As Qatar gets ready to host the FIFA World Cup 2022, the country is becoming a capital of sports. In addition to football, Qatar is home to many sports including basketball, volleyball, swimming, fencing and many more. As a result, it has hosted the 2014 FINA World Swimming Championship and the 2015 World Men’s Handball Championship. In a couple of weeks, Qatar will host the UCI Road World Championships, the first cycling championship in the Middle East.
Cycling is one of the fastest growing sports in Qatar with various annual cycling events including the popular Tour of Qatar and Ladies Tour of Qatar, which are annual six-day events where cyclists travel across Qatar on a bicycle. Organised by the Qatar Cycling Federation, which is the national governing body of cycle racing in Qatar, both events have forged a reputation as respected standalone events in their own rights.
Cycling has become so popular in Qatar that it has opened doors for community cycling groups such as Qatar Chain Reaction, Qatar Sandstormers, Qatar Cyclists, Qatar Cycling Community and others, which together have over 5,000 cyclists.
Just recently, the first professional cycling-only shop has opened in Qatar. Carbon Wheels was established in December 2014 by three cyclists, Marouf Tirad Mahmoud, Wajeeha Al Husseini and Mohamed Al Sada. ‘The bike shop was born out of necessity. Everybody has been waiting for something like this to happen,’ said Mahmoud. ‘There’s a store that caters to their needs – has the accessories, supplies and products. We have a proper workshop, professional mechanics, bike fit studio, which wasn’t available here,’ Al Husseini added.
Located at Al Maha Center 10, Salwa Road, Carbon Wheels provides a range of products and services which are now available in Qatar for the first time including the bike-fitting studio, which is equipped with a technology called Retul, dedicated to improving comfort, performance and injury prevention by perfecting the fit between the biycyle and cyclist. In addition to the bike-fitting studio, the store also includes a bike wash and a workshop with a master cycling tool kit. Carbon Wheels is the first place in Qatar to offer top cycling brands – Specialized, Cervelo and Parlee. The store also provides custom-made bikes to cyclists. Bicycles at the store are available for men, women and children, costing anything from QR3,000 to QR100,000.
In addition, the store provides cycling accessories for both men and women including shoes and cycling clothing such as triathlon gear. Al Husseini has worked with Betty Designs, a freelance graphic designer who designs triathlon and cycling clothing for female athletes, and designed triathlons for female cyclists in Qatar, which are available for purchase at the store. ‘This hasn’t opened only because we thought there was an opportunity and a demand for bikes. No, we’re actually helping to grow the sport so we have a big stake in making sure that it has grown and that people really enjoy cycling…we’re doing this because we’re happy to do it because we’re passionate about it,’ said Mahmoud. ‘Everybody that works here is either an ex pro cyclist, has worked in cycling teams or is just a fanatic.’
Mahmoud, Al Husseini and Al Sada are members of the cycling group, Qatar Sandstormers. ‘Qatar Sandstormers is open to everybody and anybody. If you see pictures of our team, you see people of all ages with different levels of physical fitness; the Sandstormers are about getting people united to cycle for a charitable cause and to represent Qatar at the annual biking event, which is the Global Biking Initiative,’ said Mahmoud.
When Qatar Sandstormers first formed in 2012, they were a group of only six cyclists ‘who decided to take part in the Global Biking Initiative (GBI) to represent Qatar so it was team of expatriates and myself,’ explained Mahmoud. Today the group has over 30 members.
Every year, Qatar Sandstormers joins the GBI, one of the biggest ‘cycling for charity’ initiatives in Europe. Yearly, a group of international amateur and pro cyclers from more than 20 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas come together in cycling challenges, cycling for a predefined charity representing a social need from the countries they come from. ‘Each team represents their country and they raise money for a charity back home, so we represent Qatar when we go and we raise money for a charity from here. So our charities change every year,’ explained Mahmoud.
In their first GBI cycling challenge in 2012, Qatar Sandstormers cycled from Oslo to Düsseldorf, raising QR162,000 for Nepal through Reach Out to Asia (ROTA). In 2013, they cycled from Paris to Düsseldorf and in 2014, they cycled from Budapest to Munich, raising QR200,000. This year, together with another local cycling group, Qatar Cyclists, Qatar Sandstormers will be cycling from Venice to Stuttgart. To join the team, Mahmoud said ‘all you need to do is get a bike, start riding and raise money for a charity and you’re in. You have to get fit for the ride and raise money for charity.’
Besides participating in the GBI in Europe, Qatar Sandstormers also do charity rides in Qatar. ‘We’re a charity cycling team so we try to make it as much as possible about mixing sports and charity so we do the rides in Europe then we do local charity rides,’ said Mahmoud. One of their most successful rides locally was Ride for Gaza, which took place in November 2014 and raised QR50,000.
Mahmoud and Al Husseini are two of the first six members of Qatar Sandstormers – Mahmoud being the first Qatari and Al Husseini was the first female. In 2014, two Qataris and three expatriate females joined the group. ‘This year, we’re going to have the first Qatari girl join us, which is a big milestone…and we’re going to have at least 10 Qataris on the team,’ said Mahmoud.
In addition to Qatar Sandstormers, Al Husseini runs a private female-only group called The Veloettes, which has 40 members. ‘I was getting a lot of requests through people approaching or talking to Marouf, what about the girls? Who can we cycle with? And Qatari girls ask aren’t there any girls? I have a girl that wants to cycle but she’s shy to cycle with guys. Guys tend to be stronger and faster on the road so that’s a hindrance for them to start cycling. That’s why I was like ‘why don’t we do something, organise a group, get it together and get women to encourage each other’. So whether you’re new or a seasoned athlete cycling, this forum was created for you,’ Al Husseini explains. ‘It’s a secret group on Facebook just because of the nature of the questions that are asked and what happens inside the group so they can add me on Facebook and I’d be happy to add them as long as they are female and have an interest in cycling,’ she added.
The cycling culture
In the eyes of Mahmoud and Al Husseini, cycling is a booming sport in Qatar, describing it as vibrant, happening and very diverse. ‘The more the sport becomes popular, the more people get serious about the sport over here,’ said Mahmoud. ‘When Qatar Sandstormers first started, there was less visibility for cycling. It was mainly expat-driven and you would have odd races here and there and training rides with some of the big cycling groups, but it wasn’t as much as it is today. What you see now with the emergence of Qatari cyclists is something that’s totally new…now, you have more and more locals getting into the sport and a large proportion of them taking part in the GBI this year with us.’
In Qatar, cycling is a sport, not a method of transportation. ‘As a commuting activity, it’s not very popular. At different levels of society, I would think people of lower income that are getting around smaller parts of town, they do ride bikes as a very convenient way of getting around,’ Mahmoud explains, saying using cycling as a form of transportation especially for white-collar workers isn’t feasible. ‘If you think about it, if you get to the office with your bike, where are you going to put it? It’s hot outside, you’re going to have to take a shower when you get there. Are you able to do that? Whereas, if you’re doing it for just the sport, all of these issues are resolved very easily,’ he said. During the summer, Qatar has high temperatures reaching 50˚C. ‘I would say a lot of people let the weather get the best of them so if they don’t cycle in the summer somehow it affects their cycling for the rest of the year,’ said Mahmoud. In addition to the hot weather, some cyclists believe Qatar lacks the proper road infrastructure for the sport. ‘The bike lanes are becoming more and more popular in Qatar and many of the new roads have bike lanes. And the bike lanes are not very heavily used so I wouldn’t say its because we lack the proper infrastructure for commuting by bikes,’ Mahmoud believes. Mahmoud encourages the public to join the sport as he believes cycling changes your life as you begin to change your diet, habits and lifestyle, becoming fit and happy.
Author: Ola Diab, Photographer: Andrea Buenafe
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