Why gravel cycling is set to become the UAE’s new favorite outdoor activity

To the untrained eye, gravel cycling looks as though someone on a traditional road bike has lost their way in comical fashion. Straying from smooth asphalt tracks, gravel bike riders seemingly hurtle across a mountainside at breakneck speed trying to rejoin their mates.

Hilarious as this scenario is, there are some key intricate differences that make gravel cycling the hottest leisure activity on two wheels right now.

What is gravel cycling?

Gravel bikes have the same drop handlebars (read: curved bars) and dimensions as a road bike seen at the Tour de France. However, they’re built for increased durability and have wider tires with deeper tread, which can grip loose gravel and steep terrain akin to a mountain goat.

The sport, which combines the speeds of road cycling with the freedom of mountain bike riding, has been around for a few decades, but it’s only just started to enter the mainstream. Gravel biking is attracting a lot of attention at the moment because of how seamless the transition from road cycling to off-road riding is. One minute you’re blasting along in a Peloton on the tarmac and the next you can be powering through dirt tracks on the same bike.

The deeper tread on a gravel bike's tires gives them better grip on grit and steep terrain.  Photo: Markus Distelrath / Pixabay

Gravel cycling, in its basic form, has been around since the bicycle was first invented. But it’s only within the last decade that it has become a discipline in its own right. In fact, 2022 will be the first year that cycling’s governing body, UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), will sanction official global events for the sport in Spain, the Philippines, the US and other countries. And although the UAE isn’t currently on the list of official race venues, we predict it’s only a matter of time before it is.

The UAE is cycling central

Abu Dhabi is now officially “Bike City” and is building a new 12,000-square-meter velodrome that will offer track racing. The Abu Dhabi Loop will be a segregated cycleway linking key destinations, and the current 300-kilometer cycling network will be increased to more than 1,000km. Meanwhile, Dubai recently announced its lofty target of having a whopping 739km of cycle track by 2026. To further enhance its reputation as one of the cycling capitals of the world, the UAE is embracing gravel cycling and, quite literally, blazing trails across the Emirates .

From specially sculpted tracks around Al Qudra lakes to the tree-lined routes and technical turns through Mushrif Park, there are a number of places to give gravel cycling a whirl. Venture out towards the mountainous regions of Ras Al Khaimah, a regular haunt for mountain bike riders, and you’ll see gravel cyclists zooming across makeshift tracks in higher numbers than ever before.

It’s all about the sense of adventure when it comes to this sport. And getting off the beaten path in search of new thrills is key to gravel cycling’s growing popularity.

Unparalleled riding experience

Edge Cycling founder Omar Al Saadi rides his gravel bike in Shawka.  Photo: Edge Cycling

Emirati ultra-cyclist Omar Al Saadi is leading the gravel cycling charge in the UAE. Al Saadi’s recently opened Edge Cycling store and cafe in Dubai’s Town Square is providing a gateway to the sport for curious riders. With its dedicated line-up of gravel-spec bikes – which are available to buy or hire alongside all the accessories you need to go out and explore safely – Edge Cycling aims to add to its burgeoning community through its Dubai HQ. Pedal cafe is another go-to for bespoke bikes.

“I was originally a mountain bike rider,” says Al Saadi, “but to get better at it, I had to do road bike riding as it was more accessible for training near my home.

“I had some races where I had to ride on gravel on my road bike and I found this very cool as it allowed me to merge long-distance riding with off-roading.”

The entrepreneur was hooked and has since taken part in long-distance, ultra-style races on a gravel bike. Getting away from the traffic and, as Al Saadi puts it “engaging more with nature” is a big reason why he fell in love with the sport. Through Edge Cycling, Al Saadi is hoping to introduce more people to these plus points.

“I want people to have the same stories and experiences that I have had with gravel cycling, and to show customers the machine that can take you there and the races you can enter. I want it to be much more than selling a bike and then leave them hanging when it comes to actual experiences, ”Al Saadi says.

In terms of what the future holds for gravel biking in the UAE and beyond, the Emirates is optimistic that the sport is set to thrive. He says: “We have some amazing places around the UAE that are yet to be discovered by cyclists. Being in the middle of the world, we’re only a few hours on a flight away from even more amazing places to ride [gravel bikes] too. ”

For now, though, the UAE’s diverse landscape provides a ready-made playground for those with a bit of imagination and daring. With most road bikes able to transform into a gravel bike by swapping out slick tires for some with deep tread, the country’s thriving cycling scene could soon shift the focus on to uncharted territory.

Updated: April 21, 2022, 2:27 PM

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