x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Emirati bikers' hard road to the top

They compete with the best in the world - so why aren't the UAE's national cycling team household names?

Members of the UAE national cycling team (from left) Yousif Mirza, Majid Al Balooshi and Mohammed Al Murawwi during a training session at Al Mamzar beach corniche.
Members of the UAE national cycling team (from left) Yousif Mirza, Majid Al Balooshi and Mohammed Al Murawwi during a training session at Al Mamzar beach corniche.

Emirati bikers compete against the world's best at events across the globe. But there is no fanfare or financial support for the unsung heroes, who still have day jobs. They are calling for more investment in the sport, so they and others can reap the benefits. Mitya Underwood reports

Competing on the international stage with the best cyclists in the world, Yousif Mirza achieved one of his lifetime ambitions this year.

At 24, the Emirati from Dubai earned a place in the UCI World Track Cycling Championships in April, making it through to the final of the points race.

He competed in the Melbourne event with some of the most decorated and respected sportsmen, including Great Britain's Chris Hoy and Jason Kenney, who won Olympic Gold medals this summer, and France's Gregory Bauge.

But on his return there was no welcoming committee or a mention of his achievement on any of the UAE news channels.

Within 24 hours of coming home, Mirza was back at his day job checking and stamping passports at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

"The problem is, the sport is not really recognised here," he says. "There is no proper funding and the mentality is not there yet. We need sponsorship and I want to be able to turn professional."

Mirza's confidence is not unwarranted. He has competed in - and won - a number of Arab Championship races, as well as qualifying and competing in the Asian Championships and the International Cycling Union (UCI) event.

While he has yet to make an international name for himself, his achievements so far are no mean feat given he has no official sponsor, has to buy his own bikes and can only practise with his club, Al Ahli, when he is not working at the airport.

Despite being part of the official UAE national cycling team, Mirza and his teammates are not recognised as full-time athletes in the same way footballers are.

"We are not like them, we can't be compared," he says. "They do not have other jobs, they have contracts and can provide for their future. If I leave my job I cannot provide for my future, so I have to do both."

His coach and fellow club member, Humaid Meharab, 40, says it will be a lost opportunity for the country if Mirza and other riders do not get the chance to compete to their full potential.

"It is very sad. We are doing all we can. He just needs to be given a chance," he says. "Football is like an anaconda, it eats everything else around it."

The UAE established its first fully professional football league in the 2008/2009 season and provided the resources for the sport to be a full-time job.

"But for us, we finish as champions and we have to go back to work," says cyclist Majid Al Balooshi, 25, an officer at Dubai Central Jail. "The only sport people really know is football, it is the only sport shown on television. This has to change."

The UAE Cycling Federation, set up in 1974, has yet to create a professional league or classify cycling as a profession.

"We are a long way behind other countries," Mr Al Balooshi says.

International cycling began to make its mark on the sporting map after the annual Tour de France was first held in 1903. This year, the sport has undeniably had its most high-profile year yet. It was one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the London Olympic Games in the summer, attracting record numbers of spectators.

But its golden moment in the spotlight has not lasted. Just weeks after the Games, arguably the best road cyclist ever, Lance Armstrong, was banned for life and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for doping, which he denies.

A number of other high-profile competitors have also been forced to admit using drugs, ending their careers in the process. As well as a tarnished reputation, the scandal has had a knock-on effect on the money invested in the sport.

Last week, the Australian sportswear company Skins announced plans to sue the UCI for US$2 million (Dh7.3m) for damage to its brand and officials' failure to tackle doping.

The company sponsors and provides the uniforms for professional teams in the US, Australia and New Zealand, and other UCI-sanctioned riders.

"It had been a very good year for the sport until now," says Mohammed Al Murawwi, 24, a member of the UAE national team. "There is nothing to say about it now, it is a shame. No sport wants to see this. But this is not what it is about for us."

Al Murawwi, from Ras Al Khaimah, works full-time with the immigration department of Dubai Police.

He has competed in a number of Gulf, Arab and Asian championships, and is one of the most outspoken members of the team when it comes to urging his country to get young people involved in the sport to secure a future national team.

"They are at school for probably nine hours in a day then come home for two hours, so there is no time for sports at home," he says. "In schools they do not do any sport.

"In Europe, I think they do two or three hours every day in sports. It is an important part of the day."

Al Murawwi is keen to encourage the media to support the cause. "If you open a newspaper all you see is football on the first 10 pages, then maybe one page of all the other sports. This does not make sense to us," he says.

Despite the slow uptake among Emiratis, cycling has never been more popular with expatriates.

Stewart Howison, one of the founders of Cycle Safe Dubai, says the sport has enjoyed "mammoth growth" in the last four years, but it still has a long way to go. The group's weekly rides attract hundreds of enthusiasts of all abilities, and the annual Spinney's Dubai 92 Cycle Challenge has grown from about 40 riders to more than 350. The number of Emiratis remains small.

"It has always been predominantly an expat sport with a small captive market of local Emiratis," Mr Howison says. "There is a stepping stone that has been missed. Elsewhere we would ride or walk to school so we developed a passion for cycling.

"I think it has skipped the generation here."

Mr Howison, 37, originally from South Africa, believes riders such as Mirza should be hailed as local heroes and encouraged to perform.

"For the local youth to get excited about it they need to have an idol and say, 'I would like to aspire to be like that person', like some expats look up to Bradley Wiggins," he says. "Someone like Yousif should be put on a pedestal and given the backing in the same way as all the footballers."

Efforts are being made to improve facilities for both cycling enthusiasts and the semi-professionals.

A new track has opened in Nad Al Sheba, between Meydan racecourse and Sheikh Zayed Road. It is free to use, has showers and toilet facilities and is floodlit at night.

Mr Howison says Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, deserves a lot of the credit for the improvements.

"Nowhere in the world has had the kind of infrastructure put into the sport like Dubai has, it should make a big difference but it will take time," he says.

"The UAE is an amazing country to cycle in, you ride through beautiful desert or by the ocean, nowhere else is like it."

This month, cyclists from across the world will compete in the first Sharjah Cycling Tour, a four-day event starting on November 21.

There is also a GCC Cycling Tour, which begins in December in Oman and goes through the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Mirza hopes his team's participation in both will be a step towards building a proper cycling culture.

"We want the Burj Khalifa area to be like the Champs Elysee one day," he says. "We want to get everyone involved in the sport. They don't even know we exist at the moment."

munderwood@thenational.ae