A PARADIGM SHIFT
How Qataris became cycling’s newest fans
How Qataris became cycling's newest fans
On a January morning, 80 cyclists, ranging from competitive racers to children wheeling next to their parents, sped down the Corniche in a ride organised by the Qatar Cycling Federation and the Qatar Sports Club. Doha's skyline in the background, the riders made a statement: cyclists, not just Land Cruisers and buses, are part of Qatar's roads.
Cycling has embedded itself not just in streets but in the lifestyle of Doha's residents. Expats, especially those from Europe, North America and the Philippines, have been active cyclists for years. They have formed dozens of groups including Qatar Chain Reaction, Pinoy Roadies Qatar and the Qatar Cycling Community. Recently the sport's popularity has grown so much that cycling routes are packed, groups' memberships have increased and Qatar's first specialty bike stores opened within a month of each other at the end of 2014.
But scattered among the European, North American and Filipino expats on the Corniche that Friday morning was a new group of cycling fans: Qataris.
“It's booming, it's not just growing,” says Dr Mohammed Al Kuwari, a consultant bariatric surgeon at Hamad Medical Corporation. Al Kuwari founded the Qatari cycling group, Qatar Cyclists, in 2012. At the time there were only three members. The group has since grown to 60.
While there are no formal statistics to show how many Qataris cycle, Andrej Filip, technical secretary at the Qatar Cycling Federation, cites increased attendance at time trials, races and rides, and the rapidly growing membership of Qatar Cyclists as evidence that Qataris are increasingly opting for the cycling lifestyle.
It's an active lifestyle with the potential to address Qatar's high obesity rates and related health problems such as diabetes. A 2013 study in the medical journal
Lancet found that the majority of Qatar's adult men and women are overweight or obese, and Qatar's 2014 diabetes rate of 16.3% was well above the world average. The Supreme Council of Health advocates exercise on its web site as a way to decrease the 70% of Qatari deaths in 2013 that it says were due to preventable causes. Serious cyclists have made it how they exercise yeararound, riding as early as 4:30 a.m. in the summer to avoid scorching temperatures.
For Qatari cyclist Haya Al Ghanim, bicycle rides have slowly replaced coffee chats as a way to keep up with friends. It's a social sport, concludes Dan Crowley, an Irish expat and an avid cyclist with the group Qatar Chain Reaction. Participation often includes weekly rides ranging from about 40 kilometres to over 100 kilometres with other cyclists, the decision to spend time outdoors instead of in a car or at the gym and the ability to push yourself to go faster and farther.
“The beauty of cycling is that you can challenge yourself and achieve huge distances,” Al Kuwari says. “If you told me two years ago that I would be able to ride 150 kilometres, I would say ‘that's impossible'.”
The sport also involves splurging on a few too many bicycles. “It started as a hobby and it became a passion,” says Dr Abdulaziz Al Kuwari, an orthopaedic spine surgeon and Mohammed Al Kuwari's twin brother who currently runs Qatar Cyclists. He has been cycling for three years and has invested in five bikes.
Qatari cyclist Marouf Mahmoud says he wants to inspire and attract people to cycling, especially other Qataris. He is the captain and a co-founder of the charity cycling group Qatar Sandstormers, which started in 2012, and, with partners Wajeeha Al Husseini and Eamonn Condon, he opened the Doha bike shop Carbon Wheels in December 2014.
“We're really bringing out the glamour in the sport,” Mahmoud says, sitting in an armchair near the front window of Carbon Wheels just after sunset on a Wednesday. The normally busy store had mostly emptied, but a few customers stopped in for a quick purchase or chat. Carbon Wheels offers custom bike fittings and it and the other new bike shop, Flash Bike Shop, located in Mesaeed, are stocking brands and providing maintenance services that were previously unavailable in Qatar. They offer the guidance and variety that helps get new cyclists started, says Crowley.
To encourage conservative cyclists, including conservative Qataris, to start cycling Al Husseini says Carbon Wheels is looking to stock more modest clothing lines. This could encourage more Qatari women to get involved with cycling, Al Ghanim says.
The Ministry of Youth and Sports made Qatar Cyclists the first amateur cycling club to be sponsored by Qatar and appointed Abdulaziz Al Kuwari manager of a new
"A 2013 study in the medical journal
TheLancet found that the majority of Qatar’s adult men and women are overweight or obese, and Qatar’s 2014 diabetes rate of 16.3% was well above the world average."
Abdulaziz Al Kuwari participated in this ride to “show everybody that there are Qataris who are cycling,” he says. “And to show cars that bicycles are part of the street.”
cycling centre. The centre has already organised rides and will have its own team with support vehicles and staff, says Abdulaziz Al Kuwari.
But for cycling's popularity to continue to grow, the government needs to provide the necessary infrastructure, and fast, says Filip. Right now, Qatar's roads, dominated by Land Cruisers, are dangerous for cyclists. There has been a 14% increase in vehicle accidents between 1995 and 2013, according to a study presented this year by the Qatar Road Safety Studies Center at Qatar University. Most cyclists ride early on Friday mornings in groups to stay safe, says Crowley, but this does not entirely avoid accidents. On arguably the most popular road among cyclists, Ceremonial Road, cars swerve into the bike lane to cut ahead of traffic, Filip says.
“They ride their cars in the cycling lanes at like 80 kilometres an hour,” Filip says. “I'm afraid something bad will happen soon because you see more and more riders going out and it's just not safe.”
The Qatari government is in the process of diversifying its roads, adding pedestrian walkways, a train system and bike lanes, says Dr Eyad Masad, an executive associate dean and professor in the Mechanical Engineering Programme at Texas A&M at Qatar. In most of the expressway and local road projects, Ashghal builds bike lanes, says Noura Zreik, an Ashghal spokeswoman.
Cyclists have taken advantage of some of the new bike lanes, including ones near the new airport, says Mon Muñoz, a cyclist with the Filipino cycling group Pinoy Roadies Qatar. However, most bike lanes being built in Doha are conducive to commuting, the feasibility of which experts and cyclists have mixed opinions [link to old article], not for the long-distance training required for the competitive road cycling that is taking off among Qataris. Cycling as a sport demands wide, interrupted roads, says Mahmoud. Filip points to new highways being build outside of Doha as possible locations for cyclists to train, such as an expressway currently under construction that will link the Doha Golf Club to Al Khor and Ras Laffan, as long as the bike lanes are wide enough for groups or the vehicles accommodate cyclists.
To fit the needs of today's cyclists, there should be a velodrome, a good bike share programme and more sports clubs that supply bicycles to their members, says Saad Ferzam, an avid cyclist and the husband of the owner of Flash Bike Shop.
Filip hints that a velodrome is on its way. In the meantime, the Qatar Cycling Federation will continue to host local and international events to raise awareness of the sport, including the annual Men's and Women's Tour of Qatar in February and the Road World Championships in 2016. Qatar Cyclists and Qatar Sandstormers are also planning a 45-kilometer ride for Sports Day, this February 11, says Mahmoud. Like the previous Friday ride, this route will include the Corniche.
Abdulaziz Al Kuwari will be participating in this ride to “show everybody that there are Qataris who are cycling,” he says. “And to show cars that bicycles are part of the street,” Mohammed Al Kuwari adds. “We believe in promoting this culture.”
Mahmoud says he hopes to see increased Qatari viewership of the upcoming races, and that one day cycling in Qatar will be so popular that, like in Europe, people will line the streets to watch a cycling race.
“People outside of their houses in their own neighbourhoods watching and cheering,” Mahmoud says. “I think that is something that will happen.”
More than 80 cyclists, which included many Qataris, participated in a ride organised by Qatar Cycling Federation and Qatar Sports Club
Dan Crowley (second from left) and Saad Ferzam (second from right) pose for a picture along with friends at the Qatar Sports Club after completing their ride down the Corniche.
Members of the Pinoy Roadies Qatar
Marouf Mahmoud warms up before heading out for a second ride.