It is unlikely that many Emiratis are familiar with the winding roads of Yorkshire’s green countryside, much less having experienced them while riding a bike.
But there is a first time for everything. In the next two days Abdul Ghaffar Al Khaja, a computer engineer from Ajman, along with three other riders from the GCC, will cycle from Leeds to Harrogate along a route inspired by the Grand Depart of the 2014 Tour de France.
The fun ride is part of “Dunes to Dales”, an initiative launched in the GCC by VisitBritain and aimed at raising awareness of some of that country’s less-visited tourist spots. Joining the Emirati rider will be Mohammed Al Kuwari from Qatar, Abdulaziz Al Dawsari from Saudi Arabia and Othman Al Mutairi from Kuwait.
Al Khaja, who has never been to Britain, is hoping the visit will provide him and his colleagues with a new perspective, as well as landscape.
“I was very excited to do this trip,” Al Khaja, 34, said in Dubai on Wednesday. “Every cyclist wants to experience different races in different countries and improve on what they are used to.”
The scenery will certainly be different than anything the four cyclists have are accustomed to in their home countries.
The UAE may not have anywhere near the cycling traditions of countries like Britain and France, but Al Khaja already sees a shift in perception of the sport.
“Through my personal experiences I have noticed that cycling is gaining in popularity, year on year, thanks to the efforts of the government in providing more cycling tracks and facilities, “ he said. “It has also promoted cycling as a way of maintaining healthy living.”
Al Khaja took up cycling in 2010 as a way of losing weight. After that it became a passion, and he now believes the sport is set to take off here in the coming years.
“I predict this sport will have a big future in the Emirates, especially now that Dubai is holding a professional tour next year.”
The Dubai Tour 2014, set for February, will certainly raise cycling’s profile among the local population as well as showcase some of the city’s famous sites and hidden treasures. The route is set to include landmarks such as the Burj Al Arab in Jumeirah, the Burj Khalifa in the downtown area, as well as the desert terrain near Hatta Mountain.
Al Khaja is keen to promote competitive cycling among fellow Emiratis and believes that more and more of his countrymen will take up the sport, alongside Dubai’s expatriate communities.
“As of last year it became possible for amateurs to compete alongside professionals in races here,” he said.
He noted that this year Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed launched the Fazaa competition, during Ramadan, which gave amateurs the chance to compete for prizes worth millions of dirhams. “This opened up the chance for Emiratis to compete in the sport along with the foreign cyclists,” Al Khaja said.
He and his fellow GCC cyclists will be logging their trip to Britain through social media outlets, including Twitter and Instagram. And while the four riders are hoping to spread the message on the joy of cycling, they all insisted that the safety of cyclists on the roads remains the primary concern.
The death of Roy Nasr, an Arab triathlete who was hit by a car while cycling near Safa Park, has focused attention on the dangers of riding on roads that even Dubai Police’s traffic chief warned are not designed for cyclists.
“One hundred per cent safety on the roads cannot be provided, but the road authorities are consistently trying to raise awareness of the risks and provide solutions,” Al Khaja said. “They have just announced plans to provide 850 kilometres of dedicated cycling tracks.”
The cyclists must also stay vigilant.
Al Khaja does not belong to a professional club but regularly rides with Dubai Roadsters and Cycle Safe Dubai, an organisation that encourages amateur cyclists to join the fun at Dubai Autodrome, where they can enjoy a car-free track and 360-degree CCTV surveillance. They also organise occasional rides at Yas Marina Circuit.
Mostly, Al Khaja trains at dedicated cycling arenas in Dubai “like Al Qudra or Ned Al Sheba”.
Leeds, no doubt, will come as a culture shock.
Tomorrow and on Saturday, Al Khaja, Al Kuwari, Al Dawsari and Mutairi will be taking leisurely rides on roads where the world’s finest cyclists will compete in the greatest race of all. Just maybe, they might inspire aspiring cyclists in the GCC to one day travel to Europe as competitors seeking that famous yellow jersey.