Abu Dhabi (CNN) – Cycling vacations typically create images of paddling in French countryside, a cozy ride with a baguette on the handlebars or perhaps a flat and friendly bike path that passes through cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam.
It usually does not include the Arabian desert, where summer temperatures and intense midday sunlight make it hot enough to crack a bike’s tires.
But that may soon change.
The pace of the two-wheeled revolution is gathering momentum in Abu Dhabi, with huge investments pushing both residents and visitors to the saddle for cycling experiences that are nowhere else on earth.
Last year it was named the official “Bike City” by Sport Cycling’s governing body, Union Cyclists International, or UCI – the first in the Middle East and Asia to receive acclaim. That intense temperature means it could literally be the hottest cycling city in the world.
At first glance, Abu Dhabi’s cycling credentials are not immediately clear. Built using oil resources, the UAE capital and surrounding terrain is the domain of automobiles. Gas prices are cheap, roads are wide, speed limits – outside of urban areas – are very fast.
Take a closer look and that’s a different story. The last few years have seen miles of dedicated bike paths along the new highway as the emirate has consistently established itself as the UAE’s gateway to cycling, introducing international races and nurturing indigenous talent.
Along the way it produces some thrilling cycling experiences that, when added to the extensive roster of other Abu Dhabi attractions, can be a major attraction for cycling enthusiasts and anyone looking to try something very different.
Ricky Bautista, far right, and a team from Beyond the Bike Bicycle Shop in Dubai on the Al Hudayariyat cycle track.
Barry Neeld / CNN
There may be some inconsistent hours to participate. In winter, mild climates are ideal for an all-day ride, but from May to September, when temperatures are sometimes around 48 C (118 F), the best time to ride is before sunrise or after sunset.
That’s why friends Andy Coleman and Dan Baltrucitis are spotted pulling their bicycle slippers into a parking lot on Al Hudayriyat shortly after 6 a.m. Saturday, an island south of the city that is home to a beach resort and has a beautiful purpose. Cycle track.
“I don’t know why I do that,” Coleman laughs off the foot wheel on the smooth asphalt to start his session.
Despite the early hours, they are not alone. Dozens of other cyclists are flying around the network of circuits, which range from three to 10 kilometers and include a fun over-water track. It is mostly flat, but ferocious coastal winds can increase the challenge.
“It’s a great experience,” says Ricky Bautista, one of a gang of uniformed riders who are lapping out at the first glimpse of daylight. Bautista’s team works at a bicycle shop in Dubai and has ventured across the border to try out the free facilities at Al Hudayriyat.
“I’m a beginner, but all my co-workers are cyclists and they told me, ‘Give it a try 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 enjoyable.”
Numerous other clubs are also chasing each other’s wheels on the circuit. The distant skyscraper of the city’s financial sector can be seen by men and women of all ages rather than obscuring the past. Some come by car and some ride from home. There is also a bike bus.
Founded in 2017, ADCC says about 1.7 billion dirhams ($ 460 million) have been poured into cycling along 445 kilometers (277 miles) of cycle track under construction. Along the way there is a new indoor velodrome and bike path that will connect Abu Dhabi with Dubai.
The goal is for as many locals as possible to ride bicycles as part of a healthier lifestyle, but also to attract visitors. “One of the main objectives is to get more tourists to come and enjoy a bike vacation in Abu Dhabi,” ADCC Executive Director Al Nukhaira Alakhyali told CNN.
An avid cyclist himself, Olakhyali is often seen training around one of the biggest highlights of the Abu Dhabi cycling scene – the Yas Marina Circuit. The racetrack loop that hosts Formula One events is regularly opened to the public for evening or morning cycling.
Even for non-F1 fans, facing the Marina Circuit is a thrill, with giant grandstands erected on either side of a seven-kilometer loop, plus occasional moorings with views of the superyacht track. The roar of the absent crowd can still be felt echoing on the spot.
First time riders will tear between the need for speed or a selfie as they move around the blacktop (avoiding an accidental turn in the pit lane).
Surreal and satisfying
The Al Hudayriat track includes an overwater section.
Departure of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi has more sedative – and indeed more extreme – cycling experiences.
Hardcore cyclists will want to head to Abu Dhabi’s only real mountain Jebel Hafit, where the brutal switchback road to nowhere offers wonderful views over the emirate and the opportunity to turn the foot into jelly.
Another highlight in the desert is the Al Wathba bicycle track, a simple, purpose-built cycleway nowhere in the middle that offers perhaps one of the most unrealistic and satisfying bike adventures in Abu Dhabi.
About an hour’s drive from downtown, the entrance to the track sits in a few buildings that include a shower and toilet block, a small supermarket and a bike shop that rents tired but serviceable carbon racing bikes for hours.
In the colder months it is the place of regular day races but in the summer, the track comes alive when the sun sets on the horizon. Solar-powered street lamps illuminate loops up to 30 kilometers long that extend into desert nights.
Riding alone is an exciting if slightly unnerving experience. It is quiet between the hills and, despite the small pool of electric lights, is very dark.
There is nothing but occasional flow of soft sand all over the track to prevent you from exploding at maximum speed. Here and there a blown bulb creates a mini-blackout that will need to hold their nerves to ride without slamming on the brakes.
Rides all year round
Cycling in the unfamiliar ink of a hot desert night seems like a good metaphor for the high-cost business of a sport that seems dissatisfied with Abu Dhabi’s climate.
But UCI’s advocacy and development manager Isabella Burkzak says the emirate is on a clear path to success with a commitment and strong political will behind its vision to promote and develop cycling for leisure, transport and sports.
She says her Bike City status should help motivate her to achieve those goals as well as continue sharing knowledge and skills with a network of 20 other Bike Cities from Bergen, Norway to Wollongong, Australia.
And – if cyclists adapt by riding sooner or later, and employers provide fountains for sweaty passengers – the heat won’t hurt them in the slightest.
“In all cases, hot weather, cold weather, I think solutions can be found to ensure that people can take advantage of cycling for any reason,” she tells CNN.
And can it really compete with classic cycling destinations like France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands?
Thanks to this endless desert sunshine, it already is, says Aditya Bhiwandkar, a cycling enthusiast and Wolfe’s sales assistant.
“In Europe you have snow and rain,” he says. “But in Abu Dhabi you can actually ride 365 days a year.”