ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Early in the afternoon on Friday, Erbil hosted the first ever "Ride On!" international cycling marathon co-sponsored by Kurdistan 24, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and others.
Cyclists started pedaling at 2:30 pm at the Gulan intersection on Ainkawa Road and biked a 3.2-kilometer distance to Chaikhanay Machko in the heart of the city center, right in front of the ancient Erbil citadel.
Hundreds enrolled in the event, which organizers hoped would be a major step in actively promoting cycling culture in the Kurdistan Region.
"I am happy that people in Kurdistan are raising awareness and encourag[ing] people to ride," said a woman who introduced herself as the spouse of the Consul-General of the Czech Republic before saying that she had learned about the event through Facebook.
"Riding a bike is fun and healthy," she said.
Erbil, until now, has not been anything close to what cyclists would call a "bike-friendly" city, with streets devoid of specialized bike lanes many others worldwide have added to safely encourage the healthful activity.
"I think cycling is really very important," Willem Cosijn, Dutch Consul-General, told Kurdistan 24. "I am from the Netherlands" where there are "17 million people" and "18-19 million bikes."
"Everybody has a bike in the Netherlands and everybody travels on a bike."
"Even my prime minister [Mark Rutte], who is a good friend of your prime minister [Nechirvan Barzani], he goes to the office on a bicycle," Cosijn said, adding that even the Dutch king and queen partake in the activity, daily.
Some female participants commended the event for creating an environment in which they could freely ride on the streets, as it has yet to become a socially accepted activity for adults, and less so for women, who fear being judged, catcalled, and degraded by men.
Speaking with Kurdistan 24 after the race, famous Kurdish singer Dashni Morad thanked the men who, as audiences, cheered on and showed enthusiastic support for the passing female participants in the event. She said it was a positive and observable change to the society.
"My dream came true today," she continued. "I was able to ride a bicycle in the most beautiful street of Kurdistan."
Along with fears of a possible backlash for breaking norms, there is also the issue of the lack of safety for bikers on the region's streets.
In this regard, Morad called on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to provide dedicated biking roads and parking spots, as the sport is "good for health and the environment."
Local activists, foreign diplomats, and more recently, a newly-elected Kurdish lawmaker have all been working to raise awareness and acceptance of the activity, hoping to make it a more standard pastime for all ages, since it has long been the case locally that participation drops off the older one gets.
Cycling is "a normal culture in many parts of the world," MP Jalal Pareshan said in early November.
"Almost all the doctors have emphasized that it is the best sport for our health. It is also important for the environment," he said, pointing out that that it's a so-called "green" form of transportation, in addition to the obvious health benefits enjoyed by those who take part.
On Friday, Pareshan participated with excitement, reiterated his statements on biking, and affirmed to keep his promise to cycle to every parliamentary session in the capital of Erbil, as he has so far.
Editing by John J. Catherine