In February, Princeton FreeWheeler member, Caroline Argento Spoeneman and 122 other women with 17 different nationalities, biked through all seven of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This oil-rich kingdom sits on the Persian Gulf between Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The ride was the 6th annual for the UK-based international women’s non-profit, Follow the Women, sponsored this year by the UAE Cycling Federation in support of Palestinian refugees.
The United States team of ten members joined the various country teams, meeting with sheiks and other dignitaries, and were entertained by children, men dancing in traditional garb, horses, and even showered by roses from a helicopter along the way. Motorcycles and police cars cleared the roads in the cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. A variety of routes followed the corniches along the Persian Gulf, through newly developed suburbs, cityscapes, and desert wastelands. The group was based in a hotel in Ajman, transported to the day's location in school busses with trucks carrying the bikes.
Previous ride fundraisers were in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine but the annual rides were canceled in 2010 and 2011 due to the disruption of the “Arab Spring.” The group was founded by Detta Regan, whose inspiration was her mother’s love of cycling and her father’s love of the Arab world. Ms. Regan was the UK’s Woman of the Year in 2001 and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2004. Money this year went to the Red Crescent in Ramallah, Palestine, the Middle Eastern branch of the Red Cross. In 2009 funds were used for building playgrounds in Gaza. Other projects have included the provision of sewing machines and equipment to Palestinian women in refugee camps and support for youth counseling in the West Bank. However the wider purpose has been to raise awareness of the displaced Palestinians.
The riders were given mountain bikes but only a very few sections along the way were not paved. The terrain was generally flat, routes covering between 40 and 50 km a day in pleasant 70 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. The eight days began on February 16 in Dubai, with the bizarre shaped skyscrapers gleaming across the water in the distance. The bikers explored additionally: Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. Along the routes they stopped at numerous museums, schools, women's centres, a spa, and two zoos. In Ras at an English School, a band played dressed in Scottish kilts, including bag-pipes, then the students performed in local costumes. At one school boys danced with play swords which they lay down in a gesture of peace. Shortly afterwards, when back cycling, the doors of the helicopter above opened and hundreds of long-stemmed roses flew down to decorate the bikes.
Even though the UAE Biking Federation, sponsor of the ride, has 14 women members, none were able to join the caravan. Eight young women, all veiled in black robes according to Arab tradition, assisted the group during breaks. They were immaculate: dizzying heels, painted nails, henna on their hands, with eye and lip makeup, in sharp contrast to the biking women. Many women from Arab countries wore headscarves under the helmets that all were required to wear. Pants had to extend over the knees and shoulders were covered. Many European women wore skirts, often with tights to the ankle. They are accustomed to biking to school and work so don't wear special biking clothes. There were virtually no other bikers on the roads. The bicycle culture does not exist in the UAE. The abundant oil gushing from wells in the desert is spent on modern highways and overpasses, so that even the shortest trip is by car. This results in serious traffic and pollution in the cities.
There were opportunities to swim in the Persian Gulf and soak in hot tubs at the spa, always in women only locales. All hotel, meal, local transport, and bicycle costs were covered by the UAE government. Riders paid only for their own airfare. Many traditional feasts were served outdoors, sometimes on the ground with no utensils. Tours were provided, including the chance for some team members to wrap a giant cobra around their shoulders. At a women's sports centre they offered instruction in basketball (by an African-American coach), archery, table-tennis, or Zumba exercise dance.
At night there were various entertainments. Some evening meals were in restaurants, but several times they took place at outdoor festivals. One had a World's Fair appearance with booths from Arab and Asian countries including dance demonstrations and food, spices and products for sale from such varied spots as Afghanistan, China, Iraq and Iran. Who knew that tea could be served thirty different ways? One night in Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman, after demonstrations of local dances, some of the younger bikers joined in games of tug-a-war and a watermelon eating competition.
Maybe the best biking day was the last one through the city of Sharjah. The bikes were deposited in front of an exotic mosque. Many of the country teams took advantage of the backdrop to take last group pictures. Some women broke into spontaneous dancing with music from their iPhones. Often when waiting for bikes to be readied, food to be served, or drinks supplied, the teams would perform some national dance especially the Danish, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Chinese. This day's ride started along the fishing wharf, went by the commercial harbor, then the marina with huge yachts at anchor. Along one side of the street rose the soaring steel skyscrapers, while on the other the Gulf sparkled. The route snaked on by the souk (market), and many more colorful mosques of all sizes. Along the way Follow the Women brochures were passed out to bystanders, written in English and Arabic, to publicize the plight of the Palestinians.
To get a feel for the mood and spirit of the ride check out a three-minute Follow the Women video of the event.