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The recent debut of a new 5km biking track at Aspire Park has won cheers from many Qatar residents, especially among people in the growing bicycling community.

The track is part of a new cycle rental service at Aspire, where residents above the age of five years old can rent bicycles and helmets to use on the track from 4 to 8pm from Sundays to Thursdays, and noon to 8pm on weekends.

This new service is free until Oct. 11, then costs QR20 for the first hour, and QR5 for each additional hour.

The initiative is an extension of Aspire’s “Learn to Ride” program that is being rolled out in Qatari schools to teach children how to ride bicycles.

Growing interest

As the weather starts to cool down, and Qatar’s traffic becomes even more insufferable, numerous expat groups have been turning to cycling to get around town.

One of the most active and oldest groups is Qatar Chain Reaction, which was founded in 2006.

Qatar Chain Reaction

Ben Keane, a 54-year-old Irish expat who moved to Qatar in 2005, said he was motivated to organize a group when he noticed so many others bicycling on the streets.

“It was a bit easier in those days and cycling…was not so popular here in Qatar. One of the assistants in Skate Shop Malcolm used to ride with a group to Al Khor every Friday. As I rode back over a number of weeks I noticed that a lot of different individual groups or riders were doing the same ride. That did not make sense to me for a lot of different reasons but mainly safety.”

In the weeks that followed, Keane met and exchanged contact information with many of the other riders who took the same route. Soon, an email base was up and running, and after a meeting at the Golf Club, the group was formed.

What began as 25 members now has over 1,300 enthusiasts on the QCR Facebook group.

Cycling for a cause

Another popular group is Pinoy Mountain Bikers Qatar (PMTB-Qatar) which began in 2012.

With an initial membership of around 20 riders, the group has now grown to over 1,000 members on Facebook, with roughly 350 of them being actively involved.

bicycling in Qatar

PMTB/Facebook

PMTB-Qatar acts as an umbrella for various other smaller Filipino cycling groups, which include the Al Ahli Boys, Colorum Boys, Jose Pedal (Al Khor Boys), Team Rest Boys, Messaid Cockroach MTB Club, Pinoy 29’ers, Wakra Riders and Pinoy Roadies, among others.

Despite the overwhelmingly masculine nomenclature, the groups also include women and children.

“On some of our rides, we even have entire families joining us,” said PMTB-Qatar co-founder John Bonalos.

In terms of numbers, Filipinos have the strongest representation in the cycling community in Qatar. Speaking to Doha News, Bonalos, 30, said this is for multiple reasons:

“I think it’s because it helps us connect. It becomes a social group, where we help each other deal with being away from families in the Philippines, and with homesickness.

Also, in the Philippines, we have many mountains, and the mountain cycling community is big there, so when people come here, they look for this.”

He added that despite the name, the group is open to people from all nationalities.

Unlike other groups, PMTB-Qatar focuses on mountain biking, with members riding out every Friday to Duhail, Messaid, Al Khor, Al Kharara, Sealine and the Inland Sea.

The group also holds races for charity.

Last week, PMTB-Qatar teamed up with the Web Alliance of Radical Photographers (WARP), a local Filipino photography group, for iRACE4YU.

The nearly QR6,000 in donations went toward funding medical treatment for Dennis Yu, a local Filipino salesman who was diagnosed with meningitis.

Previous initiatives have involved raising funds for victims of Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged the Philippines late last year.

Challenges

One of the more obvious challenges for cyclists in Qatar is the weather. Temperatures can surpass 45C (113F) during the summer, and most residents prefer the comfort of their air-conditioned cars and homes at this time.

Regardless, cycling groups still remain active during Qatar’s hottest months by biking at odd hours to beat the heat.

Members from PMTB-Qatar, for example, meet as early as 3am, while other groups, like the Qatar Cycling Club, hold moonlight and full moon rides at Zekreet.

Safety is also an ongoing concern.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Brian Candy/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Ahmed Fawzi, an Egyptian expat and one of the founders of the Qatar Cycling Community, which has more than 650 members on Facebook, told Doha News:

“People don’t consider people on bikes here. They see us, and yet they interfere. Sometimes they even ride on the cycling lane, which can be more dangerous.”

Pia Sundstedt, a 39-year-old Finnish expat and former coach of the Qatar women’s cycling team, agreed, saying traffic is for sure her biggest challenge.

“It is dangerous to ride your bike here….(and) there are not many places where you can ride.

It’s a shame, as cycling as a means of commuting could actually be popular in Doha for six to seven months a year, when the temperatures are not too hot. Doha is flat, no mountains, so easy to ride your bike to work. If only the infrastructure was there.”

Fawzi urged city planners to incorporate more cycling lanes around town:

“There is a recent law that came out that requires cycling lanes to be built alongside every new road constructed, but these new roads are in remote areas, and the existing ones in the city, which we want to ride on, don’t have any lanes.”

Moving forward

Establishing dedicated cycling paths has been on Qatar’s to-do list for years.

The Qatar National Bicycle Master Plan, put forth in 2010, mandates that all expressways must include lanes for cyclists, and that existing roads should be refitted to allow for bicycle lanes.

Speaking to the Peninsula at the time, Saad Mohammed Khodr, a senior transportation engineer at the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning, said that talks were underway to make Doha a more bicycle-friendly city.

This would be done by installing bicycle tracks, creating under-path cycle routes at roundabouts and establishing parking spots for bicycles. Khodr added that the end goal was to ensure that cycle routes cover almost the entire country.

Thoughts?

Ask any resident – I bet they’ve got a story about being stopped from doing something innocuous in one of the city’s parks.

Blogger Nat High, writing about his frustration that his nine year old daughter is not allowed to cycle in Doha’s largest park, Aspire Park.

In a blog post entitled “Bikes not burgers,” Doha resident High vents his frustration at what he views as unnecessary restrictions in some of Doha’s parks – pointing in particular to a ban on cycling (for everyone except small children), ball games and kite flying in Aspire Park.

He suggests that some of these rules not only make park visits boring, but also put residents off exercising, making them inconsistent with government attempts to mitigate Qatar’s obesity epidemic.

He goes on to explain his frustration at the recent opening of a new burger restaurant on the park’s grounds:

“Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against burgers – far from it. And nor do I have a problem with local entrepreneurs working hard to build a business and a brand. 

My complaint – as a cyclist, as a parent, as a local resident – is that the park’s management is saying my daughter is welcome to eat burgers in their park, but not to ride them off afterwards. It’s not exactly sending out the right message.”

Thoughts? 

Credit: Photo by Nat High