Abu Dhabi (CNN) — Cycling holidays usually conjure up images of cycling through the French countryside, a baguette at the wheel or perhaps a light-hearted ride on the flat and friendly cycle paths that wind their way through cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.
They usually don’t cover the Arabian desert, where summer temperatures and intense midday sun can make it hot enough to explode bicycle tires.
But that could soon change.
A two-wheeled revolution is starting in Abu Dhabi, with massive investments propelling residents and visitors alike for cycling experiences found nowhere else on Earth.
Last year it was designated an official “Bike City” by the governing body of sport cycling, Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI – the first in the Middle East and Asia to receive the award. Those scorching temperatures mean it could literally be the world’s hottest bike city.
At first glance, Abu Dhabi’s cycling references are not immediately apparent. Built using oil wealth, the UAE’s capital and the surrounding terrain are the domain of the automobile. The petrol prices are cheap, the roads are wide, the speed limits – outside built-up areas – are very fast.
Look closer and it’s a different story. In recent years, miles of dedicated bike lanes have sprung up along new highways, while the emirate has steadily established itself as the gateway to cycling in the UAE, introducing international races and nurturing homegrown talent.
Along the way, it has delivered some exciting cycling experiences that, when added to Abu Dhabi’s vast selection of other attractions, could be a major draw for both cycling enthusiasts and anyone wanting to try something completely different.
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Ricky Bautista, far right, and a team from the bike shop Beyond the Bike in Dubai on the Al Hudayriat bike path.
However, participating can lead to unsociable hours. In winter, milder climates are perfect for all-day riding, but May through September, with temperatures sometimes peaking around 48 C (118 F), is the best time to ride before sunrise or after sunset.
That’s why friends Andy Coleman and Dan Baltrusaitis can be found in a parking lot on Al Hudayriat just after 6 a.m. Saturday morning, an island south of the city with beach resorts and a beautiful, purpose-built bicycle track.
“I don’t know why I do it,” Coleman laughs as the pair ride out onto the smooth tarmac to start their session.
Despite the early hour, they are not alone. Dozens of other cyclists fly around the network of circuits, which range from three to ten kilometers and include an exhilarating course across the water. It’s mostly flat, but ferocious headwinds on land can add to the challenge.
“It’s an amazing experience,” said Ricky Bautista, one of a gang of uniformed riders who’ve been racing around in circles since the first ray of daylight. The Bautista team all work in a bike shop in Dubai and have crossed the border to try out Al Hudayriat’s free facilities.
“I’m a beginner, but all my colleagues are cyclists and they said to me, ‘try it and you’ll have fun,'” he says. “It’s really challenging today because of the wind, but then you change direction and you feel like you’re flying and it’s more fun.”
Many other clubs are chasing each other on the track as well. Men and women of all ages can be seen blurred along the distant skyscraper skyline of the city’s financial zone. Some come by car and some drive from home. There is also a bicycle bus.
Founded in 2017, the ADCC says about 1.7 billion dirhams ($460 million) has been poured into cycling with 445 kilometers (277 miles) of bike path under construction. Along the way, a new indoor cycling track and bike path will be built that will connect Abu Dhabi with Dubai.
The aim is to get as many locals as possible into cycling as part of a healthy lifestyle, but also to attract visitors. “One of the main goals is to attract more tourists for a cycling holiday in Abu Dhabi,” ADCC director Al Nukhaira Allkhyeli told CNN.
An avid cyclist himself, Allkhyeli often trains around one of the biggest highlights of Abu Dhabi’s cycling scene: the Yas Marina Circuit. The racetrack loop where Formula 1 events take place is regularly opened to the public for evening or morning cycling.
Even for non-F1 fans, taking on the Marina circuit is a thrill, with gigantic grandstands looming on either side of the seven-kilometer loop, plus the occasional superyacht moored overlooking the track. The roar of the absent crowd can still be felt throughout the room.
New riders are torn between the need for speed or selfies as they swerve around the blacktop (avoiding accidental turns into the pit lane).
Surreal and satisfying
The Al Hudayriat course includes an over water section.
Culture and Tourism Departure – Abu Dhabi
There are more sedate – and even more extreme – cycling experiences to be had in Abu Dhabi.
Hardcore cyclists will want to head to Jebel Hafit, Abu Dhabi’s one and only mountain, where a brutal return to nowhere offers great views of the emirate and the chance to turn legs into jelly.
Another desert highlight is the Al Wathba Bike Path, a smooth, purpose-built bike path in the middle of nowhere that offers arguably one of the most surreal and satisfying cycling adventures in Abu Dhabi.
About an hour’s drive from the centre, the track entrance is in a small collection of buildings housing a shower and toilet block, a small supermarket and a bike shop that rents tired but serviceable carbon road bikes by the hour.
In the cooler months it’s a regular spot for daytime racing, but in the summer the track comes alive as the sun dips below the horizon. Solar-powered street lamps dim circles of up to 30 kilometers that stretch into the desert night.
Riding solo is an exciting, if slightly unnerving experience. It is quiet there between the dunes and, despite small puddles of electric light, very dark.
There’s nothing to stop you from blasting at maximum speed, except for the occasional soft sand across the track. Here and there, a burnt-out light creates a mini-blackout that riders have to work their way through without hitting the brakes.
Driving all year round
Cycling forward into the inky unknown of a hot desert night might seem like a good metaphor for Abu Dhabi’s big spending on a sport that is seemingly at odds with the climate.
But says Isabella Burczak, UCI’s advocacy and development manager, the emirate is on a clearly lit road to success and has shown a commitment and strong political will behind its vision to encourage and grow cycling for leisure, transportation and sport. .
Bike City status, she says, should inspire her to continue to achieve those goals and share knowledge and skills with a network of 20 other Bike Cities from Bergen in Norway to Wollongong in Australia.
And — if cyclists adapt by riding sooner or later, and provisions are made such as employers provide showers for sweaty commuters — that heat won’t hurt it.
“In all cases, warm weather, cold weather, I think solutions can be found to ensure that people can still benefit from cycling for whatever reason,” she told CNN.
And can it really compete with classic cycling destinations such as France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands?
Thanks to that unforgiving desert sun, it already does, says Aditya Bhiwandkar, a bicycle enthusiast and sales assistant at Wolfi’s.
“In Europe you have snow and rain,” he says. “But in Abu Dhabi you can really drive 365 days a year.”