Saturday, February 21, 2009
Article submitted to Pedal Magazine Feb 16 (may or may not be printed!)
EXPERIENCES OF A CANADIAN WOMAN CYCLING IN SAUDI ARABIA
“The first rule of riding in the desert is to make sure make sure you approach camels from behind. If they get freaked out, they start running, and God help you if you are caught in front of them – they go like the wind and plow into anything in their way”. Rodd Taylor, my friend and fellow Canadian expat was cruising beside me on his brand new Pinarello, the vibrant red/white/black paint job of the carbon frame a stark contrast to the harsh, dusty desert-scape that surrounded us.
I rolled warily past the hairy, hulking creature standing in the centre of the empty road we were riding along as it sized me up me from under its long, feathery eyelashes. I eyed it back doubtfully, thinking if this thing could run, there was still hope for Mama Cass to compete in high jump. Nevertheless, I rode the next 50m like Mario Cipollini in the final kilometer of a pack finish - muscles tensed and senses alert ready to stamp my pedals and sprint if this gangly long legged creature proved it could challenge the established laws of inertia…
When I first accepted my year-long nursing contract in Saudi Arabia, I resigned myself to the fact that any “cycling” would be a serious act of desperation as I would be resorting to the clunky, La-Z-Boy-like recumbent bike in the dark, stuffy basement gym of my all female housing complex. In a country where women are required to cover themselves from head to toe in an abaya (a long black loosely fitting garment) every time they step out the front door, my life as an elite cyclist was no doubt going to slip into the distant past.
Luckily, I was wrong.
Soon after my arrival, I heard about the Riyadh Wheelers - a bike club based out of Riyadh, run by several dedicated expat cycling enthusiasts. A mere 3 weeks into my stay, following a few emails and a visit from one of the women in the club who had heard there was a new cyclist in town, I had a brand new bike on the way from Bahrain, and a number of new friends eager to help me get back on the road.
The Riyadh Wheelers are a 70+ member Middle Eastern establishment – a 25-year legacy of enthusiastic cyclists of varying experience and ability. With representation from the Philippines, UK, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, South Africa, Syria, Denmark, Austria, Canada, USA, and Saudi Arabia, the pack is enough to make the European pro Tour look ethnically drab. The club is as rich in its range of athletic abilities as it is in its cultural representation. There are Ironman triathletes, members of the Saudi Junior National Team, an ex-European pro, as well as a number of “weekend warriors” who come out to happily ride a few laps before dipping into the coffee and cookies offered at every race, and taking to the sidelines to cheer on the leaders.
The race season runs from September to April so as to avoid the unfathomable peak summer temperatures, which often reach 48C in July and August. The races take place in various sparsely inhabited locations on the outskirts of Riyadh, and range from short 10-mile time trials, to true tests of attrition such as the new 160km road race slotted for March of this year.
The most notable aspect that makes racing in Saudi so unique, is the influence of the culture. For example, the holy month of Ramadan is one of the keystones of the Islamic religion, during which time Muslims engage in a daily dawn to dusk fast. The purpose of the month long custom is religious cleansing, sacrifice, and to learn self-restraint and humility. Our first race, which happened to be a 10-mile time trial, fell within the month of Ramadan. One of the top finishers was a Saudi man, who, determined not to lose any points for the season, came out despite his fast. The man not only finished in 4th place out of 60, but did so with no water or food to fuel him. For those of you thinking this is no great feat for a 10 mile TT, it must be further considered that upon finishing his race at around 9am in the steadily rising 40C+ heat, he still had almost 12 hrs left before he could re-hydrate or even think about nibbling a Power Bar. This gave me a whole new perspective on what devotion and commitment meant, both religiously and athletically…move over Lance!
As Rodd and I rode on, I thought about the contrast between our chosen route today (which was to be our next race venue) and the environment I had left behind that morning. It had been only one hour since I had hastily buttoned my abaya over my obnoxiously colorful lycra, thrown a flowered silk scarf around my neck, and walked my bike to the heavily guarded front gate of the hospital compound where I was to be picked up. I took in the details of our current surroundings - the promise of brand new luxury suburban dwellings in this abandoned subdivision was feebly stated in the miles of new, paved roads laid several years before, but now eerily empty without the hustle and bustle of any further active construction. The unattended, dehydrated palm trees lining the house-less streets drooped in the arid heat like the tails of giant prawns. To me, however, it was beautiful: Here, I could be abaya-free, and we could safely ride in our colorful lycra kits without challenging any gender laws, or offending the bulk of the ultra-conservative Saudi culture.
For the most part, the only real hazards of desert cycling include roads being blocked by packs of camels herded by Bedouin (often nomadic desert-dwelling Arabs), the scattered rock-hard piles of camel dung the packs leave behind, and the occasional pack of wild, howling saluki dogs. Special care does have to be taken in slightly more populated areas as road rules generally seem to be optional in Saudi – the speeds and the daringness of the drivers here is enough to make the notoriously famed German Autoban look like a scene from “Driving Miss Daisy”. Until you have actually seen a car full of shebabs (young men) rowdily try to pass your taxi on the inside of a single lane right turn, you cannot appreciate just how important it is, cultural customs aside, to be in an area away from traffic.
As it is illegal for women to drive in Saudi, and that a ride alone, even in the quiet desert would be seriously putting an uncovered female at risk if discovered by the wrong parties, I am consequently nowhere near the strict 6-day a week training regime I followed while living at home in Vancouver. For the most part, my riding now consists of the bi-weekly Wheelers races. On the days where desperation sets in and withdrawal becomes overpowering, I have however been known to call up my favorite taxi driver who takes my bike and I out into the desert, then follows behind me for 50km while I ride, grinning from ear to ear, and completely thrilled with my 2 hrs of “accompanied freedom”.
Now, 6.5 months into my contract, and an active member of the Riyadh cycling community, I am happy to say that though I miss being able to step out the door and ride the North Shore or climb Cypress Mountain whenever it strikes me, I am grateful that I have not had to abstain completely from my favorite sport. Not only this, but I feel honored to have had the chance to be a part of a community which is every bit as friendly and supportive as the cycling scene back home in British Columbia.
Wheelers website: www.riyadhwheelers.com