As the sun rises over Dubai’s desert, the Al-Qudra cycling track is already in full swing as riders leave behind highways and skyscrapers to hit an 80-kilometer trail.
Every weekend, all year — even in the blistering summer heat — hundreds if not thousands of bike enthusiasts head to Al-Qudra, some 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) from the city center.
Its lunar-like landscape devoid of cars is a change of pace for many from their urban lifestyle and a chance to connect with nature and perhaps spot an Arabian oryx, a rare member of the antelope family.
Despite temperatures that often top 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) with high humidity, cycling has sharply risen in popularity in the United Arab Emirates.
It hasn’t hurt that UAE Team Emirates rider Tadej Pogacar has won the last two editions of the Tour de France, the world’s most prestigious cycling race.
New cycling infrastructure is always cropping up in the capital Abu Dhabi as well as Dubai, where the second annual ‘Dubai Ride’ takes place on Friday along the city’s main highway.
Emirati triathlete Asma al-Janahi, 28, describes Al-Qudra as her favorite place in Dubai and a trip there equivalent to meditating.
“You get away from the city, and you just go see Mother Nature, this beautiful desert,” the sports administrator at New York University Abu Dhabi told AFP.
“It is very peaceful… seeing some birds and oryx. You feel so connected to that place, especially with a bike.”
Opportunities for cyclists are growing in the UAE, in line with a global boom in the sport.
Abu Dhabi’s Formula One circuit is handed over to cyclists several times a week, with other tracks available across the emirate.
The ‘Dubai Ride’ was launched with a great ceremony last year, with Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed leading the parade of cyclists down the six-lane Sheikh Zayed Road.
German Wolfgang Hohmann, who opened a bike shop in Dubai with his wife in 2002, says the emirate, better known for its love of four-wheel drives and luxury cars, has come a long way.
“Dubai was not as developed as it is now, and we didn’t have a cycle track,” he told AFP, saying it has been a “long journey” since they first opened the store.
“We have now a ProTour team winning the most important race in the world, (and) we have thousands of cyclists on the weekend on the cycle tracks,” he said.
According to Yousif Mirza, the only Emirati pro-cyclist, the sport in the UAE is “moving fast, as fast as the wheels on a bike”, he told AFP.
“Year on year, the progress is noticeable. The government is sparing no effort when it comes to building tracks,” said Mirza, who represented the UAE at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
But even away from the mega-malls and massive highways, said Natika Lewis, a cyclist from Wales, cycling is not free of Dubai’s “see and be seen” culture.
“Dubai is always about bigger and better, so people want the better bike, they want the better kit,” she said.
“People are really competitive, Emiratis and expats.”