When, on Thursday, Italian former world champion Marta Bastianelli and last year’s Tour De France Femmes sensation Silvia Persico take to the start line of UAE Tour Women with their four UAE Team ADQ team-mates, it will be a huge moment – not just for the sport of cycling, but the whole sense of what the bicycle could mean in the region. The Emirati women’s pro cycling team will be able race “at home” for the first time, starting in Port Rashid. The first-ever UCI Women’s WorldTour race in the Middle East is, as UAE Tour Director Fabrizio D’Amico put it, “a unique opportunity to showcase the development of women’s cycling within the country and the whole continent”.
It’s worth pedalling back slightly to consider that development. UAE Team ADQ and their connected men’s team UAE Team Emirates — whose Slovenian rider Tadej Pogacar won back-to-back Tours de France in 2021 and 2022 — have always committed to making cycling accessible, inclusive and achievable for all. In the past that’s meant professional riders meeting cycling enthusiasts and young people in schools, the kinds of engagement programs sporting organizations regularly get involved in, yet rarely leave much lasting legacy.
But in late December, UAE Team ADQ also launched a UAE-centric platform, Wmn Moving Fwd, on Instagram. “Here to empower, learn, inspire and have fun,” said their first post — with all levels of female cyclist welcome to “discover a community that nurtures physical and mental health.”
That initially meant complete beginners were welcome to use UAE Team ADQ’s support and resources in riding sessions on Mondays, starting at Wolfi’s bike shop at the entrance of the Al Ain Cycling track. That was followed by similar evenings at the Yas Marina Circuit and a corporate cycling programme, too. From building healthy habits to training together for fitness and the sheer pleasure of riding with like minded people, the Instagram channel alone is a compelling example of how the authority and resources of a professional sports team can really make a huge difference to, well, the sense of “normal” cycling.
“Our mission as a professional team,” said Melissa Moncada, head of UAE Team ADQ, “is not only limited to achieving the best results at international cycling events, but also includes nurturing a passion for cycling and sports among women in the UAE.”
So having the race here to “shape and shake the women’s cycling ecosystem,” as she put it, isn’t just well-meaning words. The Wmn Moving Fwd Instagram channel is full of plans about where people can watch the race — and hopefully be inspired to ride themselves.
There is also the sense young Emiratis in particular might eventually need to see themselves in these riders, so it’s really positive that the first woman on UAE Team ADQ’s reserve list for Thursday is the 21 year-old Emirati Safiya Al Sayegh.
Al Sayegh might be the first Arab female pro-cyclist, but she surely won’t be the last if UAE Team ADQ’s commitment to its Development Team is any guide. Offering mentorship, performance coaching, supervised training and racing programmes, it was born out one of the most successful talent programmes in women’s professional cycling. And within the 16-strong squad are a further two Emiratis, the sisters Huda and Zahra Hussain Mohammed Hussain.
The Development Team’s mission is to “transform women into heroines through cycling”, and any Emirati who makes it onto the start line in future editions of the UAE Tour Women will certainly have become that.
It’s important to have some sense of realism of course; the men’s team’s sole Emirati rider Yousif Mirza retired last year after not finishing a World Tour race in four years. Though the Adnoc Accelerator Program was launched in October to develop the next generation of male Emirati talent under the watchful eye of Mirza, it’s likely to be a lengthy process.
Still, having the UAE Tour Women here this week is not really about encouraging individual talent. It’s about underlining the possibility, pleasure and power of simply riding a bike. When the riders cross the finishing line at Abu Dhabi Breakwater on Sunday, they will be doing so in Asia’s first UCI Bike City, a designation given to cities who both host major UCI cycling events but also invest in developing community cycling infrastructure and programmes for all. A place which CNN last year called the “world’s hottest cycling city” — and not in the sense of its summer temperature.
Dubai, too, hit headlines across the world this month with plans for a 93km climate-controlled cycle loop. It was something of a viral joke — “the world’s most bling cycle path,” went one headline — but it’s actually part of Dubai’s “20-minute city” strategy, where residents should be able to access 80 percent of their daily needs and destinations within 20 minutes by foot or by bike.
As Moncada put it: “Our main goal is to make cycling accessible, inclusive, and achievable for all.” It feels like, as the spotlight of women’s cycling focuses on the UAE this week, that the country is on the (bike) path to achieving that goal.
The 2023 UAE Women Tour begins February 9 in Dubai and wraps up on February 12 in Abu Dhabi.