Taking to the trails on Hatta’s new mountain-biking routes

Taking a closer look at the UAE's newest mountain-biking routes, located in the spectacular setting of Hatta.

Andy Whitaker, of the Hot-Cog Mountain Bike Club, tries out the new trails in Hatta. Photos by Christopher Pike / The National
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The Hatta mountains undoubtedly provide some of the country’s most picturesque views. The jagged rock and fiercely pointed tips sit beautifully against a backdrop of bright blue sky.

In recent months, there have been more people enjoying this view, after a group of mountain bike enthusiasts raked out a set of new trails.

Their effort is part of a plan to sensitively develop part of the mountains to encourage more people to visit and to stay for longer.

As well as the mountain-biking trails, early plans include areas to camp, freshwater pools, shower areas, washrooms and plenty of shaded areas.

“Years ago, I and a couple of guys started building the trails in Showka,” says Andy ­Whitaker, the founder of the Hot-Cog Mountain Bike Club. “No one rode those years ago. It grew and grew until there was 300 or 400 people using it.”

The country’s mountain bike enthusiasts have a helpful ally in Omar Saeed Almutaiwei, an ­Emirati.

“Omar turned up for one of the mountain-biking events in Showka and he said: ‘I want this in Hatta, come, come, there’s an area I know we can use’,” says ­Whitaker.

Not only does Almutaiwei know the area like the back of his hand, having spent many childhood holidays there, but he’s also head of the Hatta ­Municipality centre and a keen mountain ­biker.

“I am from Hatta, I was born in Hatta, I know this area very, very well,” says the father-of-five. “When I have travelled to Europe, I have seen people mountain biking. When I came back, I saw some videos – I didn’t know how it worked really. I didn’t know if it was OK for Hatta and whether the trails would work in the ­mountains.

“I know we have road bikers, but in Hatta, the roads are still very dangerous for this. The mountains are safer.”

Almutaiwei took up mountain biking two years ago and now rides every weekend. “I love it. When I go far away from the road and the city, I feel relaxed.”

He now has big plans for the mountains. With tourism in Dubai at an all-time high, he hopes to bring some of that business to Hatta and show people another side of the country.

“People come here and then they have to go back to Dubai; we want to make Hatta a destination,” agrees Whitaker, who runs his own design company, ­Lavadesign.

For the past 12 months, ­Whitaker and a team of dedicated riders have been identifying, raking and testing three main trails of different skill levels: green, blue and red.

“I spent a few weekends walking around looking for some lines we could use. Then there has been five or six of us coming out raking and digging. We were working all the summer, cutting and raking.

“You have to think about when you’re riding and how it’s going to flow, and the radius of the corners – can you get around smoothly?”

The three trails are known as flow trails and should not require much pedalling or braking. The idea is for riders to find a rhythm that helps them ride the trail with minimal interference, beyond steering.

“You’re not supposed to fight against the landscape the whole time. The trails are designed in a way that they help you through it. Even as a beginner, you can get some wind in your face and a little bit of excitement.

“You need to learn to relax, but it’s not natural to relax when you’re scared. When you’re scared, you tighten – that’s when you fall off. You have to fight that and be loose on the bike. The bike will do what it needs to do. If you let it, nine times out of 10, you will be OK.”

The green route, the easiest, is 5 kilometres long; the red route, the most difficult route with bigger climbs and trickier corners, is 3.2km.

The blue route, the intermediate trail, is 3.6km, but riders can choose to deviate from any other routes and join the other ones at specific points on the trails.

As well as the natural curves of the rock, the team has also built a couple of small wooden bridges to take riders over some of the deeper trenches.

“Omar wants to keep it all natural wood and stone, so it’s a heritage-style trail,” Whitaker says. “Throughout Europe, it’s all about keeping the landscape as natural as possible; it’s about adding to the landscape, not taking away from it. It pulls out the contours of the hills.

“Hopefully, the more they do the trails here, the more it will protect the area from any other ­development.

“The good thing now is the ­Dubai Government likes to invest and bring people here and utilise the area.”

Whitaker and Almutaiwei hope to organise trips to the trails for local schools and children’s clubs. “If we can get young people interested in mountain ­biking in their own country, that would be great,” says Whitaker. “A lot of people don’t know that the sport exists here, so we want to spread the word. We know there are road bikers, because you drive past them in the car, but ­mountain bikers are often in places you can’t take cars, so people don’t know we’re there.”

There’s also a women’s biking group, Dirt Skirts, that’s run by Whitaker’s wife, Angelika, and holds regular rides at the trails.

Word is already spreading fast, even among the Emirati population, which traditionally sticks to road biking.

Yousuf Mohamed ­AlRaeesi, from Fujairah, drives the ­picturesque, hour-long trip to Hatta every weekend to ride the new trails.

“People are using the same roads for vehicles and some people are not respecting the riders. This is the reason some people do not want to continue riding the roads, they want to ride the mountains instead.”

­AlRaeesi’s family, he jokes, are less convinced about his ­favourite hobby.

“If my mother knew where I was riding the bicycle, she would probably take it off me and say: ‘It’s dangerous to go to the mountains.’ I’m trying to convince my brother to come, but he asks if it’s scary.”

Another benefit to having the trails, he says, is that it stops the area being developed by any hotel chains or other big industry.

“If people just come to ride the bicycles here, they are not going to do any construction jobs here. The culture has changed for the new generation.”

Curt Kellogg, 32, spends about four months every year in Sohar, Oman, working as a design engineer. The rest of the time, he lives in Burlington, Vermont, in his native United States, after moving there “because the mountain biking is so good”.

“I loved it,” he said after his first try of the Hatta trails. “I’ve ridden the Showka trails, but what’s better about this is they are specifically for mountain bikes.

“It’s safe riding and there’s easy trails and difficult trails, so people who are new can grow into the sport. It’s really nice, especially when you get to the highest climb – you turn around and get a perspective of the ­mountains.”

Kellogg visits the region for sometimes two weeks a month and always makes the effort to hire a bike and get out on the trails.

He likens the Hatta trails to the terrain he has ridden in Nevada, US, but warns that the trails need to be updated to keep people interested.

“Expansion is big,” he said. “What happens is people get tired of riding the same trails. They are great right now and they will always be great, but if the Government allows them to expand in the future, it would keep it fresh.”

The trails currently cover about 14km of terrain and there are plans to extend them to 35km within the next four months.

“I’ve already got my eye on different lines,” Whitaker says. “Organically formed tracks, this is what makes Hatta a ­destination.”

munderwood@thenational.ae