Country ‘goes fast, as fast as the wheels of a bicycle’, says Emirati pro-cyclist
Race leader Tadej Pogacar of Team United Arab Emirates rides during the seventh stage of the United Arab Emirates Cycling Tour from Yas Mall to Abu Dhabi Breakwater. AFP
As the sun rises over the Dubai desert, the Al Qudra Cycle Route is already in full swing as cyclists leave highways and skyscrapers behind to ride an 80 kilometer trail.
Every weekend, all year round – even in the scorching summer heat – hundreds, if not thousands, of cycling enthusiasts travel to Al-Qudra, about 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) from the city center .
Its car-free moonscape is a change of pace for many from their urban lifestyle and a chance to connect with nature and perhaps spot an Arabian oryx, a rare member of the antelopes.
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Despite temperatures that often exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) with high humidity, cycling has grown strongly in popularity in the United Arab Emirates.
It didn’t hurt that UAE Team Emirates rider Tadej Pogacar won the last two editions of the Tour de France, the most prestigious cycling race in the world.
New cycling infrastructure is still popping up in the capital Abu Dhabi as well as in Dubai, where the second annual “Dubai Ride” takes place on Friday along the city’s main highway.
Emirati triathlete Asma al-Janahi, 28, describes Al-Qudra as her favorite place in Dubai and a trip there is equivalent to meditating.
“You walk away from the city, and you go to see Mother Nature, this beautiful desert,” the sports administrator of New York University Abu Dhabi told AFP.
“It’s very peaceful…seeing birds and oryx. You feel so connected to this place, especially with a bike.”
Opportunities for cyclists are growing in the UAE, alongside the sport’s global boom.
The Abu Dhabi Formula 1 circuit is handed over to cyclists several times a week, with other tracks available across the emirate.
The “Dubai Ride” was launched to much fanfare last year, with Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed leading the parade of cyclists down the Sheikh Zayed six-lane road.
German Wolfgang Hohmann, who opened a bike shop in Dubai with his wife in 2002, says the emirate, best known for its love of four-wheel drive and luxury cars, has come a long way.
“Dubai wasn’t as developed as it is today, and we didn’t have a bike lane,” he told AFP, saying the journey has been “long” since the opening of the store.
“We now have a ProTour team winning the most important race in the world, (and) we have thousands of weekend riders on the bike paths,” he said.
According to Yousif Mirza, the only Emirati pro-cyclist, sport in the UAE “goes fast, as fast as the wheels of a bicycle”, he told AFP.
“Year after year, the progress is noticeable. The government spares no effort when it comes to building tracks,” said Mirza, who represented the United Arab Emirates at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
But even away from mega-malls and massive highways, said Natika Lewis, a cyclist from Wales, cycling is not exempt from Dubai’s “see and be seen” culture.
“Dubai is always bigger and better, so people want the best bike, they want the best kit,” she said.
“People are really competitive, Emiratis and expats.”