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Arabian days: Cycling in the Middle East keeps pumping

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October issue of Velo magazine.

The peloton is on the rivet, driving full bore into a howling crosswind. On one side are Tom Boonen’s henchmen at Etixx-Quick-Step, and on the other, Tinkoff-Saxo, drilling it for Peter Sagan. The elastic snaps. The peloton crumbles into echelons, and there’s no hope for anyone chasing back to the meaty part of the pack. A scene from the Tour of Flanders? A Tour de France stage across wind-strewn Brittany? No, it’s just another day at the Tour of Qatar.

The global reach of cycling has taken grip in some unusual toeholds. Three decades ago, it would have been hard to imagine major races in Malaysia, Australia, or Argentina, but today, the sport is truly global. And the most unlikely of new hotbeds? The Middle East.

What started with the Tour of Qatar in 2002 has steadily grown into an Arab cycling boom. As the sport struggles in its traditional centers of Spain and Italy, it’s thriving in the Middle East. Qatar was first to host a race, adding a women’s race in 2009. The Tour of Oman joined in 2010, and in 2014 the Tour of Dubai was founded. In October, the Abu Dhabi Tour makes its debut.

Why the surge in popularity? Money — the region is overflowing with it. But do these races constitute real racing, or are they just a chance for the emirs and sheiks to show off their glistening modern oases in the desert? There is certainly a sense of flaunting, especially in over-the-top Dubai, where Bugattis and Ferraris are part of the race caravan. But any time you have riders like Boonen toeing the line, it’s the real deal.

“Qatar is one of the hardest races of the year,” says Movistar’s Rory Sutherland, who has raced at Qatar and Dubai. “For the classics guys, this is their last race before heading to Belgium. Everyone is full-gas.”

Desert winds

There may be more camels than fans on the roadside, but when the flag drops in the Middle East, the race is on, and with an Arabian flare. The VIP village consists of a few tents propped in the middle of a sea of sand dunes, where hot tea and couscous are served. Where else can you get a race delay due to a dust storm?

There is no l’Alpe d’Huez and no pavé. The most striking features of racing in the Middle East have nothing to do with topography, but what sits above and below it. Underground, of course, is the source of the region’s fabulous wealth — the world’s largest deposits of natural gas and crude oil. From that wealth has sprung some of the world’s most fabulous structures, including the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest freestanding structure at 2,722 feet, which towers over half a mile above the otherwise featureless landscape in Dubai.

The heat is unrelenting, with temperatures soaring above 120 degrees Fahrenheit from May to September. The region is entirely barren, desert, and Muslim. Parched journalists pay $18 for a pint of beer in bars that cater only to western expatriates.

And fans? Hardly any. A smattering of curious expats and locals will turn out when the races start in major cities, but once the racing begins, there is almost no one watching, especially as the peloton spins into the desolation of the desert.

“It is a little bit eerie and weird to be racing on roads with no one watching us,” says BMC’s Brent Bookwalter, who was second overall in the 2013 Tour of Qatar. “I will have these moments of reflection during the race, and wonder what we’re doing out here. It doesn’t affect the racing, but sometimes it does seem a little bit odd.”

What the Middle East has in surplus, at least in terms of cycling riches, is wind. On the flats surrounding Doha and Dubai, there’s nothing to stop it as it roars across the Persian Gulf.

Sometimes the wind can literally grind things to a halt. The shamal is a northwesterly wind, one that struck the 2015 Tour of Oman, kicking up a sandstorm so intense riders stopped during stage 5 and huddled for protection under a highway underpass. The stage was eventually cancelled.

But the wind is why riders such as Boonen, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), and other stars of the often-windy northern classics love racing in Qatar. Boonen has won the overall title four times and taken a record 22 stages in Qatar.

“I’m always very happy to come back to Qatar,” Boonen says. “You don’t find these windy days anywhere else in the world. It’s a hardman’s race. It’s 60kph [average speed] in the first hour of the race sometimes. So it’s logical, when you’re good here, you will be at the front and fighting for victory at the classics.”

The results speak for themselves. Every year that Boonen won the overall title at Qatar, he won either Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.

Breaking new ground

What would you do if you were a ruler of a country, and you fancied a bike race in your kingdom? You’d call Eddy Merckx, of course.

That is how the Tour of Qatar started in the early 2000s. Qatar’s then-ruling emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in addition to being the absolute leader, is one of the richest men in the world. He is no stranger to Paris, and as an avid sportsman, he has seen the finale of the Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées during his frequent visits.

So what did he do when he wanted a race of his own? He called Merckx, naturally.

John Lelangue, a former sport director at Phonak and BMC, has had a front-row seat to the evolution of Arab cycling. In 2001, he worked as a top official at Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), owners of the Tour de France, under then-director Jean-Marie Leblanc.

“The emir called Eddy, and said they wanted to start a bike race in Qatar,” Lelangue recounts. “He called ASO, and we signed on to help run the race. It all went through Eddy.”

Lelangue’s father was a sport director for Merckx late in the legend’s career, and today he works for the Qatari cycling federation as its point man for the 2016 world road cycling championships. In Qatar, everything gravitates back to the emir.

“Qatar is truly committed to cycling, and they have the resources to invest in the sport,” Lelangue says. “I remember at BMC, we always brought a top squad to the race, because everything was first-class. These are important races for the teams.”

ASO doesn’t own the races in Qatar or Oman; instead, it brings its experienced Tour de France staff to run the day-to-day race operations. It’s the same with RCS Sport, which provides technical support and expertise at Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

While Qatar is ideal for classics-bound riders, Oman and Dubai are gaining traction among GC contenders who are looking to stretch their legs at the dawn of a new season. From Europe, the Middle East races are closer — about a six-hour flight from Milan—than going to Australia for the Santos Tour Down Under or to Argentina for the Tour de San Luis.

And Oman boasts substantial climbs. It’s not rare to see Chris Froome (Sky) or Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) racing hard in mid-February up its lonely desert ascents. Froome won the race in 2013 and 2014, while Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) won in 2011.

Rock stars

There should be little surprise why the racers enjoy racing in the Middle East. When Europe is still stuck under the gloom of winter, Oman, Dubai, and Qatar are roasting in the mid-80s. Wide, smooth roads, great training facilities, and easy access from Europe make the region an ideal spot for early season training and racing.

“I would personally much prefer to race in Dubai or Oman, with good hotels and good weather, than somewhere in France in January or February,” Sutherland says. “Logistically, they’re great. You’re in the same hotel, no transfers, and not too far from Europe. And the weather is usually very nice.”

Riders are treated like rock stars. Most fly business class on the flagship airlines (Air Qatar or Emirates Air) and stay in five-star accommodations. For years, the Tour of Qatar headquarters was in the luxurious Ritz-Carlton. At the Tour of Oman, the entire race retinue — riders, staff, sport directors, race personnel, and journalists— stays in a self-contained posh resort along the Persian Gulf, where each rider has his own private bungalow overlooking a manicured beach.

The race organizers have money to burn. For its debut, the Dubai Tour flew in such sports luminaries as Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso and soccer legend Diego Maradona to schmooze.

There’s even talk of incorporating some of the Arab races into the WorldTour, in part to bridge the gap from the Tour Down Under in January and Paris-Nice in March. Abu Dhabi fills the autumn void left by the defunct Tour of Beijing.

“It would be reasonable to have one of them be WorldTour,” Bookwalter says. “These economies offer so much to the cycling world. I think it would be a bit overboard to have two or three WorldTour races in that part of the world. One would be plenty right now.”

Follow the money

That cycling could become part of the quiver of events in the emerging Middle East shouldn’t come as a surprise. Qatar has enough money that it created the Al Jazeera television station, hosted the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and has won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In contrast to natural gas-rich Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have far fewer natural resources. They have invested billions to diversify their economies away from complete dependency on oil and gas. Dubai, the Emirates’ most populous city, has become the investment center of the region, with money pouring in from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia in the form of real estate, creating a Manhattan-like skyline.

Initially, the UAE looked on with envy as Qatar and Oman developed cycling events. Dubai wanted to host a “big start” for the Giro d’Italia, and something they felt would give them an upper hand on their neighbors. Instead, RCS Sport came back with a different idea.

“For the same amount of money, we told them they could build an entire race, with a lasting legacy, rather than a two- or three-day event just once,“ Giro director Mauro Vegni says. “It’s an important investment for cycling in their country.”

Why cycling? To put it simply, prestige. These emerging countries are looking to raise their international profile, not only with regard to natural resources and banking, but in sport as well.

They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into sport facilities. Abu Dhabi hosts a stop on the Formula 1 circuit. There are major golf and tennis tournaments across the region, and Qatar invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Aspire Academy, its elite sport training facility.

All of these events and amenities build credibility. Without the Tour of Qatar, and the region’s sporting integrity that has been bolstered over the past two decades, the 2022 World Cup might have landed elsewhere.

Now, an interesting thing is happening in places like Doha, Dubai, and Muscat. Feeding from the excitement of the elite professional races, there is a budding cycling scene.

Lelangue has seen this firsthand. There’s a Monday night criterium series in Doha that draws up to 100 racers. There’s a busy regional racing calendar from October to April. The UAE even has its own Continental racing team, Sky-Dive Dubai.

“It’s not like in Flanders, when kids are starting to ride a bike at two or three years old. But more and more people are riding their bikes,” Lelangue says. “We are sending our junior and under-23 riders to the UCI training center in Aigle. Our goal is to get them into the Olympics, and even into the European peloton. It will take time, but there is excitement here.”