I'd never been to Dubai apart from a one-day flying visit during a day off from commentating on the Qatar World Championships in 2016. It had never been somewhere I'd thought of going; I don't know why now that I've been, I think I must have had snobby preconceptions about it, or more likely it is the fact I have a ‘mild’ sand phobia (the same way that some people cannot stand nails being dragged down a blackboard – which I'm fine with, by the way) and also hate laying by swimming pools or beaches (much to my wife's disgust). For whatever reasons my mind was changed by this visit.
It was the Jumeirah group that changed that, I had worked with them in promoting their hotel in Port Soller, Mallorca, and the success of that had led to them asking if I'd be interested in working with them on promoting the cycling friendliness of their newest hotel, the Jumeirah Al Naseem in Dubai, which opened in December 2016. It was for this reason I had flown out to meet with them during the Qatar Worlds.
So come end of February 2017, immediately following my Hong Kong 40 trip, via Girona, I turned up to the Al Naseem wondering deep down if the whole venture was total insanity. I mean, cycling in Dubai? Surely somebody had got it wrong?
The hotel itself blew my mind, and when you're in Dubai it feels natural to say it has Mediterranean sensibilities regarding its design and general atmosphere, but that's because its next door to arguably the most luxurious hotel in the world, the Jumeirah Burj Al Arab, because everything is off the grid in Dubai, total decadence, yet somehow Al Naseem feels kind of not-so-over-the-top (I need a 'chimp covering its eyes' emoji here, because I feel like I'm suffering Stockholm Syndrome for even saying that).
Anyway, it felt very welcoming, in a Dubai-Mediterranean kind of way. St Tropez eat your heart out, this is the real thing - apart from having omnipresent-in-view the world's third highest hotel shaped like a spinnaker and composed only of suites, and that only uses Rolls Royce as a car service, and had Roger Federer and Andre Agassi play tennis on its helipad in the sky as well as David Coulthard performing donuts in a Formula 1 car in the very same spot. The very fact the Burj Al Arab is there and you're not in it makes everything else feel nice and normal.
The first day saw me visiting the legendary Dubai bike shop, Wolfi's. There were two reasons for this: 1, To meet Wolfi himself for the first time as he was going to be helping us with the organisation of the inaugural Jumeirah Al Naseem cycling experience. 2, I needed my bike fixed, and I needed water bottles, and spare tube, and a saddle bag, etc.
I'd never been there before for obvious reasons - it's situated in a fairly nondescript area, albeit surrounded by prestige car dealerships, it may not be large in size but it is immense in scale. I walked in and was taken aback by the amount of people, all of them dressed in black. One of them happened to be somebody I knew, Monty, from Scotland, and formerly of Paul Smith. Monty had been to my retirement party in London, and now here we were in Dubai, as we chatted I realised he worked there and that the black t-shirt he was wearing was actually that of Wolfi's, “HOLY SHIT, how many people work here, Monty?” “Thirty.” Yes, 30 people work in Wolfi's, and never once would you think the space needed 30 people to work there. Evidently it does, because it would appear the most expensive cycling products in the world are like the proverbial hot cakes when they land in Wolfi's.
I met Wolfi, and Mark Shepherd (his high class wingman) soon after. The three of us got on like a house on fire, which was lucky as we spent the next four days hanging out constantly. Over that time I got to learn of the hard work and belief that Wolfi, and his wife Gaby, had needed to create their shop. An inspiring story if ever there was one, and one that I would love to tell another time. In the mean time, the next day, early doors, we went biking...
When I say we went biking, I mean we first of all got in a huge American SUV, and very luxurious it was too, wifi and everything. It was early, but not crazy, yet enough to mean the roads were empty on our 10km drive out to the start of the Al Qudra Cycle Path. There, the de rigueur Citroen H-Van converted into a cafe awaits, and the coffee was quite exceptional, it really was. Although apparently that was due to the good barista being there that day, evidently, according to local intel, there is another barista that sometimes mans the van who is quite shit.
The Al Qudra Cycle Path is a remarkable thing, being almost entirely constructed in the middle of the desert. There are two potential starts: for the hardcore there's the car park with the H-Van (and changing facilities), this is the beginning of what is referred to as The Stick, named such for the fact it is a nearly dead straight, out and back, 18km cycle path that runs parallel to the Al Qudra road, it is almost entirely street-lit allowing for the often necessary, heat avoiding, pre-dawn start. At the 9km U-turn of The Stick is what I'll refer to as The Hub, the start and finish point for the main desert loop. Here there are food trucks, a café, a Trek bike rental and service centre, a medical facility, showers and changing rooms. In other words, everything.
The Hub is where, what I'll refer to as The Loop, begins. This is the truly remarkable thing - a 50km billiard ball-smooth cycling exclusive path.
Riding The Loop is like nothing else I've ever done, I kept repeating to Mark and Wolfi, “This is AMAZING.” Because that is what it is, in its absolute definition: causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing or, very impressive; excellent. It is all of those things, and on top of that, without doubt one of the most surreal cycling experiences I've ever had. I could have never imagined that cycling through a desert would be fun, but it seriously was. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one for me was the fact I was riding on a man made construction that's sole purpose was to go nowhere on a bike in a desert, it made no sense whatsoever and yet when you were on it you couldn't help but feel it made total sense.
There were no cars and almost no sign of civilisation, well, apart the very man-made strip of tarmac ever ahead and always behind. It was bike riding for the sake of bike riding, much like that famous saying, “art for art's sake”. I think that was maybe why I loved it so much, it was complete nonsense and therefore utter fun.
The next day's riding was equally bizarre, I was told we were going to go into the 'mountains' (the quotation marks existed inside my head), I had taken this with a pinch of salt. Once again, early in the morning, we climbed aboard our fleet (two) of SUVs. This quite quickly becomes an accepted part of cycling in Dubai, and to be honest doesn't really take much away from the whole experience, because at least it means you always have a cool mobile base camp if things go pear-shaped in the heat. The drive was about an hour and a half, which was when I had the chance to really talk to Wolfi and Mark about life in Dubai, it was eye opening and like receiving the ultimate insider's tour guide experience. Mark has been living in Dubai for 20years, Wolfi for 15, so the two of them had seen all the most famous changes to the city and region. They explained the differences between each emirate and the culture in general, I became embarrassingly aware of how little I knew about the United Arab Emirates, and how little education I'd received about the entire Middle East.
We parked in the valley at the foot of Jabal Jais, the highest mountain in the UAE, peaking out at 1892m on the UAE side and 1911m on the Oman side and the natural border that separates the UAE from Oman. Like all of the cycling hot spots (pardon the pun) in Dubai the car park has full showering and changing facilities. Standing there, waiting for everybody to sort themselves out, I had enough to time to really soak up where I was, and it was like nowhere else I'd ever been before, I felt like I was on the planet Tatooine from Star Wars, the palace home of Jabba, an oddly similar name to the mountain that lay ahead.
It was completed only a few years ago at a supposed cost of $80million US. The vision being for it to lead to a resort that would offer not only golfing, but paragliding, and most obviously, skiing (artificial snow, probably under a roof). Then there would be the necessary hotels built atop to cater to all of these and many more activities. The financial crisis put a stop to everything, except the road, a road that now leads to nowhere. And what a road it is, there is nothing of comparison in Europe or anywhere else in the world for that matter, the tarmac is impeccable, and the gradient nearly perfect in its consistency, and wide enough to accommodate with ease and comfort the few motorised vehicles that go up and down as well as the cyclists.
From the cyclist friendly car park facility we started from it is 30km to the summit, the first 10km are false flat and then it's 20km climbing. It compares to an alpine climb, only with a better road and more spectacular views. The ride was 'ruined' slightly for me by the fact Wolfi and I decided to sprint every time we saw the photographer that was accompanying us, the problem was we would lie to each other repeatedly about actually taking it seriously, and each time try and catch each other out. I think he beat me every time except once. I was on my hands and knees, more from putting myself into oxygen debt through laughing than the actual physical effort of trying to beat him. I can't believe I got put away by Wolfi. Dammit.
At the top our car and guide, Ali (a local guy who was really cool and loved every minute of watching us ride up a mountain like madmen), were waiting. Jumeirah had put on picnic boxes that were better than most restaurant lunches, and also a birthday cake for Mark, who was celebrating his birthday that very day. The descent back down the mountain saw me gain my revenge on Wolfi, which allowed the universe to rediscover its balance.
With Al Qudra and Jabal Jais done there was one more definitive Dubai cycling experience left to do; the Friday morning Dubai Roadsters roll out. Dubai being Muslim means that Friday is the equivalent to the Christian Sunday, and so everybody is off work and those who love their cycling get out on their bikes. It was a 5am start from the hotel, Wolfi, Mark and a group of about 20 who lived locally to the Jumeirah Al Naseem came to the hotel to pick us up (my friend, Simon Mills had arrived the night before). We then set off in the dark in what would be considered a big chain gang by UK cycling club standards. Our destination being the Nad al Sheba Cycle Path where the cycling group that Wolfi created, the Dubai Roadsters, meet each Friday morning.
Located in the centre of the city, on the old historic camel race track, in the shadow of the Meydan Horse Racing Stadium (home to the $10million Dubai World Cup race), the Nad al Sheba Cycle Park is a welcomed relief to those short on time who don't have energy for the extensive Al Qudra circuit.
Nad al Sheba consists of an 8km loop and will eventually form the spine of the cycle tracks for the District One development. The pavement is silky smooth with a path dedicated purely for cyclists, but the main draw is the constantly changing panoramic backdrop of downtown Dubai, which is only a few kilometres away. Eventually it will be linked via a 40km track to Al Qudra. Ample car parking and shower facilities, don't be surprised to see an Arabic styled tent erected offering free refreshments to riders in the evening during winter or for special occasions.
The ride to meet with the Dubai Roadsters wasn't slow, in fact it was like a proper chaingang, albeit the speed was probably amplified by the fact it was dark, really dark. When we got there it felt like there were hundreds of cyclists waiting, all ready to go. Wolfi gave a quick speech introducing me, and then we were off, no messing about. The group was so big Wolfi split it into two pelotons, this was all going on while it was pitch black. The Nad al Sheba is street lit, and everybody apart from Simon and I had lights on their bikes, so it was perfectly safe, but wow, once again, much like the Al Qudra experience, it was surreal.
The Dubai skyline was lit up on the not so far horizon and it was nothing short of spectacular, we then headed out on to the edge of the desert where things picked up a bit and a mid-ride sprint was held, which against my better judgement I got a bit mixed up in, until my better judgment got the better of me - it was sketchy AF. Good fun though. That was the only sketchy moment of the ride, it was all so well organised and supported, it was clear it was a routine event that the locals relied upon, and it exhibited the scale of the cycling community in Dubai, one almost single-handedly built by Wolfi and Gaby. I'll never think of Dubai the same way ever again. Thank you to Wolfi and Mark and the Jumeirah Al Naseem for broadening my horizons.
We are wearing many items from the ONEMORELAP collection, available below.