Mountain bikers in the UAE have to get inventive to keep active during the scorching summer months. John Henzell sheds some light on a subculture that has found a way to beat the heat
At this time of year, when the breeze feels like it's coming from a hairdryer, it's no surprise that the normally bustling mountain biking trails of Shawka are deserted.
In midwinter, there can be hundreds of cyclists plying the network of trails through the rolling and craggy terrain where the desert plains meet the Hajar Mountains, but now that the temperature has soared into the mid-40°C, the only thing that seems cool is the enthusiasm of the mountain bikers to pursue their sport.
That is, until the sun sets, which is when the night bikers of Shawka emerge.
Jaydee Dungao is getting his mountain bike out of the back of his car as the daylight fades. But alongside all the usual riding gear, the Filipino technical engineer's helmet features a mount to which he attaches a light.
This is "just" a light in the same sense that a Ferrari is "just" a car. Most bicycle lights are primarily designed to ensure the rider is seen by the traffic around them and are of modest power, but Dungao's helmet lamp is powerful enough to rival a car headlight. He has another of similar power mounted on his handlebars.
They're essential to see the way on the technical trails - "single track" in mountain biking parlance - that have been created by enthusiasts from literal goat trails in these hills.
Soon, another couple of friends - all part of an informal group of around 30 cyclists called UAE Mountainbiking - join him, and they head out for a few hours of cycling.
"For me, when I started it, I was curious how it was feeling to ride at night," he explains.
"To ride at night, the feeling is very different. In the evening, you can't see so you just keep pedalling. You don't notice what's around you.
"At first, it's hard to navigate at night. That's why we started with a GPS, saving the trail. But after three or four rides, you're used to it."
In late afternoon, the temperature had been nudging the mid-40°C mark, but with sunset, the heat drops off rapidly and is about 37°C when they start their regular Tuesday night ride. The difference in the comfort factor is considerable.
Another of the nocturnal bikers is Ian Ganderton, who says night riding in the UAE began as the only option to fit in several rides a week. But it soon gained an appeal and culture entirely of its own.
"It becomes a necessity at this time of year, when it gets tougher and tougher to cycle in the middle of the day," he explains.
"Anyone who wants to ride for two or three times a week has to ride in the evening. People who cycle year-round find this works really well.
"People don't realise how easy night cycling is. They think you can't go as fast. We can ride really exciting tracks - tracks like Wadi Racer, which is a technical track - and after 10 to 15 minutes, you're just as fast as you would be in daylight.
"You can meet at 7pm, let the guy at the cafe know so he can make some egg paratha and chai for when we get back. He stays open for us."
Given that Shawka did not even exist as a mountain biking venue 10 years ago, the rate of development has been massive. Now it features some of the best single track in the Middle East, with a network of about 100km of trails through the mountains that range in athleticism and difficulty.
Night riding has followed a similarly exponential growth worldwide. Ten years ago, participants were using home-built lighting setups of halogen bulbs powered by 2kg motorcycle batteries. Now the bikers use high-efficiency LED lights powered by lithium ion battery packs weighing only a few hundred grams.
"LED technology has really changed night riding," Ganderton says.
"They've been going through stages of development not dissimilar to computers, where you get twice the power each year.
"Five hundred lumens is the minimum. My helmet light is 1,500 lumens and people get caught up in an arms race where more light is better.
"People had been using build-your-own lights and got really, really geeky about it."
The downside of the new lights is that they are more technical, with perils lying in wait for the backyard tinkerer trying to save money by building their own.
"With lithium ion, it's much more difficult to work with on a home-brew perspective," he adds.
"Too much power too quickly and it can catch on fire. It's surprisingly hard to manage."
The nature of the UAE operating under different rules to everywhere else applies also to night biking. In most places, it's an activity for the darker and cooler months, so staying warm rather than cool is the issue. Here it's in the warmer months, creating problems keeping the lights cool enough.
Snowbikers, a Welsh group that teaches night biking, observed that would-be night riders went through a series of stages as their night riding evolved, moving from denial ("They want how much for lights?"), improvisation (strapping a hefty torch to their helmet), self-reliance (attempting to make their own lights) and finally acceptance, where the credit card comes out and they pay for a high-end lighting system, at a cost of up to Dh2,000.
But now the sport has turned another corner, with lights emerging from China from Dh400 that are both cheap and excellent quality.
"The lights coming from China now are pretty damn good," says Ganderton. "It's like laptops now, where the high-spec one you bought 10 years ago is like a cart horse."
Some bikers get lost on the trails of Shawka in daylight, so the problem is exacerbated at night, and especially so if fog rolls in.
"The flight path to Dubai goes overhead, which you can use to orientate yourself. You're not completely disorientated," he adds.
"I use GPS all the time. If you go out for the first time [at night], you're better off using a trail you've used before.
"Instead of night biking making a boring trail interesting, it makes somewhere you've been before really different. It's like riding different trails.
"It also means there are 24 hours a day to go cycling. You finish work at 5pm or 6pm and you can go for a two-hour ride."
That's part of the appeal for Dungao, too. Before moving to the UAE eight years ago, he didn't do any kind of cycling. He only took up mountain biking two years ago for health reasons, having undergone the familiar process of gaining weight while living in the Emirates.
That is part of the reason why he persists with night rides during the week.
"We do night biking because we want to lose some calories. The weekend ride isn't enough. We go every Tuesday night and some Sunday nights," he explains.
"When I started using my bike, it's had a tremendous outcome, particularly healthwise. I was 95kg and I'm 77kg now.
"And I've stopped buying electronics! I started to think about how much it cost and what I could buy for my bike instead."
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