Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pedaling Abu Dhabi

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My bike is my new BFF.

Bicycling is a great way to sightsee. You go fast, you go far, and you feel the wind in your face. Plus, it’s always been my favorite form of exercise. So when Mark arrived in Abu Dhabi ahead of me last October, one of the first things I asked him was, “Should I send my bicycle over? Can I ride there?”

“No,” he answered. “You would be killed.” So I left my bike at home in Nevada.

We weren’t here for long before we started asking around and learned that there are two places to ride. Of course the Corniche has a bike path. And there’s Train Yas. On Tuesdays and some Sunday evenings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. people walk, run, and bicycle the Yas Marina Circuit Formula 1™ track. How cool is that!

This was enough to motivate us to start looking at bicycles, as I had secret plans to venture out on my own and find some neighborhood routes. There aren’t many bike dealers in the UAE, and after looking around in Abu Dhabi we headed to Wolfi’s Bike Shop in Dubai . This, we could tell from the moment we walked in, is a serious bike shop. In addition to sales and service, they organize road rides around Dubai. Before long Mark was deciding to buy us each a bike.

The bikes will fit better on the Cayenne,
but we haven't tried them there yet.

As a mechanical engineer, Mark is always intrigued by technology and the latest model of anything, and there was this new bike coming out. So we ended up each getting a Scott SUB 10. The bike is belt- instead of chain-driven, with 8 internal gears.

The advantage is that it’s virtually maintenance-free, and very quiet. Also, you don’t have to be rolling to change gears, which I have found to be useful riding here. This isn’t a road racing bike, it’s not a trail bike, nor is it a bike for climbing the Sierra Nevada foothills. It’s a town bike. Here in Abu Dhabi, where it’s flat but we have lots of curbs and speed bumps, it’s perfect.

We ordered the bikes, so it was several weeks before they arrived. Since all of our bicycling gear was at home, we also needed helmets, which are not easy to find here at a reasonable price, especially to fit Mark’s head, and bright colored vests, so that drivers can see us. We went to the historic Deira shopping area in Dubai, where we found helmets and bright yellow workers’ vests much cheaper than at the bike shops. We also needed bicycle gloves, which we bought at Wolfi’s.
Destination Village opening
As usual, our timing was right on.

Our first ride was the Abu Dhabi Marina and Corniche area. We picked a Saturday morning, when it wouldn’t be crowded. Later in the day it gets very crowded and remains that way until late at night – and all night long during Ramadan. It was December 31. We parked at the Marina Mall, and rode to the Volvo Ocean Race Destination Village area, where we had been watching construction progress. As we approached, we realized that we had arrived just in time for the opening ceremony, so we watched the unveiling of the entrance as dignitaries shook hands and posed. Then we rode 7.5km/4.5mi along the Corniche to the Mina Port end, where the fishing dhow fleet ties up, and back, for a total of about 9 miles.

Next we decided to try Train Yas. .
Serious trainers and strollers are equally welcome
at Train Yas.

You drive onto Yas Island, are waved along to the entrance by a series of parking lot attendants or security guards, and park for free. Everyone is in their workout clothes. You flash your Train Yas card for them to scan the bar code or, if you don’t have the card yet, you fill in the form and they give you your free card, to use for each visit from then on. This is how they track who is there; it’s very efficient, especially for here in the UAE. On the way in, you can pick up a free bottle or two of water.

I felt like I was on a movie set.

Inside, it’s a futuristic wonderland. Dance music is playing over the loudspeakers. People are zipping around on bicycles in groups, pairs, or alone. People are running, walking, and strolling with or without children. There are people of all ages, sizes, shapes, and languages.

You can see the LED canopy from the freeway
as you drive by - a night-time landmark.

As darkness falls, the colored LED lights intensify, blinking and changing from purple, to blue, to green, and to red. On your way around the track, you breeze past the sheiks’ luxury yachts in the Yas Marina and cruise under the LED canopy as you circle the Yas Viceroy Hotel.

The entire F1 track is 5.55km/3.4 mi but can be split into two shorter configurations of 3.15km/1.9 mi and 2.36km/1.46 mi. The first time we went we were on a short track at first, and we could see race cars on the other side. Later on, they opened up the whole track.

I was so happy to be riding, until  . . .

Unfortunately, that night my brand-new bike started to make a weird clicking noise. We took it back to Wolfi’s, where it underwent extensive trial and error troubleshooting. Long story short, there was a problem in the gear box and it wasn’t until two months later that I finally got my bike back, with almost every component replaced except the wheels. Of course, everything had to be shipped over from the U.S. Meanwhile, I missed out on weeks of nice cool riding weather.

Lucy loves walking -- she did the
Susan G. Komen last year.

It just wasn’t the same, walking the circuit at Yas while Mark rode his bike – even though I did have Tom, Lucy, Deb, and Dana for company.
I finally have my bike back, and I’ve been venturing out on the streets of Abu Dhabi. Driving here has been great preparation for bike riding. On my bicycle, I think like a driver. This makes me different than the other bicycle riders I see, who wobble along on the wrong side of the road in their traditional loose fitting pants and tunics.

Shorter rides are pink and blue. Next post, you will find out more about that red line.

So far I’ve taken two big rides; they are in yellow and green on the map.

The first ride was the most ambitious.The yellow line generally shows my route to Bateen Beach, at the west end of 19th Street, aka Al Saada Street. It took me over one hour to ride to the beach, and much of the time was riding the sidewalks on busy 2nd Street, aka Airport Road, on my way to 19th.

Ever since I first arrived, I had looked at 19th Street as a possible bicycling route. It’s a wide boulevard strewn with fountains and lined with pedestrian walkways, perfect for a bicycle ride. At least that’s the impression you get, until you try it. The reality is, the walkways go for a while and then end abruptly in sand, parking lots, or debris piles. Some curbs have ramps, others don’t. Other hazards include cars making right turns into parking entrances or side streets . . . and there is just lots of traffic on 19th.
Bateen Beach 018
The Bateen Bridge is still under construction. Wonder when I'll be able to ride it?

Side streets! That’s the ticket! On the way home, I took a different route. Splitting the difference, I opted to ride along 30th, which is basically a freeway, until I found a pedestrian underpass near the Capital Gate building. Then it was neighborhood streets all the way. Almost.
There is no way to stay on all small streets here, so you have to be prepared to ride the bigger roads, at least to crossing areas. Traffic comes in waves; it’s all or nothing. So, I wait for nothing. Then I ride like hell to the crosswalk or turn that’s my next goal. It’s a process of winding through neighborhoods, or sections. You never know exactly where you will come out, but fortunately there are lots of landmarks: tall buildings, mosques (if you can tell one from another,) main roads, and the corniche. Plus, the sun is always out, so if you know what time it is you know the direction you are headed in.

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The Capital Gate is a landmark,
for sure.
If this doesn’t sound like any fun, consider this. I really feel like I’m getting to know the city. An American woman riding through the streets of Abu Dhabi in padded bicycle shorts and a fluorescent yellow shirt, with a camera and a bottle of water. I have my cell phone, my Emirates ID, and a few dirhams just in case I break down and need a taxi home.

Of course, I have my trusty little Sony camera. I am riding past schools, embassies, Emirati government buildings, expat compounds, Emirati houses. I see women in abayas walking in their neighborhoods, I see and hear children in the schoolyards, I dodge delivery trucks (or they dodge me), I pass construction projects, men coming and going at the mosques, police investigating some invisible incident.


Biking 033
Home sweet home?

I see workers everywhere. When I smile and say hello, nearly everyone smiles back. The workers usually smile shyly and nod politely. Their vehicles are often decorated, like a home away from home.

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Ladies' prayer halls have a different appearance
from mosques, which generally have domes.

Ladies have separate prayer halls, because women and men don’t pray together. Too awkward, all that standing shoulder to shoulder, kneeling and bowing down. Plus, women have many responsibilities with the home and children, so they don’t go out to pray that often. They pray at home.

Bicycling 003
I love this retaining wall evoking the Arabian sand dunes.
Zayed Bridge is in the background.

My favorite ride so far takes me along a road parallel to busy Al Salaam Road. I ride to the base of the Zayed and Maqtaa Bridges, past the historic Al Maqtaa Fort, and around to the Zayed Mosque area.

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Al Maqtaa Fort is my idea of history.

There is almost no traffic to contend with – except the morning there was an accident a few miles away, and the traffic was frantic, whipping through the traffic circle that I ride through to get to my route and speeding and passing on the two-lane frontage road. Cars were coming at me head-on, which made me wobble a bit; I felt like one of those Pakistanis. I just hope that was a very unusual occurrence.

Biking 048
The future Ladies Club is . . . futuristic.

If I keep going, I can go underneath the Musaffah Bridge and around to the Armed Forces Officers’ Club area. There is lots of good traffic-free riding there, and I discovered the construction site of the new Abu Dhabi Ladies’ Club, right next to the Officers’ Club. Like everything else here, its architecture is over the top.


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The beach looks like it will be huge. I wonder if we will still be here when it’s finished?

I saw an amazing collection of public art sculptures. I wonder where they’re going? The Ladies’ Club, perhaps?
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Remember those driftwood sculptures that used to be on the shoreline on the Emeryville mudflats,
near San Francisco? Somehow this made me think of those.

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Public entrance to the mosque.

Now I head back toward home, riding through the traffic circle onto the overpass over 30th, and back into the Zayed Mosque area, which I am completely fascinated with. I can’t stop taking photos.

I admit it. I am becoming obsessed with this amazing mosque.

Biking 001
When I see this building I know I'm almost home.

There is architectural eye candy at every turn. I am constantly stopping to snap photos. This landmark building next to the freeway is on the UAE’s media and entertainment campus, named after the geographical coordinates.
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I wouldn't mind living in one of these.

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I love the wave design of the Rocco Forte.
I have toured the inside. Spectacular!

I head home by way of Al Noor Hospital and the recently completed landmark Rocco Forte Hotel, where I cross busy Airport Road at the light. This is probably the worst place for traffic because I have to ride in the street on Airport Road from the traffic light past the very busy petrol station, where cars typically careen across several lanes to line up for gas. Yikes! Fortunately it’s only about a hundred meters, then I veer off onto the access road to Al Bateen Airport and wind my way home through the neighborhoods.

Biking 008
There isn't much shade, and I always
make sure I drink my water.

These days I ride early in the morning, because by 10:00 it’s just too hot. I don’t even know how much longer I will be able to ride at all, as I am told that it gets to the point where it never cools down. Good thing I don’t mind the heat. It reminds me of how I used to bask in the steamy Michigan summers, knowing that it would end and winter snow would come back.


I know my adventure here will end sometime, for me, for good. So I am soaking up everything while I can, even the heat. When I get home from a long ride and I can feel the heat radiating from my face, I suit up and go for a swim. The water is lukewarm, but still refreshing, and in the most intense heat of summer they will cool the water.
Zayed Mosque & Swimming 048 (2)

It’s not a bad way to spend the morning.


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 By the way, I have thought of a name for my bicycle. Can you guess what it is?
First person to guess correctly gets a box of Zadina dates or Arab sweets!

Thanks for reading. And wherever you are, stay as safe as can be.

Next up: PADDLING!


llcardon said...


Anne Schreiber Thomas said...

No, not Zayed. It's an American name. The photos are a hint.