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A Bike Ride Through Qatar

Might cycling just be another way for Qatar to gain some international cachet through sporting events? Sure, but the nation also seems to genuinely want its people to start riding bikes.
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The Ladies Tour of Qatar. (Photo: dohastadiumplusqatar/Flickr)

The Ladies Tour of Qatar. (Photo: dohastadiumplusqatar/Flickr)

The move came as we passed the last buildings skirting the edge of the tiny municipality of Umm Al Amad, just north of Qatar’s capital city of Doha. Seven riders broke away from our 26-man peloton, jumping the pace up from conversational to lung-burning. I had just rotated to the back of the pack, happy to hide from the relentless wind for a minute, but instead of resting, I had to chase across the widening gap to latch back on to tail of the lead group. I put my hands in the drops, head down low, and resolved to hang on until we reached our halfway point in Al Khor.

As the crosswinds shifted to headwinds, we filed into a straight line behind the lead rider, taking turns on the front as we continued north through the desert. (More of a hard, dirt field with the occasional patch of shrub brush poking through and less Lawrence of Arabia’s billowing sand dunes.) We held our steady pace and continued shedding guys off the back. Each turn I took at the front brought me closer to my limit. A few miles outside of Al Khor, I finally snapped, dropping off the pace and watching the final three of our paceline rocket off into the distance. Unsure exactly where I was supposed to go, I sat up and soft-pedaled until one of my fallen compatriots caught up. He guided me through the final few turns to the Abo Jowhar Supermarket.

And so began my ride with Qatar Chain Reaction (QCR), one of Doha’s five expatriate cycling clubs. The co-founder, Ben Keane, an Irish expat who’s lived in Qatar for the past nine years, had graciously lent me a bicycle so that I could join the club’s weekly ride, a 100-kilometer loop from Doha to Al Khor and back. Formed in 2007 in an attempt to organize Doha’s then-divergent expat cyclists, QCR is now one of the city’s most active cycling clubs. It has several hundred active members from every continent other than Antarctica participating in weekly road and mountain bike rides and monthly races.

Prior to my trip to Doha, I knew there were expat cyclists with whom I wanted to ride and that the country hosts the annual Tour of Qatar, an early-season professional road race that draws Tour de France-caliber riders but does not have the same cachet as the major Grand Tour. Except, it turns out the Qatari government is actively working to give cycling a much more prominent role in the country. They see cycling—both for sport and transportation—as an integral part of their long-term sustainability goals.

AN ABSOLUTE MONARCHY THAT'S been ruled by the Al Thani royal family for over 160 years, Qatar sits on a small, desert peninsula jutting out from the eastern border of Saudi Arabia and into the Persian Gulf. The country of 1.8 million people sits on top of the world’s third-largest natural gas reserve and a 15-billion-barrel oil reserve. Its massive North Field gas reserve was discovered in the 1970s, but Qatar didn’t start exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) until 1997. That relatively recent influx of wealth ushered in an explosion of development and growth. Today, Qatar is the wealthiest country, per capita, in the world.

Qatar’s growth is centered in its capital, Doha. The city’s skyline is filled with contemporary glass and steel towers, half-finished skyscrapers, and endless rows of construction cranes. A trip through the city is defined as much by orange construction fences and construction crews as it is by historical landmarks. Primarily driven by migrant laborers and white-collar Western expats, Doha’s population has grown by nearly one million people over the past decade, up to a total of 1.3 million. Thousands of guest workers arrive monthly from the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia, India, and Pakistan, as well as northern Africa and other Arab countries. They form the backbone of the county’s rapid development, providing the labor necessary to meet the demands of Qatar’s immense, ambitious, and not-far-away vision of itself.

"After Qatar began to get rich, everybody bought a car, so the bike as means of transport was pushed from the roads by cars. Many accidents also happened. Because a lot of people got hurt or even got killed, the cycling was not safe anymore and it died out."

Known locally as “guest workers,” Qatar’s migrant laborers get brought into the country by a local sponsor (typically an employer) who takes control of their passports, must grant them an exit visa, and must grant them permission to take a new job. Human Rights Watch reports that this tight control has lead to withheld payment, restrictions on travel, physical and verbal abuse, and “cramped, unsanitary” living conditions. The Guardian reports that over 500 Indian construction workers died in Qatar in the past two years because of unsafe working conditions and long working hours in extreme heat. There are labor laws in place to prevent such abuses, but there is very little enforcement.

Most Westerners who know about Qatar know these two things: its impressive wealth and its abuse of guest workers. They are dominant narratives in the country and help define its modern identity as a developing world power. And though much of Qatar’s stereotypical Gulf State image is accurate—fast cars, skyscrapers rising out of the desert, and massive wealth disparity—it is an incomplete picture of the country now and where it wants to be in the near future.

RECOGNIZING THE OPPORTUNITY PRESENTED by its wealth and the urgency of a finite supply of gas and oil, the Qatari government created the Qatar National Vision 2030, a plan for the country’s economic, social, human, and environmental development. The plan outlines goals such as universal health care and high-quality education for all residents, economic opportunities outside of oil and gas extraction and export, and environmental protection and sustainability. In keeping with many of the world’s progressive cities, Qatar recognizes that transportation is an integral piece of environmental sustainability and is working to promote cycling as part of their long-term multi-modal transportation plan. The government hopes to implement high-quality bike infrastructure and use its national cycling teams as a way to inspire citizens to ride.

“The Federation’s mission is to popularize cycling as a form of sport, recreation, hobby, and way of life,” says Andrej Filip, the technical secretary of the Qatar Cycling Federation—a branch of the federal Ministry of Youth and Sports—which spearheads the country’s national cycling teams. “Cycling will never be as popular here as in Europe but we see the changes and growth of this sport every day.”

There are men’s, women’s, and junior’s national teams who compete throughout the Gulf region. The Federation launched its women’s team in November of 2013. They hired Finnish former road and mountain bike pro Pia Sunstedt to coach the fledgling team of 27 Elite, Under-23, and Junior women. (Islamic gender norms are still prevalent in Qatar and men have more rights than women, but women’s rights have advanced significantly over the last 20 years. Women can vote, hold public office, and participate in sports, and around 40 percent of women in Qatar work.)

The Federation hopes that the example set by the national cycling teams, the expat cycling community, and events like the Tour of Qatar will inspire locals to get involved in cycling at the grassroots level. According to Filip, bicycling was actually a popular form of transportation in Qatar in the 1970s. There were fewer than 200,000 people in the entire country at the time, Doha was far less developed, and there were fewer cars on the road.

“The bike was a means of transport, everybody had a bike in Doha,” Filip says. “After Qatar began to get rich, everybody bought a car, so the bike as means of transport was pushed from the roads by cars. Many accidents also happened. Because a lot of people got hurt or even got killed, the cycling was not safe anymore and it died out.”

In 2008, Qatar hired Alta Planning and Design an American design firm that’s done planning work for leading cycling cities such as Seattle, Portland, and Chicago, to craft the Qatar National Bicycle Master Plan. According to Thomas Bennett, head of urban design and planning with Atkins Global, the Bicycle Master Plan requires that all major roads must include dedicated bicycle infrastructure when possible. Primarily, the plan calls for separate bicycle paths along major roads. In areas of Doha with narrow, slower-speed streets and residential areas, they might use painted, on-road bicycle lanes instead.

Qatar has begun to implement their bicycle master plan—Bennett says there are already “several segments–several kilometers each–of high quality bike paths with amenities such as path-specific lighting, landscaping, and benches”—but it is far from complete. “The current bicycle infrastructure is fragmented and not yet fully connected as a network,” according to Bennett.

The Qatari government has recognized that their current car-centric transportation system is unsustainable long term. With almost zero public transportation options in Doha, cars are currently the only viable way to get around. Thanks to the soaring population numbers, drives through Doha are an exercise in gridlock and traffic jams. Qatar’s Advisory Council has recommended a ban on new drivers licenses for expats in the wake of a report that over 16,000 new vehicles entered Qatar so far in 2014.

“Bicycling is just one part of a comprehensive multi-modal transport commitment to reduce reliance on the automobile whilst providing citizens and visitors with a wide array of more sustainable transport options,” says Bennett, whose company is planning Qatar’s bicycle, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure. “A nationwide initiative will improve streetscapes, creating great places for both people and cyclists; bus initiatives are expanding Doha’s low cost and free bus services; and a multiple-line metro system and tram projects are currently under construction. I believe [this] will fundamentally change the urban experience in Doha.”

Statistics about ridership in Qatar are hard to come by, but according to Keane, the QCR co-founder, there are very few cyclists who aren’t either expats or on the national team. QCR has just one Qatari-born cyclist, a professional motorcycle racer who uses cycling as training.

In my short visit to Doha, I saw a glimpse of the government’s plan in action. Education City, the campus that houses eight Western universities and one Qatari university, has a small network of bike lanes. Doha’s largest public park, Aspire Park, has bike-able paths and an on-road bike lane paralleling it. But my day of riding in Doha made it clear the city has a long way to go before it might be considered bike friendly.

THE STRONG HEADWIND THAT plagued our ride into Al Khor was instead a blissful tailwind for our return to Doha—though that didn’t make the second half of the ride much easier than the first. As we rolled out of the convenience store parking lot in Al Khor, a group of riders from another club were getting ready to leave as well. Staying ahead of the “rival” club was our new imperative—QCR’s focus on racing readily apparent—and I once again found myself rotating through our small paceline at a leg-busting, lung-burning clip. This time, however, we were riding on a main highway and had to stay on the shoulder of the road. I’d be lying if I said I was totally comfortable riding along at 27 miles per hour with riders eight inches to my right and trucks passing two feet to my left.

There is little variation in the landscape along the Al Khor Coastal Road between Al Khor and Doha. Barren-dirt desert and scrub brush dominate the landscape, interrupted by the occasional housing development, industrial factory, or desert compound. The Arabian Sea sat just out of sight to our left. Three hours after departing, we returned to our starting point near the Doha Gold Club and stood around in the parking lot for a few minutes, drinking water and recapping the highlights of the ride before heading our separate ways.

As I pedaled the 10 kilometers back home, I got my first real taste of what it’s like to bicycle for transportation in Doha. In short, the place is definitely not bike friendly. The roads were empty at 6 a.m. when I rode to the start of the club ride, but at 10 the roads were crowded with Doha’s heavy traffic. Drivers buzzed past, just feet from my left shoulder. I almost ran into the back of a car when a driver flew past, only to slam on his brakes and take a right turn without signaling. Navigating through Doha’s many traffic circles sent my adrenaline spiking as cars merged in and out all around me.

Still, cities around the world have shown, time and again, that the “if you build it, they will come” school of bicycle infrastructure works. In the 1960s and '70s, both increasing wealth and car ownership, coupled with a lack of bike infrastructure, cut bicycling’s mode share down to 10 percent in Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the world’s premier bicycle cities. In the 1980s, the installation of separated bike infrastructure (along with a gas crisis and political momentum) helped bicycling grow to its current mode share of nearly 40 percent.

Perhaps as important as infrastructure and professional cycling, an increasing number of kids in Doha are getting into bikes. According to Keane, Doha’s three bike shops all report growing sales of kids bikes and are doing outreach with local schools to get kids on bikes.

As Filip says, Qatar will never be Europe when it comes to bicycling for sport or transportation, but with infrastructure investment, increased awareness, and new generations of bike riders, it could be a different Qatar.