Below is my first published article which was featured in the “Last Gasp” section of Cyclist Middle East magazine.
Thinking of sand brings fond memories (to most) of beautiful beaches and sun-drenched seas, colorful drinks, and fun in the sun. A holiday vibe which I can not deny was a draw when deciding to live in Dubai. I knew I could expect sand rather than rain when moving to a desert and this seemed a fair trade at the time. Since then, my memories of fun sand have been overwritten by two years living with the myriad forms the grainy yellow stuff takes. Friends in the U.K believe that Dubai cyclists have it easy but It seems that there really are very few positive sides to tiny particles of quartz in large quantities. Rain has always been considered the worst condition in which to ride but does our lack of rain mean we are pampered? The riders here are toughened to desert life, we continue to ride when sandstorms roll through, we ride in temperatures which most of the cycling world will never experience and deal with it in our stride. Our winds are among the most savage found anywhere in the world but we use this as a training aid. As the saying goes a little water never hurt anybody. You won’t find a saying that shrugs off the sand in such a way, so maybe it’s the Europeans who are pampered?
You may be surprised to learn that sand is not only multi-faceted under a microscope but takes many forms in the collective as well. Living on the edge of the world’s largest stretch of continuous desert has given me a knowledge of the finer points, the mechanics of Sand. The best known and most common type is the dune sand, beautiful in large quantities and filled with romantic notions. Best seen in the breathtaking views from the roads of Liwa where you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the surface of Mars if it weren’t for the camels. Here hundreds of kilometers of dune roads defy the oncoming erosion as they seemingly float atop endless sand mountains. This route was recently used in the Abu Dhabi Tour (see last month’s feature) where Andrea Guardini of team Astana (Specialized) won the opening desert stage but not before the route was shortened due to heat! This type of sand covers our roads, traveling by wind power to create an almost ice like feel under tire. Beware as that attempted strava segment may become a painful incident with the addition of this form. The less painful but just as frustrating black sand and oil mix is a constant hindrance to the desert road cyclist. Leaving us with the dreaded fourth category Tattoo is just the beginning as this type wears our Dura-Ace drivetrains and carbon rims. It begrudges smooth shifting in every form by filling our cables and rusting them from the inside out. We must become experts in maintenance to fight off this constant attack.
The change between seasons (really hot to not so hot) which we are now in the midst of, brings the fog sand. This is sand which sits inside every droplet of water which has risen from the desert as the sun heats the morning ground. Riding through this forms layers of sand on all forward facing planes, be it your head-tube, forks or your face. This finds its way inside bike bearings (and facial orifices) with redoubtable accuracy. Europeans riding here will not believe that their eyes could hold so much sand.This certainly isn’t a problem that they think of when they see pictures of blue skies and flat roads but riders here have adapted to cope with it fantastically. Murphy’s law will make sure that when you have planned to do an epic ride or must hit that training goal, the worst kind of sand will appear. The Airborne Sandstorm sand is fine enough to be picked up by desert winds and in such quantities that visibility can drop to just a few feet. A morning ride can leave us in a yellow coating so bad we look like Simpsons characters. It not only covers us and our bikes but gets into our lungs and does damage to our bodies. On the Tour of Oman Valverde gave his opinion when he said “I have not seen anything like this. It’s not just the wind, the sand too, you can not even breathe or anything…Awesome”. The occasional coughing fit is one of the prices we pay for the spectacular weather and perfect roads. This sand also affects our wallets as it necessitates constant car cleaning and filter changing bills. I have often returned from a ride to find the blue paint of my car barely visible under a layer of yellow.
If you chose to avoid sand then you could not be in the middle east, but try as we might sand just won’t consent to a symbiotic relationship. Always shifting when we want traction and grinding when we want to be smooth. There is no negotiation with sand, you have to be tough or it will wear you down. Like dealing with the black sheep of the family, we haven’t chosen sand but we as cyclists must accept it and learn to deal with its foibles.The difficulties we face are very different from that of our European Cousins but they are no less real, just less documented. These hardships make us better bike handlers, better planners, more adaptable cyclists and we will become stronger riders because of it. Whether we choose to stay or return to cooler climates my advice is not to fight it, but embrace it as grains of sand outnumber us 1 billion to 1.