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Cycling vacations usually conjure up images of pedaling across the French countryside, a baguette lashed to the handlebars, or perhaps a breezy ride along the flat and friendly bike paths that weave their way through cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.
They don’t usually involve the Arabian desert, where summer temperatures and intense midday sunshine can make it hot enough to explode bike tires.
But that could soon be changing.
A two-wheeled revolution is beginning to gather pace in Abu Dhabi, with huge investment propelling both residents and visitors into the saddle for cycling experiences that are like nowhere else on Earth.
Last year it was designated by sport cycling’s governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, as an official “Bike City” – the first in the Middle East and Asia to earn the accolade. Those searing temperatures mean it could literally be the world’s hottest cycling city.
At first glance, Abu Dhabi’s cycling credentials aren’t immediately obvious. Built using oil wealth, the UAE’s capital city and surrounding terrain are the domain of the automobile. Gas prices are cheap, roads are wide, speed limits – outside of urban areas – are very fast.
Look closer and it’s a different story. The past few years have seen miles of dedicated bike paths spring up beside new highways as the emirate has steadily established itself as the UAE’s gateway to cycling, introducing international races and nurturing homegrown talent.
Along the way it’s cooked up some exhilarating cycling experiences that, when added to Abu Dhabi’s extensive roster of other attractions, could be a major draw for both cycling fanatics and anyone looking to try something very different.
Taking part can involve some unsociable hours though. In winter, milder climates are perfect for daylong riding, but from May to September, with temperatures sometimes peaking around 48 C (118 F), the best time for riding is before sun up or after sundown.
Which is why friends Andy Coleman and Dan Baltrusaitis can be found shortly after 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning pulling on their cycling shoes in a parking lot on Al Hudayriyat, an island south of the city that’s home to beach resorts and a beautiful purpose-built cycle track.
“Why I do it, I don’t know,” laughs Coleman as the pair wheel off onto the smooth asphalt to start their session.
Despite the early hour, they’re not alone. Dozens of other cyclists are flying around the network of circuits, which range from three to 10 kilometers and include an exhilarating over-water track. It’s mostly flat, but ferocious onshore headwinds can add to the challenge.
“It’s a great experience,” says Ricky Bautista, one of a gang of uniformed riders who have been blasting out laps since the first glimmer of daylight. Bautista’s team all work at a cycle shop in Dubai and have ventured over the border to try out the free facilities at Al Hudayriyat.
“I’m a beginner, but all of my coworkers are cyclists and they told me, ‘try it and you’ll have fun’,” he says. “It’s really challenging today because of the wind, but then you change direction and you feel like you’re flying and it’s more enjoyable.”
Numerous other clubs are also out chasing each other’s wheels on the circuit. Men and women of all ages can be seen blurring past the distant skyscraper skyline of the city’s financial zone. Some arrive by car and some ride from home. There’s also a bike bus.
For visitors, there’s a hire shop – Yas Mena Cycles – which opens early to rent out a fleet of road bikes for under $20 an hour. A nearby branch of Emirates chain Wolfi’s offers more upscale rentals, as well as selling bikes priced up to and beyond $16,000. The store is also a shrine to the successes of UAE-owned Italian bike maker Colnago, with modern and vintage Tour de France machines on display.
Also nearby is the swish new pavilion of the Abu Dhabi Cycling Club, a free-to-join organization that coordinates public and sports cycling events in the emirate and works with the government to develop the activity, encourage participation and direct investment.
Established in 2017, the ADCC says about 1.7 billion dirhams ($460 million) has been poured into cycling with 445 kilometers (277 miles) of cycle track under construction. On the way are a new indoor velodrome and a bike path that will link up Abu Dhabi with Dubai.
The goal is to get as many locals as possible to take up cycling as part of a healthy lifestyle, but also to lure visitors. “One of the main objectives is to have more tourists come and have a bike vacation in Abu Dhabi,” ADCC Executive Director Al Nukhaira Allkhyeli tells CNN.
A keen cyclist himself, Allkhyeli can often be found training around one of the biggest highlights of the Abu Dhabi cycling scene – the Yas Marina Circuit. The racetrack loop that hosts Formula One events is regularly opened up to the public for evening or morning cycling.
Visitors can book themselves in for a free session on the track, with helmet and a range of well-used road and hybrid bikes thrown in for no charge (swisher steeds are available for rent at a branch of Wolfi’s next door). There are changing rooms but no showers.
Even for non-F1 fans, tackling the Marina circuit is a thrill, with gigantic grandstands looming up on either side of the seven-kilometer loop, plus the occasional superyacht moored with a view of the track. The roar of the absent crowds can still be felt echoing over the venue.
First-time riders will be torn between the need for speed or selfies as they swerve around the blacktop (avoiding accidental turns into the pit lane).
Surreal and satisfying
There are more sedate – and indeed more extreme – cycling experiences to be had in Abu Dhabi.
For those adverse to breaking into a sweat, there are gentle rental bike rides along the waterfront Corniche, or inland on the palm-sheltered pathways of the Al Ain Oasis, in Abu Dhabi’s second city. Anyone lucky enough to be staying at the luxury Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort in the Empty Quarter can try their hand at fat-tire biking in the sand dunes.
Hardcore cyclists will want to head to Jebel Hafit, Abu Dhabi’s only real mountain, where a brutal switchback road to nowhere offers amazing views over the emirate and the chance to turn legs into jelly.
Another highlight in the desert is the Al Wathba cycle track, a smooth, purpose-built cycleway in the middle of nowhere that perhaps offers one of the most surreal and satisfying bike adventures in Abu Dhabi.
About an hour drive from downtown, the entrance to the track sits in a little huddle of buildings that include a shower and toilet block, a small supermarket and a bike shop that rents out tired but serviceable carbon racing bikes by the hour.
It’s a regular daytime race venue in cooler months but in summer, the track comes alive as the sun sinks into the horizon. Solar-powered street lamps dimly illuminate loops of up to 30 kilometers which stretch away into the desert night.
Riding it solo is an exciting if slightly unnerving experience. It’s quiet out there among the dunes and, despite small pools of electric light, very dark.
There’s nothing to stop you blasting at maximum speed except the occasional drift of soft sand across the track. Here and there a blown bulb creates a mini-blackout that riders will need to hold their nerve to ride through without slamming on the brakes.
Cycling headlong into the inky unknown of a hot desert night might seem like a good metaphor for Abu Dhabi’s big-spending pursuit of a sport seemingly at odds with its climate.
But says Isabella Burczak, UCI’s advocacy and development manager, the emirate is on a clearly lit path to success having demonstrated a commitment and strong political will behind its vision to encourage and grow cycling for leisure, transport and sport.
Its Bike City status, she says, should help inspire it to keep achieving those goals as well as sharing knowledge and skills with a network of 20 other Bike Cities from Bergen in Norway to Wollongong in Australia.
And – if cyclists adapt by riding early or late, and provisions are made like employers providing showers for sweaty commuters – that heat won’t hurt it a bit.
“In all cases, hot weather, cold weather, I think solutions can be found to ensure that people can still take advantage of cycling for whatever reason,” she tells CNN.
And can it really rival the classic cycling destinations like France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands?
Thanks to that relentless desert sunshine, it already does, says Aditya Bhiwandkar, a cycling enthusiast and sales assistant at Wolfi’s.
“In Europe you have snow and rain,” he says. “But in Abu Dhabi you really can ride 365 days a year.”