Abu Dhabi’s meteoric rise to the top of the global cycling rankings
Cycling vacations usually conjure up ideas of riding over the French countryside, a baguette lashed to the handlebars, or perhaps a breezy ride along the flat and friendly bike trails that thread their way through towns like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.
They don’t generally entail the Arabian desert, where summer temperatures and intense midday heat can make it hot enough to destroy bike tires.
But that could soon be changing.
A two-wheeled revolution is beginning to gain momentum in Abu Dhabi, with significant investment forcing both locals and visitors into the saddle for cycling experiences that are like nowhere else on Earth.
Last year it was accredited by sport cycling’s governing organization, Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI, as an official “Bike City” — the first in the Middle East and Asia to achieve the honour. Those blazing temperatures imply it could literally be the world’s hottest cycling city.
At first sight, Abu Dhabi’s cycling qualities aren’t immediately clear. Built on oil revenue, the UAE’s capital city and surrounding terrain are the domain of the vehicle. Gas prices are cheap, roads are wide, speed restrictions — outside of urban areas — are very fast.
Look closer and it’s a different story. The past several years have seen miles of dedicated bike routes spring up beside new highways as the emirate has progressively established itself as the UAE’s gateway to cycling, introducing international competitions and cultivating indigenous talent.
Along the way it’s cooked up some spectacular cycling experiences that, when coupled to Abu Dhabi’s huge roster of other attractions, could be a major magnet for both cycling fans and anyone eager to try something completely new.
Taking part can require some unsociable hours though. In winter, warmer regions are great for daylong riding, but from May to September, with temperatures occasionally peaking over 48 C (118 F), the optimal time for riding is before sun rising or after sundown.
Which is why buddies Andy Coleman and Dan Baltrusaitis can be found shortly after 6 a.m. They were putting on their bicycle shoes at a parking lot on the island of Al Hudayriat, which is home to beach resorts and a lovely purpose-built cycle track, on a Saturday morning.
“This is the reason I do it,” Coleman quips as the two of them roll out onto the smooth asphalt to begin their session.
However early they are, they are not alone. The network of circuits, which include a thrilling over-water track, attracts a large number of bikers. Even though the terrain is largely flat, strong onshore headwinds can make for an uncomfortable ride.
An unnamed cyclist in the group that has been pounding out laps since first light says, “It’s a terrific experience. As a group of Dubai-based bike shop employees, the members of Bautista’s crew have crossed the border to check out Al Hudayriat’s free amenities.”
His coworkers, all of whom ride bikes, urged him to give it a try, saying “try it and you’ll have fun.” So he did. In spite of the wind, “you feel like you’re flying” and enjoy the experience as you shift directions.
On the circuit, there are a slew of other teams doing the same thing. The distant skyscraper skyline of the city’s financial district may be seen blurred by men and women of all ages. Some arrive by automobile, while others take a ride from their own homes to get there. A bike bus is also available.
Yas Mena Cycles, a bike rental company for tourists, opens early and offers a fleet of road bikes for less than $20 an hour. There is a nearby location of Emirates business Wolfi’s that rents and sells motorcycles for up to $16,000, as well as expensive rentals. Modern and vintage Tour de France bicycles made by UAE-owned Italian bike company Colagno are on show in the store.
For those interested in cycling activities, there is a brand-new Abu Dhabi Cycling Club pavilion nearby. The club is open to the public and offers free membership. It collaborates with the government to grow the sport by promoting awareness, participation, and investment.
The ADCC was established in 2017 and claims to have invested 1.7 billion dirhams ($460 million) in bicycle infrastructure, with a planned total length of 445 kilometers (277 miles). There are plans for an indoor velodrome and a bike path connecting Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Cyclists and tourists alike should be enticed by the city’s new bike-friendly initiatives. ADCC Executive Director Al Nukhaira Allkhyeli tells CNN, “One of the key objectives is to have more people come and have a bike holiday in Abu Dhabi.”
Allkhyeli, an avid rider, may frequently be found honing his skills at the Yas Marina Circuit, a major attraction in Abu Dhabi’s cycling scene. Regularly, the public is allowed to cycle on the track that holds Formula One events at night or in the early morning.
As an added bonus, visitors can schedule themselves into a free session on the track at the facility, which includes the use of a helmet, as well as a selection of well-used road and hybrid cycles (a branch of Wolfi’s is located next door). Showers are available, however there are no separate changing areas.
With massive grandstands rising on either side of the seven-kilometer loop and an occasional superyacht moored with a view of the track, even those who aren’t F1 aficionados will enjoy taking on the Marina circuit. Attendees who were unable to make it to the show can still be heard cheering from the stands.
As they veer across the asphalt, inexperienced drivers will be split between the desire for speed and the want to take selfies (avoiding accidental turns into the pit lane).
Abu Dhabi offers a wider range of riding activities, from the leisurely to the more strenuous.
Rental bikes are available along the beachfront Corniche or in the Al Ain Oasis, Abu Dhabi’s second city, for those who prefer to avoid exertion. Fat-tire biking in the sand dunes is an option for guests staying at the exclusive Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort in the Empty Quarter.
The only true mountain in Abu Dhabi, Jebel Hafit, is a great place for cyclists who are looking for a challenge and an opportunity to transform their legs into jelly.
The Al Wathba cycling track, a purpose-built cycleway in the middle of nowhere, offers one of the most strange and gratifying bike rides in Abu Dhabi.
The entrance to the track is located in a small huddle of buildings that includes a shower and toilet block, a small store, and a bike shop that hires out used but serviceable carbon racing bikes by the hour around an hour’s drive from downtown.
During the cooler months, the track is primarily used for daytime racing, but in the summer, when the sun descends lower in the sky, the atmosphere changes dramatically. Loops of up to 30 kilometers in length, weakly illuminated by solar-powered street lamps, stretch into the desert night.
It’s an exhilarating, if slightly terrifying, feeling to go it alone. It’s peaceful and eerie out there in the sand dunes, with only a few spots of light coming from the nearby power lines.
Everything save for the occasional sand drift across the track prevents you from blasting at maximum speed. Occasionally, a blown bulb causes a mini-blackout that requires riders to maintain their composure and avoid slamming on the brakes.