"Three-hundred kilometres a day is nothing on a bike." Amid the snatches of conversation to be overheard at the launch event of the Fox Life channel in Dubai in September, Chantal Asaad's proclamation was particularly intriguing. It could be because the delicate-looking Emirati cut a somewhat antithetical figure, dressed as she was in full biker gear and a headscarf, as she casually perched atop a beefy Harley-Davidson.
After chatting to her and riding partner Catherine Hector for a few minutes, I found myself wishing I could join the duo on their high-powered journey across the Middle East, my riding ineptitude not withstanding. Fortunately, I can track their trip by tuning in to The Open Road, a travel documentary that will air on Fox Life via Etisalat's eLife early next year.
"The whole point of the show is to enable viewers to experience the joy of exploring those places that they might think they are familiar with, but that are completely different when observed and experienced on a bike," Hector says. Asaad adds: "It's about exploring the open road and bringing it to people's homes."
Asaad and Hector's three-country journey will begin in Dubai, which is where they have both been based for the past few years. While the exact route they will take when filming starts in December has not been revealed, the team is also keen to incorporate Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah into the schedule, with talk of riding over Jebel Jais. Next, the pair will move on to Lebanon, where they will purportedly explore vibrant capital Beirut and historical Byblos. The six-episode series will conclude in Jordan, with Amman and Petra on the riding radar.
Asaad and Hector may have first met when they came together for the show, but they have been riding individually for many years. "I've been riding for more than 10 years, on different bikes. So we didn't start learning how to ride or 'become' riders after being signed on for The Open Road. It's an important distinction, I think," says Hector, who is originally from the United Kingdom and is now part of the Hawks Motorcycle Club in Dubai. "In a way, the bikes are just one element of the show. It is also about travelling to different places, meeting all kinds of people, indulging in local cuisines and visiting both historic and relatively unknown sites. Yet we are on the road almost all the time, so the riding shouldn't come off as a force-fit."
Being experienced bikers also gives them an edge when it comes to road and weather conditions, they say. "Places such as Jebel Hafeet and Jebel Jais are a little scary the first time, but the more kilometres you clock up, the more confident you get," Hector says. "Riding on a long, straight, flat road is easy but boring."
She adds that because both women have been riding in Dubai for a long time, they are also used to all manner of trying weather conditions. "My bike is my only mode of transport. I've ridden in sandstorms, in the rain and under the sweltering sun. The only thing you have to be aware of here is that you've got to give the bikes a rest every now and then, to allow them to cool down."
Asaad says that she is most looking forward to "experiencing the different kinds of roads we'll get to ride over in the three countries". Rather than carting the same bikes along, the duo will interact with local biker groups in each country, renting rides and seeking out advice on little-known routes. "Riding together makes you feel like part of a family. In that sense, Harley-Davidson has more prominent and active riding groups, and the bikes look good, sound good and they are very distinctive. But we may also get to experience different machines in some of the cities," Asaad says.
Riding along obscure routes aside, The Open Road is also very much about non-touristy experiences. The format showcases a different side of the three countries – from various ways to get to landmark monuments and catch spectacular sunsets to looking up local hotspots, food joints and festivities. A major segment of the show will also have the riders trying their hand at cooking regional dishes and sampling signature specialities.
"We want to show viewers how they can access different sides of each city. We want to inspire them to go out and seek new experiences; to explore places they may not be able to get to quite so easily on four wheels," Hector says. "So the show is about both the riding culture and the larger cultural and social milieu of a place."
Asaad, who was raised in Canada, says she is used to the attention that comes with being a hijab-wearing woman on a bike, and "loves to break people's stereotypes of what an Arab girl can do". Both her and Hector's families have been supportive from the start, with the latter's mother even having various motorbikes as her screensaver. Yet they insist that the women-on-a-bike formula is not the real USP of the show; rather, it's about opening people's eyes to the lost art of true exploration.
"The great thing about being on a bike is that you can see things from a different angle, you're more observant and you take in more of your surroundings. For me, The Open Road is also aimed at those who may like bikes, but may not ride or may be afraid [to ride]," says Asaad. "They can see and feel what's it's like and how much more beautiful a journey can become when you ride off the beaten track."
Hector concludes: "It's like freedom when you're on a bike. And we want to give people a taste of that freedom. They are going to be home, watching and thinking: 'I wish I could be doing that, there.'"