Veteran cyclist rides 1,200km from Dubai to Salalah, Oman

After buying a bike for Dh280, Dean Mason pedalled 3,900km across Australia. Twenty years later, he set his sights on a 'short' ride from Dubai to Salalah, Oman.
Cyclist Dean Mason on his way from Dubai to Salalah in Oman. Courtesy Dean Mason
Cyclist Dean Mason on his way from Dubai to Salalah in Oman. Courtesy Dean Mason

During the blisteringly hot summer of 1996 Dean Mason, a young cyclist from Melbourne, decided to test his mettle and cycle the 3,900 kilometres south to north, coast to coast across Australia.

Unprepared and unfazed by the furnace that lay ahead he bought himself a road bike for the princely sum of 100 Australian dollars (Dh280) and having waved goodbye to his bemused friends, he set off on the monster ride that would later prove to be a defining moment of his young life.

Almost 20 years later we’re sitting in the garden of Mason’s villa in Umm Suqeim flicking through images on a laptop. “Here I am in Darwin having completed my ride. Look at me – I was strong as hell and felt invincible. The ride was incredibly challenging and it really did shape me,” he explains.

The young man in the photograph is still evident in the man today, now a 48-year old husband and father of two sons, a resident of Dubai for the past seven years and a manager at an oil and gas facilities company. So far, so Dubai.

In the last week of April, in an effort to prove that time really is relative and that you really are as young as you feel, he dusted down his trusted, and now somewhat ancient Malvern Star 12-gear tour bike and having secured a mindful nod from his company and wife Cathy, set off on the roughly 1,200km ride from Dubai to Salalah in Oman.

“I have always loved a challenge and I’m a strong believer that life is about experiences not possessions. We live a very comfortable life here in the UAE and it’s easy to become complacent about the world around you. Sometimes you need to put yourself back into nature’s hands and recalibrate your perspective,” Mason says.

The perspective in this case was eight days of two-lane blacktop in 40°C heat across Oman’s treeless, halogen landscape. Health and safety concerns voiced by Mason’s company meant that a back-up vehicle was mandatory. The remoteness of the ride and the heat were more than cause for concern – they were a clear and present danger.

“For the trip to be an authentic reboot of my Darwin ride, I really wanted to be alone out there relying only on what I could carry however, while planning the route it soon became clear that the potential for disaster was huge. I would be riding up to 200km a day and although I aimed to ride mostly at night, the threat of dehydration was serious enough to warrant back up,” he says.

“The inclusion of a back-up vehicle clearly opened up the floodgates for all manner of luxuries, but that went against everything I wanted to prove out there, mainly, relying on my 25-year-old bike and my wits. I’d pack all the essentials into my panniers, including a small tent, GPS, snacks, water, first-aid kit and all the spares needed to fix the bike. Noor, my driver, would go on ahead and stock up on water from gas stations or roadside convenience stores.”

In the weeks running up to the trip, Mason ramped up his training at the Al Qudra Cycle Track, the 120km loop that snakes across the desert near Bab Al Shams. The hugely popular track has been responsible for a massive surge in interest in cycling and on the weekends is a kaleidoscope of colour and technology as Dubai’s clearly affluent cycling community hammer out the kilometres on insanely light and insanely expensive carbon racing bikes.

“The Al Qudra track is amazing and my bike does draw some curious looks and the occasional waggish comment. But it’s still rock solid and it’s never let me down. I’m not against the latest technology, but there is something uniquely satisfying with riding a bike that has so much history – it’s racked up some serious mileage in Australia, Indonesia and Europe, and now the UAE. Mind you, that saddle can be pretty unforgiving.”

In an effort to bypass recent RTA legislation that meant cyclists were no longer allowed to ride on roads that have a speed limit above 60kph, Mason was forced to begin his ride on some of the UAE’s lesser-known roads.

“The first day I set off from Al Qudra and headed out in the general direction of Al Ain and pretty much immediately got into trouble when the perfectly serviceable road I was barrelling down suddenly vanished into deep sand and ahead of me I could see that the back-up vehicle now needed its own back-up vehicle as it had sunk up to its wheel arches.

“Thankfully a young Emirati guy passed by and after a few minutes of jiggery-pokery expertly extracted our water-laden Prado. Twenty minutes later I got a puncture.”

Despite the shaky start, Mason clocked up 160km on his first day and capped it off with a celebratory dhal-fry at a roadside shack. The dhal-fry would become a regular fixture over the next eight days as roadside diners demonstrated their rigid determination to serve as much of the lentil-based meal as often as they could, everywhere, all of the time.

“Luckily I really like dhal-fry; otherwise I’d have been limited in choice. Also, I didn’t load the car up with energy gels, granola bars and all the other energy snacks out there. Apart from Gatorade I only took some dried fruit, nuts and loads of tuna and rice – it was sufficient. This was not a culinary road trip by any stretch.”

The next couple of days were spent zig-zagging from one Omani military checkpoint to another before charting a route between Mezyad and Ibri. Mason’s day would begin at 1am with a light snack and a couple of creaky kilometres as his stiff limbs stretched out the aches from the previous day. The night-time temperatures, while considerably cooler, were still in the high 20s and the stark landscape would slowly reveal itself towards dawn, switching effortlessly from sublime to downright hostile.

“By day three the weather picked up. I was riding into a severe headwind, my pace dropped from 25kph to 15kph then 10kph. The wind became the sole focus of my attention, nature was taking a stand and I felt like it was actively working against me. I checked the Accuweather website on my smartphone and the forecast looked grim: the headwind would not only be constant, but would also get stronger the closer to my destination I got.”

As the ride progressed, Mason found himself craving the blissful respite of petrol stations’ air conditioning and the momentarily relief when well-wishers would stop their cars for a photo and some words of encouragement.

“All along the way I met the loveliest people; there was so much goodwill out there, it’s really life-affirming. I’d get these fleeting moments when people would stop, wind down their windows and I would be embraced by this phantom of cold air leaping out of the vehicle.”

Although travelling light, the few concessions to luxury were his smartphone and GoPro camera, which helped him document the journey and keep family and friends updated through Instagram. Each new posting was followed by a rousing tide of encouragement.

“Being able to keep in touch with Cathy and my two boys, Mattis and Zachary, was really important. It’s incredible what a little encouragement can do when you’re exhausted and running low on morale.”

Mason’s destination, Salalah, is perched on the southernmost tip of Oman and is a popular tourist destination during the summer months as monsoon season cloaks the city in thick cloud. During the final days of his journey, the now-brutal headwind was eating away at his belief that he would ever finish as each hard-won kilometre became tougher than the last. “By the last day I’d really begun to lose hope. During the last 70 kilometres, victory in sight, I calculated that it would take me more than six hours. It’s very disheartening. Massive trucks would trundle by blowing their horns in encouragement, but the sound was ear-shattering and each time it happened I was furious. My sense of wonder was replaced by raw animal determination to beat this ridiculous wind.”

The city’s lights revealed themselves at about 1am, having endured an excruciating climb up the surrounding foothills. Offers of lifts from Good Samaritans were ignored and the final push saw him roll into town at 2.30am, shattered but elated.

“I’d set out to see if my 48-year-old body could still endure the physical demands of the ride and I was pretty pleased with myself at the end. Once the aches have gone you’re left with this incredible sense of achievement. Testing oneself like this is also a great way to invigorate that sense of adventure that we sometimes lose as we get older. Don’t think about it: get out there and do it.”

Published: June 18, 2015 04:00 AM

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