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Abu Dhabi tour helps spread cycling in Middle East

ABU DHABI, U.A.E. (VN) — Dreams come true in the U.A.E., at least for Yousif Mirza. The local rider worked at the Dubai airport and improved to the point to be the country’s first Olympic cyclist this August. Now he has two national tours to choose from. This week at…

ABU DHABI, U.A.E. (VN) — Dreams come true in the U.A.E., at least for Yousif Mirza. The local rider worked at the Dubai airport and improved to the point to be the country’s first Olympic cyclist this August. Now he has two national tours to choose from.

This week at the Abu Dhabi Tour, four stages around the country’s capital, he leads the Nasr Dubai team. He is not only happy to be the home star, but happy that top cycling is coming to the Arab Emirates.

“You can see the organization is strong, how the hotels and the roads are,” Mirza said. “The teams are happy and the people are happy, you can’t say something bad about the organization.

“It’s not about the country or the Middle East. The Tour of Qatar has been doing it for 14 years. The teams are happy, they are fighting to come to this tour.”

The Abu Dhabi Tour is growing quickly with the Dubai Tour. The race enters its second year and already next spring, organizers will run its third edition and with a new WorldTour status.

Mirza is one of his country’s cycling pioneers. The 27-year-old had to beg his parents to ride when he was young because they thought the roads were too dangerous. He followed his brother around on his bike. Once had his first smartphone, he began following every big race in cycling.

“I hope to improve to ride in the WorldTour or the pro level. It’s possible,” Mirza said. “It’s possible. I prefer to do something here in the U.A.E., and then after that, move up. If you move up too fast, it’s too hard. You have to build slowly.”

Mirza lined up with his heroes and made history by becoming the first from the U.A.E. to cycle in the Olympics.

“It was a big experience to ride at that level, it’s really a high level with many champions.”

He crashed on the cobble section and had to abandon, luckily with no injuries. His quick rise to the top is similar to his country’s.

The U.A.E. first hosted the 2014 Dubai Tour and then neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi created its race. Already, the UCI decided to put the Abu Dhabi Tour in its top WorldTour calendar and move it to the spring to sit along other Persian Gulf races in Dubai, Qatar and in Oman.

It may not happen for many years, but these races are planting the seeds for the local riders to reach ride in cycling’s top teams.

“We are building up young riders and supporting them with the Dubai sports council and the Abu Dhabi sports council,” Mirza added. “If it’s not me, maybe it’s the next generation who will make it.”

Bahrain, a small island in the Persian Gulf, will have its own top-level team next season led by Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquím Rodríguez. It should become the first Middle East team in the WorldTour.

This combined with the Doha world championships last week and the four Gulf stage races is making the era golden for the petroleum-rich region.

“Cycling’s growing massively in the world, there are some places you expect to race, but the fact is that you wouldn’t immediately associate cycling with Abu Dhabi,” said Friday’s stage winner Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data).

“You have beautiful images and landmarks here. Cycling’s a great way to showcase that for the Emirates.”