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Qatar worlds helped boost cycling enthusiasm in Middle East

The four Middle Eastern races will be strung together in 2017 for the "gulf swing."

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DUBAI, U.A.E. (VN) — A trick cyclist bounced and dancers spun LED lightsabers on stage in celebration of the fourth Dubai Tour. It seemed excessive, but perhaps merited given the important surge Middle East cycling made along with the world championships in neighboring Qatar in October.

At over an hour, the Dubai Tour’s 2017 route presentation out-lasted those of the more important and more established European races. Aside from unveiling the route, the organizer celebrated success in the petroleum-rich Gulf states.

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“Yes, for sure, it changed things,” RCS Sports and Events CEO Lorenzo Giorgetti said of the recent worlds. “Now, there is much more interest for this part of the world. Don’t forget that Bahrain now has its own WorldTour team.

“It just shows how this part of the world is very serious about cycling. It’s not just a trend or another event, it’s a culture and lifestyle.”

Traveling through the United Arab Emirates, one cannot miss roadside portraits of the country’s late President Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He was the driving force behind the creation of the country in the 1970s and eventually Dubai as a leisure and business hub. The vast petroleum reserves certainly helped the U.A.E. and its gulf neighbors attract visitors, both on vacation and business. Sport followed, too.

Qatar began hosting its national cycling tour in 2002 to help push forward its bid to host the Olympics. That tour eventually helped lure one of cycling’s biggest events, the world championships — the first ever in the Middle East. In 2022, Qatar will host soccer’s World Cup.

The national tours help Dubai and Abu Dhabi promote tourism and a healthy lifestyle in a zone that is as rich in obesity-related problems as it is in petroleum.

At first glance over four years, with Tony Martin racing a horse, the Dubai Tour appeared a hollow vanity project of the sport ministry. Its footing is firm now, opening what UCI President Brian Cookson calls a “gulf swing” of races.

“I believe that the tours in the region complement each other,” Dubai Tour race director Huraiz Almur Bin Huraiz said.

“They highlight the area to more riders worldwide and make it more interesting for them to think to come and race in this part of the world.

“Did the Doha worlds help directly or not? I’m not sure, to be honest, but all the races in the area add to each other. It shows that this area is growing in terms of cycling.”

The UCI WorldTour’s far-reaching, and somewhat controversial, restructuring and growth positioned all four big Middle East stage races together for the first time. In 2017, the Dubai Tour (Jan. 31-Feb. 4) will kick off the “gulf swing.” The Tour of Qatar, Tour of Oman, and the Abu Dhabi Tour will follow.

Cookson hinted at creating a points competition for cyclists who race all four events over nearly four weeks. The U.A.E. races, organized by RCS Sport, would need to discuss the overall competition completion with the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman organizer ASO to create a classification.

The races may appear far off and foreign to traditional fans, but they serve the countries themselves and the teams. Riders not only race for important points — WorldTour points for both Qatar and Abu Dubai — but fitness ahead of the classics and the Giro d’Italia.

“Fans may say it is too hot, but at the worlds, I saw that the northern country riders won,” Giorgetti continued. “Or maybe the lack of public lining the roads, but come on!

“I’m not sure if 96 years ago in Italy that there were more on the road for the first editions of Giro d’Italia than in Dubai or other states in the region. It’s naturally growing here, that’s the importance. It’s not something that’s artificially boosted.”