Back in the saddle: Turkmen leader heads up giant bike parade

Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) (AFP) - Thousands of tracksuit-wearing officials in Turkmenistan were brought along for the ride Wednesday as eccentric leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov spearheaded a cycling parade to mark World Bicycle Day.

Turkmenistan -- one of the few countries that has not reported a single case of the coronavirus -- has given little thought to social distancing in recent months, celebrating key occasions in the national calendar with customary pomp.

World Bicycle Day, a date that the United Nations recognised in 2018 following a proposal by Turkmenistan, saw a large throng of officials follow Berdymukhamedov on a trip through the capital Ashgabat where roads were closed for the occasion.

State television reported that 7,500 riders joined the parade and that regions outside the capital were holding smaller-scale events.

Before setting off, Berdymukhamedov, 62, unveiled a 30-metre (98 feet) monument honouring cycling, which has become an important component of state propaganda promoting healthy lifestyles.

The structure boasts golden statuettes of cyclists that rotate on a track encircling a giant map of Turkmenistan.

During the ceremony attended by an AFP correspondent, Berymukhamedov hailed the bicycle as "a model of ecological transport... contributing to the improvement of human health".

"Our goal is the well-being of the people, a healthy society, the harmonious physical and spiritual development of all generations," Berdymukhamedov said.

The autocrat's speech was punctuated by several volleys of applause from officials who chanted "Glory to the Arkadag!" -- a moniker used by state media for Berdymukhamedov that means "protector".

While officials insist the isolated country of six million people is virus-free, Berdymukhamedov last month signed off on a government plan to respond to the potential emergence of cases.

Foreign diplomats were among those who had their hands sprayed with sanitiser by government staff as they arrived to attend the festivities.

There were no signs of face masks, however, amid reports of a de facto government ban.