traffic jams — has had a bike-sharing scheme since 2016, with 300 rentable bikes. Coastal towns like Izmir and student cities like Eskisehir have also adopted similar schemes.

“But the practices are limited,” said Don Quixote’s Tepe. “In Turkey, the bicycle is not seen as a means of daily transport. It is something you drive for leisure or when you are a kid before you get a driving license and a car.”

“Admittedly, the city of Izmir is one of the most bike-friendly cities, with a bike desk in the municipality where you can immediately report your problems,” said Gur. “But as soon as you direct your bike from the bike lanes on the coast to the city, it becomes impossible. We need well-linked routes that enable us to cycle everywhere throughout the city.”

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

Recommended Articles

New Turkish indictment prolongs ‘torture’ for philanthropist Kavala’s family
Ayla Jean Yackley | Human rights | Oct 13, 2020
Facebook rebuffs Turkey’s controversial social media law
Diego Cupolo | Social Media | Oct 6, 2020
Team Emirates rider wins Tour de France as cycling gains legs in Middle East
Joe Snell | Sports | Sep 23, 2020
Islamist parties challenge Iraqi domestic violence draft law
Mustafa Saadoun | Women’s rights | Aug 18, 2020
Gulf migrant workers face crisis of unpaid wages amid pandemic
Sebastian Castelier | Economy and trade | Aug 10, 2020

More from  Turkey

Is Turkey gearing up for military move against Syrian Kurds?
Fehim Tastekin | Turkish-Kurdish conflict | Nov 25, 2020
COVID-19 breaks records in Turkey as health experts call for tighter controls
Diego Cupolo | Coronavirus | Nov 24, 2020
German mission searches Libya-bound Turkish ship, sparking backlash from Ankara
Diego Cupolo | Libya conflict | Nov 23, 2020
Top Netflix drama lays open Turkish divides
Nazlan Ertan | | Nov 23, 2020