A cycling challenge in Dubai

Dave Tew, who is one of the club’s prescription delivery volunteers, has still had time to write this great blog about a challenge somewhere completely different. 

Urban Ultra Challenge -Coast to Coast Ride – Dubai  

In March 2019, I received an email from a friend, Jason, who had been living and working in Abu Dhabi for a couple of years. We had done a few sportives together previously and already had Velo Birmingham and Ride London to do in 2019.

The email basically said ‘do you fancy this? ‘ http://www.urbanultra.com/events/urban-ultra-coast-to-coast-cycle-challenge-2019 So, I had a look at the website, immediately started thinking about the logistics, do I take my bike? Shipping it? Length of the ride, the average speed , how much climbing etc, etc. Costs, not just the cost of the ride, but getting there … etc.  We could stay with Jason in Abu Dhabi, I am saying ‘ We‘ now because,  was Helen ( my much better half) and not a cyclist going to let me go alone – absolutely not.

I spent quite a few days, umming and ahhing, could I do it? Just worrying about not completing it, being able to maintain the average speed , would I suffer with cramp, which I have done on events previously.  Finally emailed Jason, back and said yes. Booked the flights to Abu Dhabi the same day and booked my place on the ride, with a lot of trepidation, final conclusion was that there was always the ‘Broom wagon’, which I was pretty sure I would be climbing into.

Went through Velo Birmingham, Ride London, lots of 70 – 80 mile training rides, desperately trying to get my average speed to 27.5kmh, falling well short by a long chalk. 27.5 will not look particularly quick to lots of club members, to keep it up for what would be 215km was going to be a big ask in temperatures of 30+ for me.

I was having some very serious doubts that this was achievable, especially as the nights drew in from August, so riding in the week after work was out and the ride was not until November. I had done some very early morning rides, before work in an attempt to keep training. I owned a turbo trainer, which was fine, but the prospect of sitting on it staring at a wall and listening to music for hours did not fill me with a lot of joy. So August Bank holiday, I went on eBay, bought a second hand Wahoo KickR – smart trainer and set up Zwift, to try and make the Autumn training a bit more palatable, with the weather and the dark evenings closing in from September.

In the meantime Jason, in Abu Dhabi had been riding with a local club Raha Cycling, they never average less than 30kmh, Jason, advised that the new road surfaces and the fact that it is pretty flat around there helped a lot. On the Coast to Coast ride, we would be in what the event organisers called ‘ speed pods’  so a group of about 40 riders all averaging the same speed, fastest groups out first, then the next group out in 4 – 5 minute intervals.  Jason, felt we should go with the Raha group, I was not happy, feeling even more intimidated about keeping up, my feeling was that I would be in the ‘ Broom Wagon’ pretty quickly. I really wanted to go with the slowest group. But agreed that we would ride with the Raha Group.

With a lot of worrying done, decision made to ride a spare bike of Jason’s, I would just take my saddle and pedals out with me, along with all the other cycling gear requirements.  Before going we had read a lot of things about what could and could not be taken into the UAE, putting the wind up us, I went without my usual energy drink (white powder) thought the local authorities might frown on this. Planned to either buy some or knew I could have some of Jason’s and also he would let me have some chamois cream.

So a day and a half around Abu Dhabi, doing the tourist thing, Grand Mosque, a trip to the Emirates Palace which included a coffee sprinkled with Gold leaf!! Thursday November 14th, with a knot in my stomach we headed for Dubai, for a 3.45am start on Friday for the ride.  Helen was to spend the next day seeing Dubai, whilst we were pedalling across the desert.

3.45am Friday November 15th.  I was actually asleep when the alarm went off , had actually slept more than I had thought I would with lots of  concerns running around my head as we went to bed. I had intended to wear a Banbury Star top, but discovered that I had brought a long sleeve version, so had to wear my hi vis, green short sleeve top. Fuelling up with porridge, made with water and my least favourite breakfast, Helen spraying me in copious amounts of sun screen, getting drinks bottles sorted, food, slapping on the chamois cream.  Headed for a start time for a 5.30 start for the ride, it was still going to be dark, so lights on the bikes.  A short drive to the start by Al Mamzar lagoon signed in, picked up ride, speed pod info.  We waited for the rest of the Raha Club riders, me a mixture of adrenalin and butterflies in the stomach.

We gathered in our ‘ speed pod’ everyone from the Raha group were very friendly and supportive, quite an international group of people and some very expensive bikes.

It had just begun to get light and temperature was about 18 degrees. The call to prayer coming from the various mosques around us, created quite an eerie atmosphere as we rolled out with our police escort with full flashing lights led us away from the lagoon and round Dubai, we were rolling through, taking turns on the front our instructions from Raha’s ride leader was to do only a couple of minutes on the front at a time. My Wahoo was telling me we were doing about 33kmh, at a roundabout sitting behind someone and concentrating hard on the wheel in front, we took a wrong turn , had to make a very hasty ‘ U’ turn and get back on at the back of the group, who had gone straight on.  Sitting in the group was fine, obviously I was being dragged along, but I could not see me being able to maintain the pace we were at.

After about an 45 – 50 mins, just beginning to go through the out skirts of Dubai. We caught sight of the ‘pod’ in front of us, we had made up 4 mins on what was supposed to be a faster group. I could see the flashing lights of their police escort. Quite quickly we were right behind them, I hoped that we would stay there, but not a chance, up a flyover up slope we started to overtake them, this was going to be a struggle for me, gritting my teeth and cursing, I hung on in the group as we overtook and left them behind.

Getting to the outskirts of Dubai, the road started to roll up and down, not hills just rolling out and over the desert landscape, started to see sand dunes, scrubby vegetation and the noticeably the temperature increase, I was hanging on to the back of the pod, but it was proving to very tough.  After about an hour and half , myself , Jason and another rider had been dropped, we tried to help each other along , rotating doing a turn on the front, into what was not a warm, cross headwind, not strong but noticeable. 55km was the first rest,refuelling stop.  The Raha group, were already beginning to regroup to get back on the road, as Jason and I stopped to top up water, have a quick pee and grab bananas ,nuts.  Jason was in a hurry, I had barely finished peeing when , he said ‘ quick Raha are pulling out, lets go !’ .

Back on the Raha group , it was very obvious pretty quickly, that I was going to struggle to maintain the pace, I tried but feeling that if I tried to maintain the pace, I was not going to go the distance and not complete the ride.  By now we were into the desert proper, sand dunes, the road along stretch of straight tarmac heading toward what were clearly mountains not hills, they were sharp and pointy. The headwind now much stronger, coming from the right, I was slipping off the back of the group. Suddenly, there was a hand in the small of my back as a kindly soul tried to give me a push and get me back on, again I pushed, but the wind the constantly rolling terrain was too much and I was on my own…

Being on my own, didn’t bother me too much,  I didn’t have the route, which was my biggest concern. The route however was well signed, there were at least 3 pods behind me and the broom wagon.  I ploughed on into the desert, the Harjah mountains beginning to look very high, grey and stony. The landscape around me, a lot of sand, rocks and camels – eh!  Camels! Not something you see on a Saturday morning on the Gentle café ride.   The road, started to go up, not very steep but definitely up.

The Harjah Mountains, between two climbs. Photo taken by the Raha support driver who’d come to check on me

I was suddenly aware that there was a vehicle behind me, quite close, it didn’t appear to want to go by, despite very little traffic. I became more conscious of it as we approached a junction with traffic joining from a slip road on my right, never really got comfortable with riding on the right hand side of the road.  I felt a little bit spooked by this vehicle I glanced behind several times, looked like a native driving with a companion in the passenger seat and pulling a trailer.  The vehicle came along side me, was he trying to steal the bike?  The driver started to say something, I slowed, he slowed, finally I grasped that he was the Raha group support vehicle, had driven most the riders up from Abu Dhabi in the early hours of the morning and was there to support any breakdowns or if someone wanted to step off the bike.  He had been following the group, but knew I was off the back and had come back to check I was ok!  He then explained he had to go back to the main group as someone had a mechanical, but he would come back and check on me.  I breathed a sigh of relief and pedalled on up the mountain.

As the climb got steeper, I found myself among other cyclists, stragglers from faster pods. One was following a car, obviously their personal support vehicle, I tucked in behind the car too, trying to get in the pull. To my surprise, it was going to slow even for me up a climb, I went round it and ground on upwards.  I was now among sharp pointy, mountains, very rocky and arid landscape it was however out of the headwind. I could tell I was near the top of the climb the light changed and the temperature rose again, later discovered it was about 35 degrees.  The road began to go down, nice some freewheeling, it was just a down before the next up, but a bit of a respite.   Climbing again, the Raha support vehicle had located me again, tagged on behind me.  About now, I thought, I am unlikely to do this ride again, should take some pictures , I stopped the vehicle stopped, gave me some water and took a couple of photos.

117km, brought the 2nd rest stop. Where I found Jason, who had now dropped off the Raha Group due to cramp, up the first big climb. After a reasonable break, we got into the next and final big climb up to Kalba tunnel this bit of the route is used annually on the Tour of the UAE, it’s a long drag of about 15km, quite steep as it gets to mouth of the tunnel.  I waited for Jason at the entrance, he was cramping up. The other side of the tunnel, along downhill and you can see the Indian ocean and the east coast road which would take us to the end of the ride.

2019 version of the ride had 2 diversions which was why it was 215Km in total ,slightly longer than normal.  We finally reached the coast road , there had been a couple of small climbs to reach the coast road and my legs were now telling me that I was getting to the limits of my endurance. Perhaps the temperature getting to 38 degrees had something to do with my wearying legs.

Taken by me, this is the climb up to Kalba tunnel.  I was waiting for the Jason who is further back in the shot. This was not an easy climb as the photo illustrates and is used on the UAE Tour every year

150km we reached the 3rd and final rest stop, we were clearly at the backend of the cyclists as we grabbed food and drinks, we were advised that the broom wagon, was there if we wanted to get on, but that if we didn’t there was no more support and we would be on our own, we had to take off our ride numbers.  I was torn, riding by the sea and on the flat I felt as if I could keep going , but very aware that I may not be able too, very soon and concerned that we had nearly 60Km to do.

We pressed on , the description of the route on this part is that its stunning ,cycling by the Indian Ocean some of it is by the sea, is lovely, palm trees and beaches but it also has a number of oil refineries and the smell of oil is heavy in the air, as passed through the dockyards, oil terminals and some scruffy shops and buildings.  An hour or so further up the road, we passed a fellow rider abandoning and climbing into a taxi.  I was very tempted to join him. But kept turning the pedals, as we rode along the flat and by the sea, through some small towns, with scruffy looking shops and business along the road side and still Police on every roundabout stopping traffic and with a friendly smiles and waved us through.  Off one of the roundabouts a big 4 x 4 pulled along side us, driver asking questions about what we were doing and how far we had come, his face screwed into a grimace when we said we had come out of Dubai that morning.

Going in land a bit from the sea, had to climb up quite a big fly over , had to take on the Jens Voight mantra ‘ shut up legs’ they were protesting.  No sooner had we got over this and then there was a climb, not long but quite steep, I crawled up , the DI2 on Jason’s bike refused to go in bottom gear , I let go with a stream of expletives , as a respite we went downhill into another small town, quite busy especially as we approached a mosque, another call to prayer echoing across the town.

I glanced across at Jason’s Wahoo, which he had managed to download the route too, could see that we had about 25K to go, I sighed, feeling slightly lifted and kept turning the pedals, even on the  flat now my legs were beginning to protest.  We were not chatting much now, just concentrating on turning the pedals.  Suddenly the road went up again, I cursed a bit more, ground it out to another tunnel entrance, it seemed very dark in the tunnel , no lights especially against the clear blue sky and sunshine and I felt quite vulnerable seemed to be a lot of traffic around.

The other side, downhill and we could see the sea again, again I glanced at Jason’s Wahoo, could see a chequered flag on the display, which seemed to off to the right, I looked over and could see what appeared to be tents an finishing arch, I began to go right- ‘ wrong way Dave’ , Jason shouted.  I groaned, however a slight uphill, round a roundabout, double back on ourselves and there was the finishing arch, people with water, food at the hotel on the beach where we were to finish.

The finish, we could shower, get some food from an included barbecue, a quick beer, a lot of water.

Although I pleased to finish, it did feel a bit of an anti-climax.  We loaded the bikes on to a coach and flopped into our seats for the 2 hour bus journey back to Dubai and then the 90 minute car journey back to Abu Dhabi to Jason’s apartment.  By this time, I was smiling , elated that I had completed it 133 miles on a borrowed bike, in a very different environment.   Raha ride leader, gave me a ‘ chapeau’ , saying that to fly out here Tuesday and do the ride on Friday, was pretty good.

Now several months on, I know I won’t get the opportunity to do this again, to do a ride in what was an alien landscape was a brilliant experience and I really enjoyed the ride. Would I do it again – really don’t know. If you have the opportunity – go!