There I was, cycling down the road minding my own business when along comes a camel, then another one and another and then there’s a herd of them, directed by means of the horn of a Toyota Landcruiser driven by the herdsman.
Sights like this are normal in the desert around Dubai, as are things like cycle tracks that run for tens of miles through the dunes and Lamborghinis with Pinarello Dogmas mounted on the roof rack. It feels a bit like you’ve been dropped off on another planet for a bike ride. Like Mars.
This is pro tour season in the Middle East. We had the Dubai Tour last week, this week has been the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman, possibly the final one, begins on February 16.
It’s almost a busman’s holiday in the sun for the riders, many of whom were only recently battling it out in Australia’s mid-summer Tour Down Under. In comparison the Middle East is a pleasantly average 25 degrees, what we could call a hot summer’s day in the UK.
I, and the press pack that follows the pro tours around, were there for the Dubai Tour. This is probably the prettier of the tours; Dubai doesn’t really feel very Middle Eastern until you get outside it, lots of greenery and palm trees and lush vegetation, the only sand I could see from my hotel room was on the beach. Not to mention the party bar across the way, that seemed as if it had been plucked wholesale from Tenerife, patrons included. Barasti they called it. We knew it as Bar Nasty. The most profitable bar in the entire Middle East apparently, right under my balcony.
It was still thumping out music when I rose at 4.30am for a climb up the local mountain. “I know it’s early but we need to get there to see the sunrise,” said my mate Christian, a former cycling buddy in the UK and now an expat. I’d heard about this climb. It’s called Jebel Jais and is actually in Oman, is 20 miles long with an average gradient of between 5 and 6 per cent. I’ve done worse, even on three hours’ sleep - I rarely sleep well the night before a big ride. At least last night I was comatose thanks to a boozy shellfish dinner at Aprons and Hammers and then Bar Nasty until stupid o’clock.
So there I am in this massive SUV that everyone drives over there, fighting to keep my eyes open when the zip on my David Millar jersey just bursts open like a ripe peach to reveal the rather fetching plaid base layer and I’m thinking surely I didn’t eat that much last night?
That’s one jersey knackered even if between us we managed to get the thing done up long enough to do the ride without it looking as if I was wearing a cape. At least my shoes were comfy - I had a pair of those Dromarti on. Great for the desert actually, not so good in soggy English winter conditions.
It became evident he’d done this hill before as he disappeared up the road like a mountain goat, leaving me to ride in silence, occasionally punctuated by the roar of McLaren F1s and Dodge Chargers. Treat this road like a racetrack, these kids. It can make things seem unnecessarily hairy to begin with until you realise they give you stacks of room as they pass you.
Turns out Jebel Jais is a pleasure to climb. The gradient never becomes too nasty and there’s a point about a third of the way up where it eases to 2 per cent and you get a little breather. You are far from alone on the mountain and when you reach the top which turns out to be a dead-end because they’re still building the pass, you realise that all the considerable weight of traffic is made up of people driving up to have a party in the car parks and then drive back down again. Then back up. Those multiple McLarens were quite possibly all the same car.
But if Dubai were to create a mountain, this would be it. Perfect roads, not too tough, no rain, not much wind, not even cold really. If there was such a thing as luxurious mountain climbing on a bike, Jebel Jais is a good contender.
Not sure I’ll go back, though. Those kids’ bonfires stink.
- The talk of the Dubai Tour was motors in bikes and how none of us thought anyone would dare to do it. Mechanical doping they call it but it is fairly well universally agreed that this takes cheating to a whole new level. How anyone can even begin to think a motor that, as Bradley Wiggins said, puts “an extra 200 watts in your bottom bracket” is in any way fair competition, is beyond me. If they’re going to start doing this, they might as well all move to scooters. Better still, get yourselves a motorbike and clear off out of cycling.