UAE cycling enthusiasts explain why they ride

From spinning instructors to mountain bikers and families, cycling buffs talk about what got them in the saddle and how their passion gives them a handle on body and mind.

Roudha Alawadhi, who co-created the Instagram group UAE Cycling Girls with a friend, jokes that cycling is a great option for those who are too lazy to jog. Rebecca Rees for The National
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Whether it's the iconic image of Elliot cycling in front of the moon in Steven Spielberg's ET, or the young girl riding her bike for the first time in Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadj­da, the image of cycling encapsulates a sense of freedom, fun and rebellion.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that a study published this month by Mindlab in the United Kingdom revealed that cyclists were found to be 13 per cent more intelligent – not to mention considerably “cooler” – than non-cyclists.

With that in mind, and in the run-up to our #CycleToWorkUAE event, we caught up with some of the country’s hard-core cycling fans to find out just why it is that they love to get on their bikes.

‘It helped me lose weight and changed my life’

Emma Woodcock, 45, who runs the Velo Vixens women’s cycling group in Dubai, cycles about 350 kilometres a week.

“Cycling started off as a way to lose weight,” she says. “I was 91 kilograms when my husband bought me my bike for my 41st birthday. My dad had died and I was really very unhappy.

“I’d never exercised, my whole life. I had quite a serious accident when I was 12, I went through a glass door and severed my quadriceps. I was then always excused from PE. I’d just never found anything that I was very good at.

“Initially it was just me and my husband Mark. We’d go out cycling in the mornings and, I think probably because I was still grieving, the sun would come up and all I could hear was the sound of the wheels – I call it meditation in motion. It was lovely and it helped to heal me.

“I lost 26kg in three months and I’ve never looked back. With cycling, you see yourself improve quickly, which is really motivating.

“Once you start losing weight, you start thinking about a whole different way of life. It’s not dieting anymore, it’s healthy living. You want to stretch, so you go to yoga. I can now get up the stairs without getting out of breath. It makes so much difference.

“And there are so many cycling groups, you’re not doing it by yourself. I’ve met incredible people that I absolutely think of as my family. I love them dearly.

‘It’s easy’

Emirati Roudha Alawadhi co-founded the Instagram group UAE Cycling Girls with pal Asma Al Janahi a month ago, with the aim of fostering a community of female cycling novices in Dubai. She only started cycling a year ago but was quickly hooked.

“I always joke that cycling is the sport for those who are too lazy to jog,” she says. “If jogging is too difficult, go on a bicycle. It’s easy and it’s much more fun than jogging.”

‘The sense of achievement’

Helle Bachofen von Echt, 35, from Denmark, is a spinning instructor and personal trainer who created the Instagram page The Girl Who Cycles in the Desert. Last year, she competed in the Amateur World Cycling Championship.

“What I love most about cycling is setting myself goals, working towards them and achieving them,” she says. “For me, to get on the podium is a great achievement. It’s about recognition and crossing personal barriers by pushing myself to the next level, again and again.

“I also love travelling to new places for races and cycling holidays, and meeting like-minded people from around the world.”

‘It connects me with nature’

Uwem Umana, 42, took up cycling as a child in Nigeria and has been cycling in Abu Dhabi since he moved here eight years ago from London.

He has cycled on-road with his wife, with their two young children on child seats on the backs of their bikes. He also cycled to work when he had a job as an English teacher downtown. These days, his routine involves cycling 18km at 4.30am every morning – and sometimes in the evenings as well – around Khalifa Park. He also still rides with his family at weekends.

“Cycling gives me the opportunity to contemplate,” he says. “Alone in the morning, I can see the moon dying out and feel the fresh morning stillness. As I’m coming out I see the starry sky – it connects me a lot with nature. I feel refreshed with the fresh air, so when I come back inside there’s a zest in me to start the day.

“I also like cycling because it’s something you can do alone, or in a group – unlike most sports where you need a partner or team to play with.

“There are no emissions, you don’t need to worry about a parking space and it’s a great way to move around town from A to B. And bikes here don’t get stolen as frequently as they do in the UK.”

‘A community to make new friends’

British expatriate Andy Whitaker, 41, is founder of the UAE’s mountain-biking club HOT-COG-MTB. By day, he runs the design agency Lavadesign in Dubai Silicon Oasis.

“The mountain-biking community is very warm and friendly and it’s an easy place to find great new friends,” he says.

“I got into mountain biking when I was 15 and lived on the edge of three national parks. It was much more exciting for me to escape into the hills and away from any road traffic. It’s like meditation once I’m out on the bike in the countryside, away from the crazy drivers. Nothing else matters when you are focused on the trail.

“Mountain biking is much more physical and an all-over body workout compared with road cycling, as you use your upper-body a great deal in manoeuvring the bike and when riding technical terrain and jumps. In addition, you spend time carrying the bike over hills and obstacles and its not always time spent in one position in the saddle.”

‘It takes away my stress’

German Wolfgang Hohmann, 44, co-founded the cycling group Dubai Roadsters and runs Wolfi’s Bike Shop on Sheikh Zayed Road.

“Something almost magical happens in my body when I’m cycling,” he says. “When I’ve been riding for 20 to 30 minutes, hormones go through my system that make me feel happy and relaxed. It’s just this repetitive motion that takes my mind away from the stress I had.

“Albert Einstein had the theory of relativity on his bike. My ideas are a little smaller than that, but I do have a lot of good ideas when I’m riding.”

‘It’s low impact’

Peter Pastijn is co-founder of The Room, a gym in Abu Dhabi, and a Power Specialist Master Instructor for its spinning programme.

The Belgian was a squash champion in his country for nine years and was number 64 in the world, then became Belgium’s national squash coach. He started cycling to com­­­ple­ment his squash training.

“Cycling is a great sport for people who are not in their early twenties,” he says. “For a person of my age – I’m 41 – I think it’s one of the most beautiful sports because there is not the impact that you get from running, so there’s less chance of injuries. I love running but it gets my knees and back in trouble.

“And the strengthening of muscles, ligaments and tendons in cycling also lowers the number of injuries.

“The increased stimulation of fat-burning metabolism during long, steady rides leads to better body composition and health, as well as fewer sugar cravings and mood swings.

“And the heightened muscular and cardiovascular capacity leads to increased energy levels in daily life.”