There are plenty of great places to cycle around Dubai, from DxBike near Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum City to the desert tracks at Al Qudra and Nad Al Sheba. The more adventurous may even take on the challenge of climbing Jebel Jais on two wheels.
Then there is Paula Ralph.
In January, the 47-year-old will travel to Cape Town in South Africa to begin a grueling 20,000km ride that will take her through 19 countries to the finish line in the Norwegian city of Nordkapp. No woman has ever completed the ride solo before, but Ralph is not fazed by the challenge her journey, dubbed The Long Ride: Cape to Cape, presents.
“I guess I’ve always just wanted to see how far I can push my limits,” Ralph explains to Livehealthy. “I just never found the right moment or the right challenge, life got in the way. I got to the stage where it was a ‘now or never’ situation and here we are — it’s now.
“I’ve never done any kind of endurance event, but I’m just running at this headfirst as I think if I’d done something smaller, I’d have probably just been satisfied with that. Why start small when you can start big?
“My friends and family are super-proud of me and they’ve all been cheering me on through all my training. I have an incredibly supportive coach too — without him I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Ralph will ride alone but will have a support car nearby, with coach Ian Jenner, physio Melissa Abbey and head of support Craig Longobardi on hand to carry spare equipment and ensure that she navigates the route safely. The aim is to cycle 200 to 250 kilometres every day for 100 days, which equates to 10 to 12 hours per day.
“That’s the goal, but we all know stuff can go wrong. I’ve mapped it out but there will be some flexibility; if I’m having a bad day, we might stop a bit earlier, but if we’re having a good day I will keep going and push on through. Hopefully we’ll have some good tailwinds!”
“I trust Craig implicitly and it is just great that he and the team will be close. They can motivate me to get on my bike, make me eat my food, make sure I’m drinking enough water.”
There will be beautiful scenery and tough terrain in equal measure on Ralph’s long ride, and she admits the route is likely to offer its fair share of difficult moments.
“Kenya is the country I’m looking forward to cycling through the most, but obviously there are some parts I’m nervous about. We have to be careful when we hit Sudan because of the situation there and even in Egypt, I’ve heard that there can be issues with solo cyclists.
“Austria is going to be really a massive challenge because of the Alps and after that I’m hopeful that after that, the rest will feel much more manageable.”
Ralph has been gradually building up to the challenge over the past few years, cycling increasing distances as the weeks have passed. For this month’s Dubai Fitness Challenge, she is riding 100km every day for 30 days in preparation.
“It’s shown me already that there can be good days and bad days,” Ralph says. “I’ve ripped up my tires, I’ve totally blistered the bottom of the feet. But if you fall short of the daily distance, you remember that you have to make it up somewhere down the line, so you try to push through as much as you can.
“You wake up and your head says, ‘stay in bed, you’re hurt’ but you have to try to ignore it and get through that mental barrier.”
A sports therapist in her day job, Ralph is used to helping athletes with their physical and mental health – something that should come in useful for her mammoth cycle. She also has previous experience of competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and freestyle wrestling.
“I’ve been bashed about enough in those sports so sitting on a bike is lovely in comparison,” Ralph says, laughing. “I can’t get my face squished on a bike. I’ve got through years of wrestling and jiu jitsu and I’m still in one piece – cycling is not a problem.”
The purpose of Ralph’s cycle goes beyond simply a sense of personal achievement. She is in the process of creating her own foundation, New Future, which will use education and cycling as catalysts to uplift and academically transform disadvantaged young people and communities. It is a combination she has seen work first-hand at the Kwano Academy in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa.
“The aim is to work alongside Kwano for a year and see how they operate before taking that approach further afield with New Future.
“It plays into the overall aim of the cycle, which is to show people that you’;re never too old to start something new — and that if you are seriously committed to achieving a goal, you don’t have to be afraid of trying.”