How Abu Dhabi became the hottest cycling city in the world

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Abu Dhabi (CNN) — Cycling holidays usually conjure up images of pedaling through the French countryside, a baguette strapped to the handlebars, or perhaps a breezy ride along the flat, bike-friendly paths that wind their way through cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam. .

They don’t usually involve the Arabian Desert, where summer temperatures and intense midday sun can make it hot enough to blast bike tires.

But that could soon change.

A two-wheeled revolution is beginning to gather pace in Abu Dhabi, with huge investment propelling residents and visitors into the saddle for cycling experiences like nowhere else on Earth.

Last year it was named by sport cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, as an official “Bike City” – the first in the Middle East and Asia to win the accolade. These scorching temperatures mean it could literally be the hottest cycling city in the world.

At first glance, Abu Dhabi’s cycling credentials aren’t immediately obvious. Built from oil wealth, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the surrounding terrain are the domain of automobiles. Gasoline prices are cheap, roads are wide, speed limits – outside urban areas – are very fast.

Take a closer look and that’s another story. In recent years, miles of dedicated cycle lanes have sprung up along new highways as the emirate has gradually established itself as the gateway to the UAE for cycling, introducing international racing and encouraging local talent.

Along the way, he has cooked up some exhilarating cycling experiences which, added to the extensive list of other Abu Dhabi attractions, could be a major draw for cycling fanatics and anyone looking to try something very different. .

Unsociable schedules

Ricky Bautista, far right, and a team from Dubai’s Beyond the Bike bike shop on the Al Hudayriyat cycle path.

Barry Neild/CNN

Participating, however, can involve some unsociable hours. In winter, milder climates are great for riding all day, but from May to September, with temperatures sometimes peaking around 48°C (118°F), the best time to ride is before sunrise or after sunset of the sun.

That’s why pals Andy Coleman and Dan Baltrusaitis can be found shortly after 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning pulling on their cycling shoes in a parking lot on Al Hudayriyat, an island south of the city that’s home to beach resorts and a nice build for that purpose. bike path.

“Why I do it, I don’t know,” laughs Coleman as the pair roll onto the slick asphalt to start their session.

Despite the early hour, they are not alone. Dozens of other cyclists fly around the network of circuits, which range from three to 10 kilometers and include an exhilarating track on the water. It’s mostly flat, but fierce headwinds ashore can add to the challenge.

“It’s been a great experience,” says Ricky Bautista, a member of a gang of uniformed riders who have been lapping together since the first light of day. The Bautista team work out of a bike shop in Dubai and have ventured over the border to try Al Hudayriyat’s free facilities.

“I’m a beginner, but all my colleagues are cyclists and they said ‘try it and you’ll have fun’,” he says. “It’s really difficult today because of the wind, but then you change direction and you feel like you’re flying and it’s more pleasant.”

Many other clubs are also chasing others on the circuit. Men and women of all ages can be seen walking past the distant skyline of skyscrapers in the city’s financial district. Some arrive by car and others leave from home. There is also a bike-bus.

For visitors, there’s a rental shop – Yas Mena Cycles – which opens early to rent a fleet of road bikes for less than $20 an hour. A nearby branch of the Emirates Wolfi’s chain offers more upscale rentals, as well as selling bikes up to $16,000 and up. The store is also a sanctuary dedicated to the successes of UAE-owned Italian bicycle manufacturer Colnago, with modern and vintage Tour de France machines on display.

Healthy lifestyle

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The Abu Dhabi Cycling Club coordinates cycling-related activities in Abu Dhabi.

Barry Neild/CNN

Also nearby is the swanky new pavilion of the Abu Dhabi Cycling Club, a free organization that coordinates public and sporting cycling events in the emirate and works with the government to grow activity, encourage participation and direct investment.

Established in 2017, the ADCC says around 1.7 billion dirhams ($460 million) has been invested in cycling with 445 kilometers (277 miles) of cycle path under construction. On the way, a new covered velodrome and a cycle path that will connect Abu Dhabi to Dubai.

The aim is to encourage as many people as possible to adopt cycling as part of a healthy lifestyle, but also to attract visitors. “One of the main goals is to attract more tourists to come for a cycling holiday in Abu Dhabi,” ADCC executive director Al Nukhaira Allkhyeli told CNN.

An avid cyclist himself, Allkhyeli often trains around one of the biggest highlights of Abu Dhabi’s cycling scene – the Yas Marina Circuit. The loop of the racecourse which hosts Formula 1 events is regularly open to the public for evening or morning cycling.

Visitors can sign up for a free session on the track, complete with helmet and a range of well-used road and hybrid bikes at no cost (swisher steeds are available for hire from a branch of Wolfi’s next door). There are changing rooms but no showers.

Even for non-F1 fans, tackling the Marina Circuit is a delight, with gigantic grandstands looming up either side of the seven-kilometre loop, plus the occasional superyacht moored overlooking the track. The roar of the absent crowds still resounds in the room.

Novice riders will be torn between the need for speed or selfies as they race around the tarmac (avoiding accidental pit lane turns).

Surreal and Satisfying

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The Al Hudayriyat track includes a section on the water.

Departure Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi

There are calmer – and indeed more extreme – cycling experiences to be had in Abu Dhabi.

For those who don’t like to sweat, there are gentle bike rides along the seafront corniche or inland on the palm-sheltered paths of Al Ain Oasis. , in Abu Dhabi’s second city. Anyone lucky enough to stay at the luxurious Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort in the Empty Quarter can try their hand at fat tire biking through the sand dunes.

Die-hard cyclists will want to head to Jebel Hafit, Abu Dhabi’s only true mountain, where a brutal switchback to nowhere offers sweeping views of the emirate and the chance to turn your legs into jelly.

Another desert highlight is the Al Wathba Bike Path, a slick, purpose-built bike path in the middle of nowhere that offers perhaps one of Abu Dhabi’s most surreal and satisfying biking adventures. .

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Cycling on the Yas Marina F1 circuit is a pleasure.

Barry Neild/CNN

About an hour’s drive from the town centre, the entrance to the track is in a small group of buildings including a shower and toilet block, a small supermarket and a bike shop which hires out bikes by the hour tired but usable carbon race bikes.

It’s a regular racing venue in the cooler months, but in the summer the track comes alive as the sun dips below the horizon. Solar-powered streetlights dimly illuminate loops of up to 30 kilometers that stretch into the desert night.

Driving it solo is an exciting if slightly unnerving experience. It’s quiet out there among the dunes and, despite small puddles of electric light, very dark.

There’s nothing stopping you from blasting at top speed except for the occasional soft sand drift on the track. Here and there, a blown light bulb creates a mini-breakdown that riders will need to keep their composure to traverse without slamming on the brakes.

Horse riding all year round

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The UCI has awarded Abu Dhabi Bike City status.

Barry Neild/CNN

Cycling headlong into the inky unknown of a hot desert night might seem like a fitting metaphor for Abu Dhabi’s costly pursuit of a sport seemingly at odds with its climate.

But according to Isabella Burczak, head of advocacy and development at the UCI, the emirate is on the path to success, having demonstrated commitment and strong political will behind its vision to encourage and develop cycling for leisure, transportation and sports.

Its Bike City status, she says, should help it continue to achieve these goals and share its knowledge and skills with a network of 20 other Bike Cities, from Bergen in Norway to Wollongong in Australia.

And – if cyclists adapt by riding sooner or later, and arrangements are made like employers providing showers for sweaty commuters – that heat won’t hurt.

“In any case, hot weather, cold weather, I think solutions can be found so that people can still enjoy cycling for whatever reason,” she told CNN.

And can it really compete with classic cycling destinations like France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands?

Thanks to that relentless desert sun, it already is, says Aditya Bhiwandkar, cycling enthusiast and sales assistant at Wolfi’s.

“In Europe there is snow and rain,” he says. “But in Abu Dhabi you can really ride 365 days a year.”

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