Come Tuesdays and the long and winding cycling track at Al Qudra, Dubai, dotted with Ghaf trees and sand dunes comes alive with a burst of colour. Lining the arid desert landscape on these days is a group of women in jerseys with shades of fuchsia, neon and grassy green. Pedalling in rhythmic momentum on brightly painted cycles, tufts of hair flowing from the back of their helmets, these are members of Velo Vixens, the oldest women-only cycling group in Dubai.
These feisty women are on their weekly 6am social ride. Clocking almost 50km at the speed of 20-28kph, they take turns on the road giving each other company while chatting away the blues.
"Everyone is welcome to join; we have women from all walks of life – from working professionals to grandmoms. And you don’t have to be sporty. Beginners are supported all through the ride as well," says Alison Kirrage. At 58, Alison is one of the oldest members of the group, herself a mum of five and grandmum to two.
Founded in 2013 by former Dubai resident Emma King with only eight members, Velo Vixens today has grown to 1,200 active members on Facebook, who meet twice a week. On Tuesdays is the relaxed and structured ride, on Fridays, the women race at top speed.
Even during Ramadan, Dubai-resident Hannan Ali, 46, kept her cycling routine intact. The Yemeni-Egyptian computer engineer and mum of three has not let fasting slacken her Tuesday morning ride. "I enjoy cycling with the group. During Ramadan my increased endurance and stamina has helped me to keep fit and observe the fast better," she says.
Cycle of health
The rewards of cycling, the members say, are multifold – a strong reason for the increasing number of women joining the group and hitting the tracks. Cycling is gentle on the joints, improves cardio-respiratory fitness, enhances core stability and reduces the risk of osteoarthritis by helping reduce weight.
The Vixens came into existence thanks to a birthday gift their founder Emma received from her husband to prod her to shed some weight. Alison, at that time, was struggling with knee pain following years of running and had recently opted to cycle instead. The duo met on a cycling track and felt that a women-only cycling group was a perfect way to burn the calories and remain fit. Till then, sharing track space with male cyclists had been an intimidating experience. "The cycling scene was mainly male-dominated. Keeping pace with powerful, competitive and at times prejudiced male cyclists was not easy," points out Alison.
Riding a bike in a supportive group, they found, was a great confidence booster. The post-ride coffee sessions further stimulated camaraderie and paved the way for budding friendships. A fact that Phillippa Glover, 42, fully agrees with.
She moved from Singapore to Dubai in March 2020, just before the lockdown. In Singapore, following a recovery from breast cancer at the age of 33, Phillippa used to participate in triathlons with her husband. She had been a member of a women-only Triathlon Club as well. "When I moved to Dubai, I missed being part of a fitness group. So, when I got a new road bike in November 2020, a friend asked me if I wanted to join Velo Vixens and ride with them over the weekend to Khor Fakkan," she recalls.
"Since then, I have made many new friends. Even when I meet other women on the cycling track, I always ask them if they have heard of Velo Vixens. If not, I tell them that they must join. We can talk about everything and anything while out riding."
From discussing hobbies and children to taking tips about fixing a puncture, the women chat all along with each other while cycling. Perks of these conversations for newbie cyclists include learning about best bikes, suitable clothing, accessories and with added advice on improving speed and stamina.
Kerry Lancaster, 28, a British digital health consultant, joined the Vixens in December for her first ride. As a beginner she was cycling for about 30 minutes covering 15km. "Today I regularly complete 80km rides. My physical well-being has increased phenomenally since starting with this group. Emotionally, I have found an exercise routine that I thoroughly enjoy," says Kerry.
Health benefits for women
Riding with the Vixens meant that she was even able to take a seven-day cycle challenge to raise funds for a charity in April this year. "I rode for 770km over seven days around all the seven emirates. This would not have been possible without the support of the Vixens in increasing my fitness and confidence on the bike."
Significantly there are several physical and mental health benefits of riding on two wheels for women. Studies show that cycling for just 20 miles (32.2km) a week can reduce the risk of heart disease by half.
According to Dr Amala Nazareth, obstetrician and gynaecologist at Prime Healthcare, Dubai, it has been proven that cycling improves cardiovascular health by reducing the number of strokes, ameliorates the risk of diabetes and in the long term reduces the risk of several cancers, including cancer of the endometrium, which is a condition caused by obesity.
"Being part of a cycling group has a beneficial effect as a group activity. When you cycle with others they become part of your journey towards achieving health goals. Mentally, it helps in reducing anxiety and depression. For women going through menopause, the circular movement of cycling transports energy and nutrients to the joints and bones, reducing the risk of osteoarthritis," says Dr Amala.
Over time as their confidence and expertise on their bikes bloomed, the Vixens dreamt of participating in professional events. Hannan progressed to an intermediate road bike and hopes to go on cycle tours in Europe with her husband. Alison has already been participating in several events, including the Dubai Spinneys 92km annual event for the last few years now. She has also done the coast-to-coast cycle race from Dubai to Fujairah covering 210km and has even been on a nine-day cycling event in the UK as well. "This year, I hope to take part in the Maratona cycle tour in Italy in July covering 138km on an elevation of 4000m and also do a three-day tour in Andorra in Spain," she says.
Waking up at dawn, while juggling their busy schedules, the Velo Vixens are clearly reaping the many shared joys of cycling. The best bit being this fabulous group activity is high on energy and laughter, and as Kerry points out, "it’s simply a great way to start your day".