ABU DHABI // The floodlights illuminated the Yas Marina Circuit on a balmy evening. But there were no engines roaring, no tyres squealing. Instead, packs of cyclists whooshed around on their weekly Tuesday track night, pedalling down the same curves and straights that Formula One drivers such as Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have negotiated in 2.4L V8 engine cars.
The pace might have been a little more sedate, but the cyclists found the experience just as thrilling. Whether they are competitive cyclists, triathletes, fitness buffs or families just out for some exercise, the new event provides a haven for cyclists who often have to set off in the very early morning to avoid the capital's dangerous traffic. "There are so few places our children can go out cycling in safety, with no cars," said Ann Altria, 44, who was at the track with her husband, Steve, 45, and their two children, Lucie, six, and Sam, four.
Before the British family started visiting the track about eight weeks ago, the children could ride only in car parks under the watchful eye of their parents. On Tuesday, it was no-holds barred for the brother and sister as they pedalled their brand-new pink and blue bikes. Their favourite part, they both agreed, was "going fast" - even if their bikes still have training wheels. "The best thing about coming here for the kids is it gives them a bit of a message about fitness," Mrs Altria said. "Here we are, coming out as a family. The parks discourage kids cycling. I guess there are really no safe places."
Other cyclists underscored the importance of a safe cycling venue as they remembered Mark Pringle, the Australian triathlete who died in July in a suspected hit-and-run incident on Khaleej al Arabi Road. Mr Pringle, 50, who coached at Al Raha International School, is believed to have been hit by a passing vehicle during a training ride. The Dubai Autodrome also opened up its track to cyclists in August. The tracks have been a boon for cycling groups, which normally organise early Friday morning group rides.
Stewart Howison, 35, who helped to get the wheels turning for the Autodrome's Cycle, Skate and Run Safe event, hopes it will mark a turning point in making cycling more popular here. "The only way to get more people riding is for people to go out and ride," he said. "That is the only way you can educate guys in cars to be aware of cyclists - take the bull by the horns and start riding." Mr Howison, a South African, welcomed plans for cycling paths in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but said that trying to wedge them onto existing roads rarely worked. A cycling culture must be built from the grassroots, he said.
Mr Howison started Cycle Safe UAE, a group dedicated to getting cyclists off the couch and onto their bikes. He is also helping to organise the Dubai 92km Cycle Challenge in December, part of the UAE Cycle Federation's race calendar. Roads in the emirate will be closed for the day, Mr Howison said. "There are ideal conditions for cycling in the UAE in that there are perfect roads to ride on - the surface is perfect," Mr Howison said. "There are not many hills but some serious wind to compete with, so that would give you good training."
Troy Watson, the venue manager at Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management, helped to organise the cycling night at Yas. Mr Watson, 28, an Australian, agreed that community support for cycling was needed before governments could be expected to make cycling a priority. Back on the Yas track, Nollie Noprada, 34, a respiratory therapist at Mafraq Hospital, was having his photograph taken by a friend as he rode down the back straight. It was his second visit to the circuit.
"Here you can cycle alone," said Mr Noprada, a Filipino. "On Friday, you have to be in the group. When you are alone, drivers might not see you, but if you are in the group that is safer." firstname.lastname@example.org This article has been modified to reflect that Troy Watson is the venue manager at Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management, not the events manager as originally stated.