Pro tours and camels: cycling in Dubai

“BUILT FROM THE DESERT BUT YOU’D NEVER GUESS / SOME SAY IT’S ARTIFICIAL, MORE OFFICIAL ARTISTS / YOU CAN’T DENY THE PARTIES OVER HERE ARE HOT.” 

Or something like that. 

The re-written lyrics to Empire State of Mind that are being sung at the opening ceremony to the Dubai Tour are about as inspiring as Dubai is modest, but there’s no denying the conviction: 
“Let’s hear it for Dooooobaaayye” they sing. Somewhere, Jay-Z shivers. 

The tour is a big deal, and a lot of effort has gone into the ceremony in the gardens of the West Inn hotel on Mina Seyahi Beach Resort, including giant blow-up cycling jerseys tethered to the lawn, amid which the Arabian elite has just been mingling with the cycling profession. This is the culmination of weeks of publicity and preparation, tenderising the public to the arrival of the cycle race with blanket advertising on public transport and billboards. 

The launch is a glitzy, spotlight-illuminated affair featuring dancers, stunt bikers and singing. Vittorio Brumotti is there, welded to his bike, pogoing it around the stage while a giant face - his - appears on an even bigger TV screen at the back of the stage saying something with an Italian accent over a slide show of Dubai aerial shots. 
 
“Let’s hear it for Dooooobaaayye.” 

Then along come the teams, sauntering up to the stage in single file. When you look at the race season as a whole, the Middle Eastern tours are treated more as a chance to fine-tune team tactics in the sun before the horrors that are the spring classics. That’s why the big guns will be locked away for the most part, safely protected in the peloton. An injury now could cost dearly for the rest of the season. 

A week of cycle racing across deserts and around impossible-looking skyscrapers awaits. This, the third Dubai Tour, serves a dual purpose - to put the place on the pro cycling map and show visitors there’s more to Dubai than pricey restaurants and tall buildings. It also brings Dubai in line with neighbouring Qatar and Oman, which are already well established on the early season tour circuit. The Dubai Tour is getting bigger every year. This time it crosses to neighbouring emirates for the first time. 

Encouraging cycle tourism is an ambitious goal for this part of the world. The desert isn’t the first place you would imagine riding a bike even if you had to. Get out of the city, which you must to ride for any length of time, and there’s not much more than sand dunes. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean taking a bike to Dubai should be dismissed out of hand. You’re unlikely to get your bike stolen for one thing - crime is almost zero, and if you need proof that there are places to ride, you only need to look at the size of the cycling community in the emirate. The Dubai Cycling Community facebook page has 4,000 members. The Velovixens women-only cycle club has 574 members. Coffee stops such as the Cycle Hub in Motor City serve as bike shops and cafes rolled into one and serving a full menu of food and a strip of bike shops is growing along the Sheikh Zayed Road. These shops regularly sell bikes for upwards of AED20,000 (£3,752). Giant cycles are expecting to sell around 20,000 frames in 2016 alone. 

“Like a car, a bike is a status symbol, so if you drive a high-end car, you want to put a high-end bike on it, whether you’re a beginner or not, right?” says my guide for the week, who has asked not to be named. She adds it’s not unusual to see a Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini with a bike rack on it. A lot of the people riding these bikes are new to cycling, which can make the group rides, with turnouts in their hundreds, quite a nerve-wracking affair. This is partly why the cyclists have been given their own circuit. 

Two, in fact. The first is an 8.3km former camel racing track in the middle of Dubai called Nad Al Sheba which is now the District One Cycling & Running Track and the other is Al Qudra. Imagine Richmond park, only bigger, much bigger. Then take out the trees and the dog walkers and the hills and the deer and the grass and the water and anything green and make it sunny. Really, really sunny. And 25 degrees hot. And this is only January. 

Cars are banned on the cycle track at Al Qudra

Cars are banned on the cycle track at Al Qudra

AL QUDRA
 
“THEY WERE HAVING PROBLEMS AFTER THEY BUILT THIS WITH THE DESERT TRYING TO RECLAIM THE TRACK,” SAYS MY GUIDE. “SO THEY MOVED THE DESERT.” 

Indeed they have. In typical Dubai style, the landscape has been manipulated. A good few hundred yards either side of the cycle track is flat where the dunes have been pushed back although a battle against the march of nature is a constant one - you can see the first indications of the dunes creeping back. 

Al Qudra is an extraordinary place to cycle. It reminds you of one of those eighties video games where the technology doesn’t exist to add landscape so you just get a path winding into the distance and a few 3D triangles to indicate hills. This does nothing to deter the thousands of cyclists who come out to Al Qudra at the weekend to ride on the 135km of flawless, glass-smooth track. It’s particularly good for time trial training, apparently. “Zad’s, the little coffee shop at the track can look like a ski cafe on weekend mornings,” says my guide, “hundreds of cyclists clattering about in their cleats and chatting.” 

Aside from rolling desert, Al Quadra does have one or two sights - there is ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed’s ranch off to the left on the brow of a rise, where if you are out on the track early enough you will hear the bassline whump of one of his legendary - and exclusive - parties. Shortly after this there is the solar power station, where the sun’s rays are bounced off enormous radar dishes and concentrated into a laser point for the energy to be harnessed and help keep the lights on in Dubai. All very James Bond. Then there is nature. Herds of Arabian Oryx walk these dunes and if you get broadsided by one of them you’ll know about it. 

There are no real hills to speak of but that means there is wind. This becomes stronger as the day progresses with the warm air from the desert meeting the cool breeze off the sea. At its worst this can create enormous dust storms that reduce visibility to zero, penetrate the clothes and every orifice. “Get stuck in one of them and you just have to battle through it,” says my guide’s husband, who also does not wish to be named. When that happens you’re not going to find much shelter, especially not from the little open-sided gazebos that punctuate the routes, or the ghaff, which are about the only trees that grow in the desert and are protected by law to such an extent that they can’t be moved, so the cycle track is built around them. 

The thought of suffering a mechanical in such an environment might be enough to put some off riding this far out, but the track staff have thought of this. They have erected phone masts out here to ensure good reception and they have a rescue quad bike on standby to come out and pick you up. Secluded you might be, out of reach you’re not. Although you’re never far away from never getting out alive: “Keep going in that direction,” says my guide’s husband pointing at the horizon. “and you’ll end up in Saudi.” They found a car that had got lost out there once, he says. Two skeletons sitting in it. 
Al Qudra and Nad Al Sheba are soon to be linked by a 17km cyclepath known as The Stick, which is more or less finished, save a couple of stretches where landowners are stopping the path being built. “They’ll come round,” says my guide, “all that land was gifted to them by Sheikh Mohammed anyway, and he wants a cycle path.” Sheikh Mohammed, or Sheikh Mo, as he is widely and affectionately known, is at the core of Dubai’s drive to encourage cycling. It’s no coincidence that Al Qudra runs close to his ranch - he uses the cyclepath himself. 

There is an unintended consequence of all this safe cycling: “We’ve got riders in our club who have never experienced actually riding on a road,” explains my guide. This she says is fine when those riders are still in Dubai, but it’s when they travel home to cycle in the UK and are forced to tackle the terrors of British traffic that they struggle. 

It is of course possible to cycle on Dubai’s side streets but you won’t get far, because cycles are banned from the main roads that feed them and also from pavements. The other option is to pack the bike up and head out to ride some of the rural roads, such as around Al Madam.

Villages around Al Madam have a surprising amount of vegetation

Villages around Al Madam have a surprising amount of vegetation

AL MADAM
 
CYCLING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE AROUND DUBAI IS BEST DONE IN A GROUP WITH A SUPPORT CAR, BECAUSE IT ISN’T COUNTRYSIDE IN THE TRADITIONAL SENSE OF THE WORD - THIS IS SERIOUS DESERT, PROPER MIDDLE EAST.

There are hamlets, little clusters of flat single storey houses and the odd mansion belonging to a sheikh, sitting there on a hill, but get through them and it’s mile after mile of desert. Not quite as featureless as Al Qudra because you’re close to some mountains at Alfaya here, part of the ridge that runs along the eastern edge of the peninsular. Follow these mountains north and you’ll eventually reach the mighty Jebel Jais, a 20-mile climb averaging 5 per cent that winds to the top of one of the region’s highest peaks. They are still building the mountain pass so you’ll get so far and have to turn back, although the descent through sheer-sided canyons is a joy. You’d be in Oman here but it’s the biggest accessible climb near Dubai. 

Back on the plain, we’ve actually left the emirate of Dubai and crossed to Sharjah. Markers line the road to indicate the depth of water in times of flooding. “It rains about six days of the year. The water runs off the mountains and floods this whole area,” says my guide’s husband. “It’s gone in a couple of hours.” This used to be quite a liberal place when the British colonials were around but they left and Sharjah needed to borrow some money. Saudi Arabia gave it to them on the proviso that they behaved themselves, so now it’s strict. 

People come to the desert to play and party, and all around us is evidence of that. Tyre tracks criss-cross the dunes where the locals have gone off-roading and in places the sand is strewn with litter, everything from plastic drink bottles to abandoned tents. It looks like Southend seafront after a bank holiday. Litter is such a big issue that the authorities send out teams to pick it up, but this just means people now leave it for them to clear. 

We are being given plenty of room by passing traffic, either because of the enormous American pickup truck my guide is driving slowly behind us or because drivers around here are extra cautious. They seem in no rush anyway - things are so laidback here that we overtake a JCB trundling along the road and we are only doing 20mph. Before long we pass the workmen it is presumably heading to join. They stop and stare, looking slightly bewildered. We wave, they wave back. There’s no such thing as a minimum wage here and it can actually be cheaper to employ labourers than buy machinery, which is why there are men standing by the roadside doing nothing but waving red flags. Cheaper than a bollard. Although when you’ve come from the slums of India it’s probably not a bad way of life. 

The camels seem to have it better. There are plenty of them out here. “They stink, they smell, they spit and they kick,” says my guide’s husband as one at the side of the road looks our way and curls its lip. “So you’re better off keeping out of their way.” This is easy to do until we round a bend and they are being herded along the roadside, spilling into the road ahead of us. Thankfully the herdsman, behind the wheel of a Toyota pickup and honking his horn continually, seems to have things under control. Camels have an aloof way of looking down on you which could have something to do with them all being owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Another reason they are best avoided. 

Much of the final stage was viewed via the wing mirror

Much of the final stage was viewed via the wing mirror

THE DUBAI TOUR
 
“MARK CAVENDISH HAS A PROBLEM,” CRACKLES THE VOICE AT THE OTHER END OF THE RACE RADIO AND THE PELOTON HASN’T EVEN SET OFF YET.

Cavendish has had a problem all week. He shouted at his teammate Mark Renshaw on camera earlier. He won last year’s Dubai Tour but this one is looking increasingly like Marcel Kittel’s. This could have something to do with Cav’s mood. 

We’re sitting in static convoy, police outriders up front, the road ahead cleared of traffic, waiting for the peloton to appear over the little hillock from the race village, where they have been generally milling around and signing things and standing on stage waving at the crowd. 

Today is the final stage of the tour - the Business Bay stage that winds around the streets and palm-lined avenues of Dubai before a climax sprint finish in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Today is also Team Wiggins rider Chris Latham’s birthday. “I’m going to try and get in the break,” he said when asked on stage of his plans for the day. “Then I’m gonna see what birds are knocking about in that bar later.” Judging by the lack of uproar among the Emirati in attendance it’s quite possible they didn’t know what on earth he was saying. 

“Chris is on Tinder if anyone’s interested,” added Sir Bradley Wiggins. 

That was earlier, before Cav fixed his problem and before the peloton swept onto the Sheikh Zayed Road. If you go to enough cycle stage races it quickly becomes apparent that it is probably the one spectator sport that is best watched at home on the TV. Stand at the side of the road and you get a split second glimpse at best. You can hang around at the start or the finish or both but again you won’t see much. Even in a car actually driving with the race, which we are doing, you don’t get to see a lot because you can’t really have a procession of cars getting in the way of 122 riders. Being in a car is still the best way to experience a race first hand, however. In the thick of it, amongst the action. We slow down at one point and ride alongside the break, long enough to get a few seconds of video, then we drop back to the main peloton so we can see them through the rear window before speeding off to get out of their way and wait for them at a nominated spot, all the time race radio crackling into life, the lady at the other end calmly advising the cars to “allow the peloton more space” or inform us of the riders who are doing anything interesting. 

This stage probably wins by a long chalk in the scenery stakes. Stage one was across desert to the somewhat sparse seaside resort of Fujairah, which has a coral reef upon which manta rays are sometimes seen. In anticipation of the expected hordes of tourists they have built a lot of hotels and have big plans for a marina. They seem to have forgotten everything else except the mosque, which is enormous. 

Stage two had a glamorous finish outside Atlantis on the Palm but stage three was another desert odyssey to finish at the Hatta Dam in the mountains that border Oman. So not much in the way of roadside crowds, not out there, and not really at the stage finishes. Even the Atlantis finish line had more dignitaries than fans in attendance. The reason for this is that while there are a lot of people who cycle in Dubai, and who cycle for exercise and leisure, only a small proportion of them seem to be pro-cycling fans, and most of them are at work. Which doesn’t leave many inclined to get out and bang the finish line boards. 

The biggest crowds, oddly enough, are through the old town among the bazaars and souks on stage four, where they stand obediently at the edge of the road without a crowd control barrier in sight. For them the Dubai Tour is a true spectacle, which while heartening, does fall wide of the mark in terms of the target audience Dubai is aiming for. 

Dubai is obsessed with being the best. It’s like the kid at school with all the toys screaming “look at me!” It has the tallest building, the longest artificial ski slope, it was going to build a copy of the Taj Mahal bigger than the original one until Mumbai complained that it could divert tourism. It is a vulgar display of wealth and superficiality on a grandiose scale but Dubai is also a place of contradiction. Ask any expat who lives there and they will tell you they love it. They love the sense of community and the standard of living and the fact it’s an outpost of progress and modernity in the Middle East. And they all love sheikh Mohammed. The expat reality of Dubai is normality, the sort of village life people in the UK aspire to, but with sun. Not everybody drives a Bentley. 

But the people who promote Dubai can’t help themselves.The tour is billed the Most Powerful Race, which could be correct in terms of the speeds reached on the flat courses, but it skims over one key point - Dubai doesn’t have any mountains. Oman does, so does Qatar. One thing Dubai does have is enginuity and the seeming ability to create anything, to achieve the impossible. They pull islands out of the sea, why can’t they build a mountain? 

In Dubai anything is possible. This is a city built quite literally on sand, but it isn’t going anywhere. The cycling, too, is here to stay. The authorities are encouraging it and with tourism now making up 80 per cent of the economy, cycling is a seam worth tapping. 

To give cyclists a reason to visit, there is a full calendar of events, from sportives to triathlons and Iron Man competitions. 

“Like people come here from all over the world for the golf, they would like to make that the same for cycling,” said one of the Eleana, one of the tour PRs. 

However unrealistic this might seem, you know they will make it happen. 

Graham Hutson travelled to Dubai on Emirates airlines and stayed at the Meridien Mina Seyahi hotel. He rode a Giant Propel while he was there: The Bike of the Tour. 

This article first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on February  15 2016