Bicycle Diaries: Armenia's pedal-pushers

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Armenia's pedal-pushers

Five years ago, I travelled through Armenia on my way to Azerbaijan to work with the Soros folks in Baku. Yerevan, the capital, is stunning, filled with unique pink stone buildings nestled along the Hrazdan River. It also had a lively bike community actively promoted by National Cycling Federation of Armenia.

Armenia is perhaps the most tenacious of the former Soviet republics. It seems that every Armenian is a spokesperson for its miraculous survival. The first nation to adopt Christianity, Armenia has been conqured by the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires.

After surviving The 1915 Genocide, perpetrated by the Turkish military, Armenia briefly gained independence in 1918. But two years later the Soviet Army liberated it, absorbing Armenia into Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic with Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Its bike community is equally tenacious. It began in 1925, despite the invasion of the Red Amry four years earlier, when R.G. Avsharov and his son G.R. Avsharov founded the Armenian Cycling Club. Before then there were only 10 to 15 bikes in the whole country. By the time the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Armenians had gained an international reputation for their competitive biking skills.

With independence, bikers have continued to roll. Despite enormous financial difficulties, leading bikers have achieved some successes in international competitions. Armenian bikers have participated in international competitions in Russia, Georgia, and Iran. Two years ago, a competition was held with the participation of Armenian and French bikers.

Now a new generation is actively advocating for bikes. The following article, by Suren Musayelyan, appeared in ArmeniaNow on 6 October 2006.
Pushing for Pedaling

Make your business commute without getting stuck in traffic, and get in shape at the same time. That’s the advice of the president of
National Cycling Federation of Armenia, Levon Abrahamyan, whose mission has been energized by recent investments in his favorite sport.

Enthusiasts hope to revive the sport Abrahamyan, 31, often chooses his bicycle over other transportation, and is among a small but enthusiastic group of cyclists encouraging others to do the same.

But before too much shifting of gears, Armenians need a shift in mentality, Abrahamyan says.

“It will take us years to match other countries where nearly every family has a bicycle and often people choose to ride a bike and not drive an expensive SUV,” Abrahamyan says. “It is a problem of our mentality. Many of my friends say they won’t ride a bicycle because if they do so they will become laughing stocks.”

A cyclist is a rare sight in Yerevan. And if you spot one, there is a great chance that he or she is one of the 300 or so cyclists affiliated with the federation for whom cycling has become a lifestyle. (Or, if early on a Sunday morning outside Yerevan, you might pass a pack of ex-pats who make weekly long-distance rides.)

The sport that once was popular in Armenia but then gradually declined in the post-independence years was given a great boost last year as a professional center for cycling unique in the region was opened in Yerevan.

The Armenian federation won an international tender and under a program of the International Cycling Union (UCI) received 12 new modern bicycles each costing about 7,000 euros plus full sets of sportswear and outfit for cyclists. The Armenian government signed a document undertaking to provide funding for the center also from the state budget. Currently, the best 12 teenage cyclists aged 15-18, including three girls, are trained at the center. They are provided with equipment, clothes, food, medical insurance and other conditions for training. This year alone seven training assemblies have been organized for the athletes. And Armenia is going to have three cyclists participating in international rating competitions to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

Meanwhile, the federation chief says it is a great challenge to recover from more than a decade of neglect and lack of funding to train top-notch sportsmen today.

“Now we have a little more funding from the state and already have the opportunity to hold more trainings and organize championships,” Abrahamyan says, but adds that more funding is needed to secure good results on the international stage.

“We will start producing results when the state takes a serious approach to cycling in Armenia. Despite the funding that we already have I also have to invest from my personal money to keep the pace of development.”

Within the last six months Armenian cyclists have participated in five international competitions. Manager of the National Technical Center of Cycling in Armenia Karen Grigoryan considers participation in these competitions already an achievement unprecedented for previous years. “The equipment we have at our center has allowed us to increase our presence in international competitions and get recognition. It is competitions that enable our young sportsmen to grow professionally,” he says.

Abgar Khachatryan, 18, is the bronze medalist of Armenia’s national cycling championship this year and is one of the national team’s hopefuls. He is a university student with a deferment from military service, which allows him to stay in the sport. “Many cyclists showing good results have to give up this sport after they are drafted into the army. One has to have fantastic results for an exception to be made,” he says. “There is no club or opportunity for a cyclist to continue trainings whilst in the army and after two years of being detached from the sport it is very difficult to come back into it.”

National team coach Albert Soloyan shares his charge’s concerns. “What the federation is doing now is reassuring, but we still need to sort out organizational problems, including the problem of army drafts,” he says.

Veteran coach Andranik Asatryan adds: “Young cyclists need good conditions for trainings and opportunities to participate in competitions. This is the only way to develop this sport. Unlike European cities, Yerevan is unfit for cyclists and that’s why cycling is not popular among young Armenians.”

To provide more incentive to young sportsmen the federation regularly organizes races for cash prizes. Last Sunday the Federation organized a 92-kilometer race - Yerevan-Yeraskhavan-Nubarashen – for the first time in 10 years drawing 52 cyclists from Yerevan, Abovyan, Armavir, Vanadzor and Masis. The top six finishers in the race for the Federation President’s Cup shared a prize fund of 80,000 drams (about $215).

Deputy President of the Cycling Federation Ashot Khachatryan attaches great importance to competitions like this that bring together cyclists of different ages and experience levels.

To the question when Armenia may expect its first post-Soviet Olympians in cycling, Khachatryan says: “I think it is realistic for Armenia to have cyclists showing good results in the Olympics in 2012.”

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