UAE out to change cultural perception of female cyclists

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Breaking barriers: Ohoud Saeed is the oldest member of the UAE Cycling Federation Girl's Team.

Cycling is one of the toughest, most gruelling sports out there and requires the kind of endurance rarely needed in other disciplines. 

Long distances, tough terrain and cruel weather conditions are just some of the things a cyclist puts up with on a daily basis. However, for the UAE Cycling Federation Girls’ Team, those aren’t the greatest challenges they face.

It’s the cultural barriers that pose the biggest obstacles here as Emirati female cyclists are forced to prove on a daily basis that training and competing in the sport should be widely accepted by society.  

Ohoud Saeed, the oldest member of the UAE Cycling Federation Girls’ Team, recalls a time when she would get harassed by motor bikers as she trekked the roads of Fujairah on her bicycle. 

The 24-year-old says one of the things that attracted her the most to cycling was the challenge of proving that a woman from the Gulf region can aspire to become a professional cyclist. She was originally a swimmer but took up cycling six years ago when her brother suggested she check it out. 

“I got attached to the sport. It brings out the competitive edge in me and it’s extremely challenging,"  Saeed told Sport360° ahead of one of her training sessions outside the Zayed Velodrome in Sharjah. "As a girl from the Gulf, there are a lot of criticisms I get for being a cyclist – ‘a girl wearing shorts, wearing tight clothes’ – all this talk. So I wanted to actually prove a point.

“I never got criticism from within my family but, for example, my brother’s friend would tell him ‘why is your sister wearing shorts? Why is she always around guys?’, because I was the only girl cycling at the time.

"I used to cycle in Fujairah, where I would get harassed by motor bikers; they’d get close and surround me when they realised I was a girl, but I overcame such things and look now, we have a team,” she adds with pride. 

The team was formed two years ago by manager Abdullah Suwaidan, who brought in Egyptian ex-cyclist Yosra Mohamed as a coach.

They went to different schools and clubs around the UAE to recruit girls for the federation’s cycling team and since there were barely any female cyclists in the country, they started inviting girls who were training in other sports like basketball, volleyball and swimming.

“We competed in our first competition with six girls but the culture here means that some of the girls lost interest and started focusing on getting married and things like that. So I lost half of them before we managed to recruit the younger ones we have now,” says Yosra.

The team now includes nine girls ranging from the age of 13 to 24, training six days a week in Sharjah, alternating their sessions between track and road.

The younger team members do not share the same stories recounted by Saeed as they feel they are widely accepted as female cyclists, which seems an indication that perceptions are changing in the country. 

“My parents support me competing in cycling,” said 13-year-old Meera Beljafla. “In the beginning they were worried, they weren’t certain this was a serious enough team, but once they spoke to our team manager they saw it was a safe environment and that we were taking this seriously.”

Beljafla came third in the Nad Al Sheba 70km race during Ramadan and even though there was a shorter race for cyclists aged under 16, Beljafla and her team-mates raced against adults and ran away with the first nine places.

“I dream about joining a professional cycling team,” says Beljafla.

The team is preparing for the Arab Road and Track Championships that will be staged in Algeria in October, although the younger cyclists are still not eligible to take part because of their age. It’s not preventing them from training hard though.

Fatma Salem, 13, said: “I feel a lot stronger now, I feel cycling has taught me how to be patient. Meera and I are still too young to compete in the main events so we are usually just alternates. We’ll continue training hard and next year we can officially enter races.”

The team are sponsored by Trek, who provide them with bikes and gear, and have an important ally in the form of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid, the Crown Prince of Dubai.

Yosra says he was surprised that a UAE girls’ cycling team existed when they took part in the Nad Al Sheba race last year and he’s been supporting them ever since.

“Sheikh Hamdan has taken a special interest in this team. He is completely responsible for them. He makes sure they go to training camps, he follows their progress closely and he even meets with them from time to time. He’s a huge encouragement to them,” says Yosra.

Looking ahead to their upcoming competition in Algeria – for which they are currently preparing in France – Yosra says they’re hoping to get a medal and believes their best chance would be on the track. 

“We have a bit of an advantage that we have this Zayed Velodrome. Other Arab countries don’t have tracks they can use to train so that’s why we have a better chance to do well in track,” says Yosra.

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