x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Yas Marina Circuit a sanctuary from the city streets

In stark contrast to the roar of race cars, cyclists and joggers are now seeking refuge at the Formula One track.

Away from the traffic on the capital's streets, cyclists take part in an open cycle night at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit.
Away from the traffic on the capital's streets, cyclists take part in an open cycle night at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit.

Watching from the stern deck of one of the larger yachts in Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina while puffing thoughtfully on a cigar, one onlooker is clearly intrigued - and who can blame him? When he decided to berth his vessel in the heart of a Formula One circuit he was, presumably, braced for the roar of passing racing cars. But this?

After all, it isn't every week that you see a four-year-old cyclist wobbling erratically on stabiliser wheels, pedalling his way around one of the world's most advanced motor-racing venues.

Well, as it happens this is exactly what occurs every Tuesday evening at the Yas Marina Circuit. The track first opened its gates to the capital's cyclists in April and hasn't looked back since.

"You are used to seeing cars going round and making a noise, but even for me, sitting up there in my office overlooking the track, it was a bizarre experience for the first few weeks," says Peter Rae, the director of communications at Abu Dhabi Motor Sports Company, which manages the circuit.

The open nights have, he says, "turned out remarkably well. It started out with about 50 or 60 people and it's still growing… I think we will probably reach the point where it will become so popular that we will start worrying about having enough track space."

There is something counterintuitive about a Grand Prix circuit being the safest place in the city to ride a bicycle, but on some nights as many as 400 cyclists, of all ages and abilities, seek sanctuary here from Abu Dhabi's mean streets.

The UAE, according to Troy Watson, the circuit's Australian venue manager and a keen cyclist, is not the safest place to ride a bike. "It's a shame," he says. "I've never been anywhere in the world where the road [surfaces] are better to cycle on… It's just that it can be so dangerous when they're busy."

All the same, Watson has seen the popularity of cycling grow enormously since he first came to Abu Dhabi, three years ago. He attributes this upswing in part to the Corniche-based Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, which started in 2008. Now the sport has been given a further boost by the inaugural Yas Tri, which the circuit will host on Friday, January 14.

"When I first got here we'd be lucky to see a dozen or so of us head out on a Friday morning at about 5.30," he says. "Now there are little cycling groups all over the emirate."

The cycling nights are free to all and play an important part in the circuit's plans to engage with the community. Now runners, walkers and buggy-pushers have been added to the mix. These participants stick to one side of the track and lap in the opposite direction to the cyclists. For safety reasons skateboards, rollerblades and scooters are not allowed, and anyone riding a bike must wear a helmet.

"We wanted it to be an open park-like environment," says Rae of the circuit. "We're very lucky to have such a beautiful venue and we didn't want people to feel the only time they were welcome was when there was a race on and they would charged as a spectator."

Rae gives credit for the initiative to Watson, who has five Ironman competitions and more than 30 shorter triathlons under his belt. "Troy and a couple of other cyclists took one look and decided it would be a very safe environment in which they could ride," he says.

Now the floodlit track is open from 6pm to 8pm every Tuesday. From about 5.30pm the car park at gate seven, behind the support-pit grandstand, starts to fill with vehicles carrying bicycles. Out spill families, keep-fit mountain-bikers and Lycra-clad racing cyclists in training for Tri Yas.

News of the nights has spread far and wide, solely by word of mouth. "We always thought we would get a few people, says Watson. "But it's grown and now we get such a wide variety of people down here. It's fantastic."

This is exactly what Rae had hoped for. "It's been a particular pleasure for me as a dad with four kids to watch youngsters with training wheels riding around next to their father or mother on a mountain bike, while in the background there are guys doing 40 kilometres per hour," he says.

Arriving for a third session tonight are David Ingham and his son. They bought their bikes after a friend told them about the track nights. "I love cycling," says Luke, aged 12. "If we don't come here we normally go to the Corniche."

David, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for 11 years, looking after the Oasis shops in Adnoc petrol stations, looks up as a wheel-to-wheel peloton rushes past, following the ribbons of burnt rubber left on the track by the F1 racers. Unlike them, he isn't training for the triathlon. "I'll just try to do three kilometres," he laughs.

Meanwhile, Reinier Van der Wall, a 39-year-old Dutchman working in process automation for the oil and gas industry, brought his bike with him when he moved to Abu Dhabi in January. He has been using the track since before Ramadan.

"This is really great because during the week I don't cycle anywhere else," he says. "I only cycle in the city on a Friday because there are not a lot of cars on the road. During the week this is the only option."

Some nights, the cyclists have to share the 5.55km circuit with racing cars, which isn't as dangerous as it sounds; Yas can be configured into two separate tracks and the cyclists get the 2.35km south circuit to themselves.

For hobbyists, that is good news, but it is frustrating for the more competitive element. The track's fastest Formula One lap - a time of 1 minute 40.2 seconds, recorded by Sebastian Vettel in 2008 - will not be in any danger tonight, but the hard core do have their sights set on a rumoured pedal-powered record of 7 minutes 39 seconds. Apparently, it was set by some chap called Duncan.