Kazakhstan has found a novel way to combine two of its passions du jour, green energy and cycling. Astana is hosting a group of intrepid cyclists who have spent the last seven weeks or so racing from France to Central Asia on vehicles fueled by pedal power, with a little help from the sun.
The race, known as “The Sun Trip,” is the brainchild of Florian Bailly. The pioneer of solar-assisted cycling made his own way from France to Japan in 2010, a 10,000-kilometer trip relying solely on pedal and solar power. For Astana, the Sun Trip is a way of publicizing EXPO 2017, which it promises will focus on renewable energy.
Solar bikes, which use a combination of a pedal-powered machine with a solar-fueled battery, allow riders to travel long distances at greater speeds than on conventional bicycles.
Thirty-three competitors set off from Savoy on June 15 on a variety of machines – including conventional bicycles with trailers transporting the solar gear, along with a tandem or two and a tricycle.
On July 23, Raf van Hulle wheeled into Kazakhstan's capital first, 37 days after leaving Savoy, France. The Belgian’s grueling 7,500-kilometer journey took him through Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The riders were free to choose their own routes to Astana. The trip, which took them from Europe's swish highways to rough tracks across Kazakhstan's steppe, proved too much for some. One rider was hospitalized in Turkey and another had his battery burst into flames.
The race highlights Kazakhstan's newly minted green credentials, but some observers have questioned the country's commitment to stopping climate change. Kazakhstan has used its vast stash of petrodollars to construct a new capital, Astana. The city’s sweeping glass skyscrapers need cooling in summer and struggle to retain heat in winter. Could the Kazakh leadership’s eagerness to embrace environmental issues be just a lot of hot air?
Paul Bartlett is a journalist based in Almaty.