The UAE is a great place for outdoor cycling, for more than half the year at least. During the glorious stretch of weather between November and May, the endless desert roads, challenging mountain trails and world-class tracks offer cyclists of all levels a pedal-through playground. Then comes the sun.
As the mercury rises to 50°C, the combination of Lycra, saddle and strenuous exercise becomes much more difficult to swallow, even for the most enthusiastic riders. The good news is that the summer months do not need to put a spanner in your wheels. Despite the sweltering conditions, the track at Al Qudra is still buzzing with hordes of people riding their bikes every Friday and Saturday morning, pedalling on, undeterred and unstoppable. Leading that pack, usually, is Stewart Howison.
Howison is co-founder of Cycle Safe Dubai. He says the cycling scene in the UAE now is different from the one he encountered when he first moved here 11 years ago. "There was a good cycling community back then, but it was mainly at elite level. I was simply looking to meet more friends who were into cycling and find somewhere safe to get people out on their bikes, and that's how Cycle Safe Dubai came about."
Alongside fellow cyclist Nicholas Brooks, Howison started a Facebook group that now has more than 5,500 members. This thriving online community has weekly meets and their love for cycling has not only improved their fitness, but also changed the landscape of the sport in the UAE.
Al Qudra and other cycling tracks
"Every weekend, we would head out to Al Qudra. We used to ride along the road itself and a big white G-Wagon would come past and give us a wave," recalls Howison. This G-Wagon belongs to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. "One day when we were out, an RTA car turned up and said His Highness had seen us riding out here and wanted us to have somewhere safe."
That's how the track at Al Qudra came into being. Fast-forward seven years and the 50-kilometrecycle path, which weaves through the Dubai desert, has etched out a new era of bike riding in the UAE.
In Dubai, there's also Nad Al Sheba, offering 4km, 6km and 8km family-friendly, traffic-free tracks. Only 40 minutes outside the capital, there's Al Wathba, a former camel racing track that offers 8km, 16km, 20km, 22km and 30km loops. Then there's Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, which offers cyclists a chance to pedal for free four times a week, along the same tarmac that Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg sped to victory on, an initiative shared by Dubai Autodrome, where you can cycle for free every Wednesday. And then there are the mountain bike trails of Hatta and Ras Al Khaimah.
There's one thing that all these facilities have in common: they are outdoors. While most offer sheltered areas, refreshment stands and showering facilities, cycling in the ferocious summer heat takes a little more preparation.
Hydrate before you head out
"Summer is a fantastic time for cycling," says Chandrashekar Nandi, physiotherapist at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi. "But to fully enjoy it, you'll need to take a few precautions." These precautions, Howison says, should start a good few days before you ride. "If you're planning on heading out for a cycle at the weekend, you need to start hydrating your body on the Tuesday or Wednesday," he says.
Nandi agrees: "While sweat rates can vary for everyone, it's common to lose one to two quarts of fluid through perspiration for every hour you ride. If you don't replenish at least this amount, dehydration occurs, and regulating your core temperature through sweat becomes more difficult," he says. "Make sure you are properly hydrated in the days leading up to your ride and stay on top of your hydration while you're on the bike. Drinking two or more 500-millilitre bottles of water per hour depending on your sweat rate is generally recommended in extreme weather conditions."
Cornelia Gloor, head of RAK Hospital's Rehabilitation and Physiotherapy Centre, also highlights the importance of hydration, but says that cyclists should drink slowly and stick to room temperature water for optimum hydration. "As the weather gets warmer, it's important to play it safe when cycling outside. Too much heat can be risky for older adults and people with health problems," she says. "It's very important that we know our limit and understand when to stop."
Early to ride
The biggest change cyclists make in the summer months is the time they head out for their ride, so if you're keen, you'll need to kiss your weekend lie-ins goodbye. "During summer, we obviously have to start a lot earlier to avoid the super-hot temperatures," says endurance athlete and ultra-cyclist Marcus Smith, who lives in Dubai. While he says he takes some of his training indoors during the summer months, he still gets outside as often as he can. "I love Al Qudra. There is no other facility in the world like it. I have ridden hundreds of kilometres out there. Later this month, we will actually complete a challenge at Al Qudra through the night, where we will ride 50km, run 50km and ride 50km. It should be fun," he says.
Gloor recommends cycling between 4am and 7am during the summer months for optimum conditions, a time slot favoured by Howison. "In the summer I usually get up at 5am. It might seem early, but it simply means you get home earlier and have more of a day," he says.
Cycle Safe Dubai meets at 6am sharp every Friday and Saturday at Al Qudra throughout the summer, and while the number of participants inevitably drops as the temperature rises, there are still many cyclists braving the weather to get out and about on their bikes. "Take plenty of nutrition with you, go in groups, take your phone and do not try and be a hero when you're out in the summer heat," Smith says. "One minute you can feel fine and five minutes later the wind drops, the temperature heats up and you are in big trouble."
It's also vital to switch up your Lycra. "Your clothing needs to be a lot lighter," says Howison, who also owns Revolution Cycles shop in Dubai. "You are never going to find clothing that will cool you down in 40°C , but you can definitely find lighter and more breathable fabric that will help."
While the heat does make things more difficult for cyclists in the summer, the facilities and conditions throughout the rest of the year make the UAE one of the best places in the world to ride, Howison insists. "In Europe and other parts of the world, cyclists needs to adapt at certain times of the year. Especially when it's dark and cold, it means layering up and taking extra precautions; the summer here is no different," he says. "There are so many safe places for people to ride. I've never been in any other place where I've had 200km of uninterrupted cycle path on my doorstep. That's why you get so many pros and ex-pros coming here. I'd say to anyone thinking about getting started, this really is the place to do it."
The great indoors
If the thought of going outside in the summer heat, despite all the expert advice, is too much to bear, there are plenty of ways to take your cycling indoors this summer.
The immersive indoor cycling experience by Les Mills involves static bikes in a darkened room, facing a huge curved screen. For 40 minutes, cyclists can get lost in a world of computer visuals, a virtual world with a great soundtrack, which are changed every three months. You’ll ride through erupting volcanoes and ice-capped mountains, shoot down vertiginous drops and race around crowd-filled arenas. The Trip is offered at GFX gym in Business Bay, Dubai, and the ladies-only Inspire gym in Abu Dhabi.
If you need a bit of competition to get your heart rate up, Flywheel Dubai is the cycle studio for you. The popular studio is always packed, and with an opt in sprint race displaying real-time results on the screen for everyone to see, you'll want to push ahead to stay at the head of the class.
Rev Studio has not long opened on Abu Dhabi's Reem Island, and it offers six variations of spin class, from the challenging to the really challenging. Its most challenging class is Spivi, an interactive multimedia platform made for indoor cycling. First, it collects data such as power, cadence, speed, distance, and heart rate from sensors. Then, it combines that data with personal information stored in the cloud, such as age, weight, and performance history. Finally, it generates virtually unlimited visuals, including unique group simulation, leader boards and videos —all in real-time.