There are many people who don’t like the gym but are seeking a more fun and social way to get active, maybe with friends, or loved ones, or even to make new friends. Cycling is an affordable way to get fitter but also to enjoy the wonderful and ever-growing array of safe cycle spaces the UAE now has to offer, and to see some of its stunning scenery along the way.
Old or young, male or female, there is an option for everyone, and with technological advances such as the peddle-assisted ebikes, groups of varying levels can now more easily even ride together. Unlike the impact of road running, cycling is accessible for people of all backgrounds, so Friday spoke to some of the UAE’s cycling veterans and safety experts to get the lowdown on how to get back on the bike for those of us who likely have not ridden regularly since childhood.
While a bike doesn’t have to be a huge investment, find out if cycling is the sport for you before taking the plunge, says Cycle Safe Dubai founder Stewart Howison. ‘95 per cent of people can get into it and enjoy it, but the best thing to do is to go and hire a bike for a weekend and get out for a little ride, and see what it’s about.’ Stewart’s group rides every Wednesday at the Dubai Autodrome, where you can hire bikes on site, ‘so that’s a good one to try before you commit to spending money on a bike.’
Other options include the bike rentals available at cycle tracks around the country such as at Yas Marina, Mushrif Park, Al Qudra and Nad Al Sheba tracks. Or for an even quicker and easier intro into basic cycling, grab a ride from a cycle-share scheme, which loan out bikes for use on city bike paths at an hourly rate (you’ll need a credit card to operate the machines).
In Dubai, Downtown, Marina and the Palm have cycle shares run by NextBike, which starts from Dh15 for 20 minutes. In Abu Dhabi, Cyacle has over 50 stations around town, including on the scenic Corniche. Sharjah also has Byky rentals around Al Majaz.
Buying your bike
There’s a lot of terminology out there – from hybrid to fixie to road bike, and a cycle really isn’t just two wheels and a frame anymore. Our advice? Shop around, and hit up the staff at bike shops with all your questions; more often than not, they are keen bikers themselves. That goes for the small businesses as well as the big-box stores, and there is an ever-increasing number of independent bike shops in the country. ‘Buying your bike is an ongoing relationship as you will be back and forth over the years with it, so find a shop you can relate to. You will build a relationship with the people you are dealing with,’ says Stewart, who runs Revolution cycles in Dubai’s Motor City. Pick a bike that’s right for you, he says.
‘If it’s just to ride socially, you don’t need to spend Dh20-30,000. You can spend Dh2-3,000 on an entry-level bike that will last you. If you’re going to ride a few times a month, that’s enough. If it’s a sport you know you’re going to want to do four to five times a week, spend a bit extra on a better quality bike. Although I’m a bike shop owner, I’m a true believer in people doing things they love and enjoy so I don’t want people to feel committed to it purely because they dumped a huge amount of money on a bike. It’s better to buy something you’re going to use.’
Wolfgang Hohmann is one of Dubai’s cycling pioneers and the owner of Wolfi’s bike shop on Shaikh Zayed Road. He says there is no one-size-fits-all prescription to buying a bike, as each body and need is different. ‘We are all different in terms of size, flexibility, sportiness.’
He carries out customisation testing on each customer before they buy, analysing their body type, taking specific measurements of things from limbs to torso, to ‘see what’s the best size for your body to be comfortable and efficient.’ For safety, he says comfort is key, as without it, the body will constantly be in a state of imbalance. ‘A racing bike would have the benefit of smaller tyres, so takes less effort to ride on a good surface, but a hybrid is an easy and more relaxed position and you can ride it in communities doing semi-long distances. For more off-road cycling, you have mountain bikes, but it all depends on the purpose. Mountain bikes are also easier to go up and down kerbs or speed bumps and so conserve more energy but we usually put people on a bike and let them test it first.’
What else to buy
‘A must is a helmet. We’ve always said “no helmet, no ride”,’ says Stewart. You can’t put a price on your head and your safety. Even from a stationary position, you don’t want to fall and it doesn’t matter if it’s in your community or on the roads, it’s a must. Lights to be seen are also a safety must, no matter where you cycle. Reflective clothing, too, is an essential. ‘We tell riders “be visible”.’ Going on long rides? Padded shorts are really useful as when you get started, it can be very uncomfortable when you get saddle sores, adds Stewart.
‘We always hope you won’t need one, but a survival kit is a must too.’ You’ll have a water bottle, spare tubing, puncture kit and pump. As you progress you’ll probably want to buy the clips and cleats to get your pace faster, as you’ll gain around 35 per cent more efficiency and in turn, power and speed, by using them. If you start to enjoy the more competitive side of cycling, you’ll also want to start investing in more of the technology to track your performance and even start to enter groups where you’ll be competing together, tracking your distances, speeds and frequency.’
Also read: What’s it like to ride a Dh40,000 bicycle
Want to race?
Even for beginners, getting motivated by competition is a positive way to stay committed to the sport, says Stewart. ‘Many of the races have sprint distances, such as the RAK Bank Ride, which has a 30km or the full 85km; the Ajman Ride, which has 48 and 102km; and the oldest race, Spinneys 92, has 45km or 92km. The routes are all flat and accessible to all levels, but you have to recognise your first race will be a different experience to your road ride. The number of people will add a challenge, the adrenaline will mean you may fatigue sooner as you start off faster, but you can start off practicing with one of the many groups in Dubai now.’
Cycle Safe Dubai has many levels of group in its Friday and Saturday morning rides. ‘Most humans have a competitive side, even if when they come, they say they don’t. In time, they’re all racing each other and competing on distances.’
‘Your metabolism will change, you’ll have more energy, it activates endorphins so you’ll feel happier, and you’ll sleep better. You’ll get fitter and healthier and will be able to enjoy the finer things in life that bit more,” says Stewart, who has seen huge changes in many among his cycling community. According to Harvard Health, the benefits are even more. As there is no weight-bearing, cycling is better on the joints than many activities. Dr Clare Safran-Norton says it is ‘good for anyone with joint pain or age-related stiffness’. Additionally, she says it is a sport that helps build bone density: ‘Resistance activities, such as pushing pedals, pull on the muscles, and then the muscles pull on the bone, which increases bone density.’
Cycling also builds muscle, not least around the major muscle groups of the quads, hamstrings and gluteus muscles. Additionally, cyclists work other groups such as core stability and the shoulders and arms to guide and hold the bike. Dr Safran-Norton says it is an activity which has benefits in everyday life: ‘The benefits carry over to balance, walking, standing, endurance, and stair climbing.’
‘Living where we live, we have all the facilities to ride in safe places,’ says Stewart. ‘It’s very naive and selfish to think we’d be safe riding to the locations. What it costs to put a bike rack on the car is a small price to pay for safety. Until there are more cycle paths linking communities, it’s still better to drive. As the athletes, we have the responsibility to make it easy for road users to see us out there. Running or cycling, even with cycle and running tracks, you still have to cross main roads. Many of us have bells on the bikes also to alert the runners to us being there. Drivers aren’t looking for an invisible runner or cyclist, and that’s what you are, invisible, without your lights and reflective clothing.’
Wolfgang agrees that helmets and lights are essentials. ‘I always use lights on my bike and make myself visible. If you’re more visible in traffic, it’s safer for you – people don’t expect to see cyclists on the road.’
Thomas Edelman, from Road Safe UAE, says there are some key guidelines for cyclists to ensure their ride is safer. In addition to the helmet, visible clothing and lights on bikes, he says: ‘If you have to ride on a street, keep to the right-hand side and use hand signals when you have to turn.” He even goes as far as to recommend avoiding riding in the dark, ‘unless you absolutely have to’. Just like those on four wheels, he says: ‘Obey traffic laws; signs, lights and road markings.’
It is also vital to be aware of your surroundings and remember other road users, he says, meaning to watch out for obstacles such as opening car doors, objects on the road and hazards such as pot holes. In addition to joining group cycles, Edelman says it is advisable to ‘organise a support car which can protect riders from behind’; for example Wolfgang’s Dubai Roadsters rides, which go every weekend, have a support car.
Cycling for all
‘It is increasingly becoming something even families are doing together, especially since the development of e-bikes or peddle-assisted bikes, meaning that if one rider is faster than others, it really helps as an equaliser,’ says Stewart. ‘In 2016 we had a children’s race in Spinneys 92 for ages 6-15, between 2.5km and 30km. The first year we had 400 take part and last year, we had 2,000. For kids, I don’t recommend the bikes in the toy stores as they just won’t last, plus they’re overpriced due to the branding. It’s worth buying a well-made bike that’s actually half the price, around Dh600+, and made to endure.’