The United Arab Emirates hosts multiple stage races and even sponsors an entire WorldTour team.
The list of Emirati riders racing at the WorldTour level, however, is short. It starts and ends with Yousif Mirza.
The 29-year-old was the first Emirati cyclist to compete in the Olympic road race. He’s won a whopping eight national titles in the road race and five in the time trial.
Last year, he became the first rider from the UAE to join the WorldTour — joining UAE Team Emirates, alongside established stars Dan Martin, Fabio Aru, and Alexander Kristoff. He raced a fairly limited calendar in his first season with the squad, although he did add to his tally of national titles in both the road race and the TT in 2017.
This year, Mirza reached new heights as a pro, powering to a road race victory at the Asian Cycling Championships.
VeloNews caught up with Mirza at the Amgen Tour of California to talk about his journey to cycling’s highest division, adapting to life on the WorldTour, and the growth of cycling in his home country.
VeloNews: What did your path to the WorldTour look like?
Yousif Mirza: In the UAE, cycling is not a famous sport. Football is number one everywhere. Especially in Dubai, there was no cycling five or six years ago. I started with a local team when I was nine years old. I improved step by step until I joined a Continental team in 2016, NASR-Dubai. I started to do international races, Asian races, [UCI-ranked] 2.2s, 2.1s. Then I raced the Dubai Tour and, after that in 2017, I got my chance to join UAE Team Emirates.
VN: Is there much infrastructure for competitive cycling in the United Arab Emirates?
YM: Now, cycling is growing. Many young people have started to do cycling. With this team, they will have more chances, in the next two or three years, the young people.
VN: Was it strange to suddenly become the lone Emirati rider on the WorldTour?
YM: Before, I thought it was easy. It is not easy to be a WorldTour rider. And going from a Conti team to a WorldTour team is a little bit … well, not a little bit — it’s really hard! I’ll keep fighting for my goals. I think it will be better for the next generation in the UAE.
VN: You had been racing for several years before joining NASR-Dubai, and then you jumped up to the WorldTour. How different is it at the highest level?
YM: It’s a really huge change. I got my chance and I [took it], so I’m in now! I’ve got to do my best in all the races I’m doing. In California … I did it last year, and this year it’s harder — stronger riders, tougher roads. It’s a huge, huge, huge difference between 2.2s, 2.1s, and WorldTour races.
VN: Is it important to you to be a face of Emirati cycling at the highest level?
YM: I’m representing my country, not just myself. Emiratis are following me, seeing me at this WorldTour level. I have to do 120 percent of my level. It’s big for me, being part of this team, representing my flag, my country, all over the world.
VN: Do people recognize you back home in the UAE?
YM: I have many friends that follow me. And, of course, my family. But now, the situation is different. I’m staying a little bit far from family. That hurts as a cyclist. When you go to races, you miss home.
VN: Has it been hard to get comfortable in a new environment?
YM: This is my second season only, and I need more time to adapt with the European [lifestyle]. Our traditions, our religion, everything is different. Everything. When I moved to Europe, I had to completely change. I had to change everything, how people deal with each other. And adapting to European weather is not easy. Coming from 45 degrees [110 Fahrenheit], moving to [below freezing] sometimes … that’s tough for me. I need more time to adapt.
VN: What kind of goals have you set for yourself now that you have arrived at the top level?
YM: For me, I’m hoping to get a podium or a stage in a WorldTour race. I’m trying my best in every stage, and I will keep fighting and trying to reach my goal, in this team. I’m also representing the national team. I reached my goal this year to be Asian champion in 2018. That meant a lot to me, to be on the top of Asian cycling. That’s a goal I’ve already reached — with team help. I signed with them in 2017 and in 2018 I got the Asian gold medal. Now I have to think big and make bigger goals. The next goal will be a stage in a WorldTour race.
VN: Do you find yourself giving advice to up-and-coming Emirati riders?
YM: Sure. I have a lot of cyclists in Dubai that I’m in contact with all the time. I share my experiences and moments with them, how we are training, how we are racing, how we are meeting, how we are eating. I share that lifestyle with them, so they will have this opportunity, so they will not be shocked with what it’s like.