x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Shifting gears

There's nothing better than a spin on a bicycle, which, according to Susan B Anthony, "has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world".

I would be much healthier if I didn't own a car. Bicycling used to be my favourite mode of transportation. I had a basket on the front and a rack on the back, and would do all my grocery trips and work commutes on my bike. I biked up and down the nearly vertical streets of San Francisco, in and out of alleys in Washington, DC, and the congested roads of Lucknow, India. I even shipped my bicycle to Abu Dhabi, where it has languished.

I notice there are some avid cyclists on Abu Dhabi's streets. They bravely speed down the Corniche, loop past the Emirates Palace hotel and around the Abu Dhabi Ladies' Club. A route entered on www.bikely.com that circles the city warns: "Hope you like riding in traffic... there is no other way in Abu Dhabi." The Abu Dhabi Triathlon Club has a Yahoo group with 272 members that share information on training and racing. Dubai has a few more cycling clubs, including the Dubai Roadsters and the Hot Cog Mountain Bike Club.

Each summer at about this time, from the comfort of my living room, I start to feel the vicarious thrill of competing in the Tour de France. The 3,500-kilometre race that comprises 21 stages started last week. Lance Armstrong, who won the race seven times consecutively from 1999 to 2005, is hovering in third place. This is his first "post-retirement" attempt. The rest of us should take notes: retire at 35 years old, then keep winning races in amazing comebacks.

The gruelling race started on July 5 and ends on Sunday. On a recent day of rest (one of only two) many cyclists held news conferences but Armstrong did not. He may have been resting, which would be another good lesson for the rest of us, though he may not win the race this time. His coach says he'll need a "fifth gear" to take this year's title. The cyclists Alberto Contador and Rinaldo Nocentini are ahead by a margin of seconds.

The first few foolhardy men to go on the Tour de France in 1903 rode bicycles made of heavy steel with no shock absorption and no fifth gears. No gears at all, in fact. Because it was considered such a dangerous sport at that time, only men rode the race. There is a women's version, called the Grande Boucle, or Great Loop, which started in 1984, has 14 stages and covers 1,400 kilometres. It begins on the island of Corsica and ends in Paris.

Back in 1903, only the most headstrong women rode bicycles - to make a political point as often as to reach a destination. Susan B Anthony, an American women's rights activist, said in 1896: "Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance." It's great exercise, too.