Abu Dhabi (CNN) – Cycling holidays usually conjure up images of pedaling through the French countryside, a baguette strapped to your handlebars, or perhaps an easy ride on the smooth and comfortable bike paths that wind through cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.
They are not usually associated with the Arabian Desert, where summer temperatures and bright midday sun can get hot enough to blow bike tires.
But this may change soon.
The two-wheeled revolution is starting to gain momentum in Abu Dhabi, with huge investments encouraging residents and visitors alike to jump into the saddle for a cycling experience unlike anywhere else on earth.
Last year it was appointed by sport cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union, or UCI, the official “City of Cyclists” – the first in the Middle East and Asia to receive this award. Those scalding temperatures mean it could literally be the hottest cycling city in the world.
At first glance, Abu Dhabi’s cycling skills are not obvious. Built using oil wealth, the capital of the UAE and its surrounding territories are the prerogative of cars. Gasoline prices are low, roads are wide, speed limits – outside of urban areas – are very high.
Take a closer look, and it’s a completely different story. Kilometers of dedicated bike lanes have emerged along new highways over the past few years as the emirate has steadily established itself as the UAE’s gateway to cycling, hosting international races and nurturing local talent.
Along the way, he has prepared some exhilarating cycling experiences that, when added to Abu Dhabi’s extensive list of other attractions, could be a top draw for both cycling fanatics and anyone looking to try something different.
Ricky Batista (far right) and the Beyond the Bike team in Dubai on the Al Hudayriat bike path.
However, participation may require several non-social hours. In winter, the milder climate is ideal for daytime skiing, but from May to September, when temperatures sometimes peak around 48 C (118 F), the best time to ski is before sunrise or after sunset.
That’s why friends Andy Coleman and Dan Baltrushaitis can be found shortly after 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, pulling on their cycling shoes in the parking lot of Al Hudayriat, an island south of the city that is home to beach resorts and a beautiful purpose-built bike path.
“Why I’m doing this, I don’t know,” Coleman laughs as the pair roll out onto smooth pavement to begin their session.
Despite the early hour, they are not alone. Dozens of other cyclists fly the network of trails ranging from three to 10 kilometers, including a spectacular overwater course. It’s mostly flat, but the ferocious headwinds on the coast can make things difficult.
“It’s a great experience,” says Ricky Batista, one of a gang of uniformed racers who have been racing around since dawn. The entire Bautista team works at a bike shop in Dubai and ventured across the border to try out free services at Al Hudayriat.
“I’m new, but all my colleagues are cyclists and they told me, ‘Try it and you’ll have fun,’” he says. “Today it’s really difficult because of the wind, but then you change direction and you feel like you’re flying and it’s more enjoyable.”
Numerous other clubs also race each other on the track. Men and women of all ages can be seen blurred behind the distant skyline of the city’s financial district skyscraper. Someone comes by car, and someone goes from home. There is also a bicycle.
The Abu Dhabi Cycling Club coordinates the activities of cyclists in Abu Dhabi.
The ADCC, set up in 2017, reports that about AED1.7 billion ($460 million) has been invested in cycling in the construction of 445 kilometers (277 miles) of cycle path. A new indoor velodrome and bike path is on the way, linking Abu Dhabi with Dubai.
The goal is to get as many locals as possible involved in cycling as part of a healthy lifestyle and also to attract visitors. “One of the main goals is to attract more tourists and have a cycling holiday in Abu Dhabi,” ADCC chief executive Al Nuhaira Allkhieli told CNN.
Alkhieli himself, a keen cyclist, often trains at one of the highlights of the Abu Dhabi cycling scene, the Yas Marina Circuit. The F1 racing circuit loop is regularly open to the public for evening or morning bike rides.
Even for those who are not fans of Formula 1, passing the Marina circuit is a thrill, with giant stands looming on both sides of the seven-kilometer loop, and sometimes superyachts are moored overlooking the track. The roar of the missing crowd still echoes through the hall.
Aspiring riders will be torn between the need for speed and selfies as they circle the tarmac (avoiding the occasional turn into the pit lane).
Surreal and nice
The Al Hudayriat track includes a section above the water.
Departure for Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi offers quieter and even more extreme cycling.
Avid cyclists will want to head to Jebel Hafeet, Abu Dhabi’s only true mountain, where the brutal back road to nowhere offers stunning views of the emirate and the chance to turn your feet into jelly.
Another highlight of the desert is the Al Watba Bike Path, a slick, purpose-built off the beaten track bike path that arguably offers one of the most surreal and enjoyable cycling adventures in Abu Dhabi.
Cycling the Yas Marina F1 circuit is a thrill.
About an hour from the city center, the entrance to the track is in a small cluster of buildings that have showers and toilets, a small supermarket, and a bike shop that rents out old but serviceable carbon racing bikes by the hour.
During the cooler months, this is a common spot for daytime racing, but in the summer, the track comes alive as the sun sets below the horizon. Solar-powered street lamps dimly illuminate loops up to 30 kilometers long into the desert at night.
Riding it alone is an exciting, if a little unnerving experience. There, among the dunes, it is quiet and, despite small patches of electric light, very dark.
Nothing will stop you from racing at maximum speed, except for the occasional drift of soft sand along the track. Here and there a burned out light bulb creates a mini-blackout that riders will need to hold back in order to pass without hitting the brakes.
Abu Dhabi has been designated Bike City by the UCI.
Riding your bike headlong into the inky obscurity of a hot desert night might seem like a good metaphor for Abu Dhabi’s high spending on a sport that seems incompatible with its climate.
But according to Isabella Burchak, Advocacy and Development Manager for the UCI, the emirate is on a clearly lit path to success, having demonstrated the commitment and strong political will behind its vision to encourage and develop cycling for recreation, transport and sport.
Its status as a cycling city should inspire it to achieve these goals, she says, and to share knowledge and skills with a network of 20 other cycling cities from Bergen in Norway to Wollongong in Australia.
And if cyclists adapt by riding sooner or later, and measures are taken, like employers providing showers for sweaty commuters, then the heat won’t hurt them one bit.
“In all cases, hot weather, cold weather, I think solutions can be found so that people can enjoy the benefits of cycling for whatever reason,” she told CNN.
And can it compete with classic cycling destinations such as France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands?
Thanks to the unforgiving desert sun, this is already happening, says Aditya Bhivandkar, cycling enthusiast and salesperson at Wolfi’s.
“There is snow and rain in Europe,” he says. “But in Abu Dhabi you can really ski 365 days a year.”