UAE enjoy historic Arab Track success

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Debut joy: UAE’s Fatma Salem, who won a silver medal in the individual pursuit.

It was quite a dramatic scene at the Arab Track Cycling Championships in Sharjah yesterday. Staged at the Zayed Velodrome, near the Sharjah International Airport, the championship brought together cyclists from seven different Arab countries – Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and the UAE.

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It was the final day of the event, which had started on Friday, and all the cyclists were busy on their bikes, either warming up, cooling down, or riding up the ramp that took them to the track for their next race.

A quick glance around gives one an idea about the vast difference in funding each of these countries’ cycling teams actually receive. The Qataris and Emiratis seemed the best equipped sides by far, as they sported fancy bikes and sleek kits.

The Moroccans weren’t too shabby either but everyone else was clearly making do with what they had. A Qatari male cyclist was weeping loudly in a corner after getting disqualified from a race, while an Egyptian female rider was fuming after hearing the judge announce her time, which saw her miss out on competing for gold in the team sprint.

That same cyclist, Ibtisam Zayed, has already captured six gold medals over the previous three days. The atmosphere was tense – but not in the UAE camp, who were celebrating their ladies’ team’s unprecedented success. 

For the first time ever, the UAE female cycling squad captured four medals – three silver and a bronze – at an Arab championship. And they did it under the supervision of a new coach who has only been on board for a mere 12 days. Tunisian Sanaa Mardessi was in disbelief over her squad’s achievements.

Intense competition: Cyclists from the Gulf and beyond went flat out at the Arab Track Cycling Championships in Sharjah.

“This is historic,” said Asem Al Mulla, UAE Cycling Federation Team manager. “Sanaa really revolutionised the team in the little time she has had with the girls.

“Also a lot of credit goes to Abdulla Suwaidan, who coaches both the men’s and women’s teams. He is such a pro, he studied in Switzerland and really understands the sport. He spends all his time with these cyclists and helps them in every way.”

Suwaidan’s name comes up during every conversation had with any of the UAE cyclists. He is responsible for reviving the country’s national team and for starting a ladies’ squad a couple of years ago.

Four girls represented the UAE in these championships, including 14-year-old Fatma Salem, who was taking part in an international competition for the very first time and clinched a silver medal in individual pursuit on her debut.

Salem lost her father recently and was forced to step away from the sport for several months as she was abroad. But she returned to practice four weeks ago and found much solace in her daily rides.

“I’m the youngest in the competition, and this is the first time I competed in a championship like this,” Salem told Sport360°.

“My father was sick, and he passed away. I had to travel for some time but now I’m back and cycling really helps me deal with everything. I’m happy I managed to regain my fitness over the past four weeks and I was able to be ready in time for this championship.

“I was so nervous and scared because this is my first time competing, my first race, and it’s at home… But as soon as I got out there, I forgot about the nerves and did well. My dream is now to win gold. This is a very tough sport and not many people choose to compete in it here in the UAE.

“But I fell in love with it from a young age, I used to cycle by the beach with my brothers. I come from an athletic family, my brothers used to play volleyball, and everyone at home is very supportive of me competing.”

Mardessi, who used to be a member of the Tunisian national team, believes the girls on her squad have great potential. “Captain Abdulla Suwaidan has really helped me out and he deserves a lot of the credit for this incredible achievement. The girls have been working hard and have a lot of potential. They’ve made rapid progress and I think they will become one of the most feared teams in the region really soon,” she said.

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UAE cyclists continue to make their mark at Arab Championships

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Era of champions: Majid Al Balooshi.

UAE cycling is witnessing a ‘golden generation’ according to Majid Al Balooshi, who yesterday helped the hosts pull-off a sensational one-two in the scratch race at the Arab Championships.

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For the past decade, Yousif Mirza has been the man at the forefront of cycling in the emirates and his latest efforts at the Asian Championships road race in Thailand saw him become the first-ever Emirati cyclist to qualify to an Olympic Games.

But yesterday at the Zayed Velodrome in Sharjah, it was Al Balooshi who crossed the finish line first in the gruelling 40-lap scratch race to take gold, leaving Mirza to settle for silver. It was a result that made both Emiratis ecstatic.

“This is the first individual gold of my career so I couldn’t be happier,” a breathless Al Balooshi said. “I have to thank our coach Abdulla Suwaidan as well as our champion Yousif Mirza.

“The competition was really stiff over the 40 laps, first from the Qataris, then the Iraqis. I took advantage of the fact that all eyes were on Yousif Mirza, him being an incredible champion, and I managed to sneak away with the gold.

“I’m lucky that I am competing in this era, which I believe has a golden generation of cyclists in the UAE. It’s an era of champions and I’m learning a lot from them.”

Mirza was a big winner over the four-day event having claimed gold in the individual and team pursuit, the points race as well as the omnium. He was thrilled to see Al Balooshi top the podium.

“It’s a dream for me to see other Emiratis get on that podium,” said Mirza, who is No4 on the UCI Asia Tour rankings. “The development in cycling here over the past two years has been tremendous. It’s a huge leap. Our rulers all practise cycling regularly, just look at their Instagram and Facebook pages…

“Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, I personally went on rides with them and it’s a dream of any athlete to share your favourite sport with your rulers.

“Now we have the Dubai Tour and the Abu Dhabi Tour in the UAE – two professional races, we never dreamed of having that. It’s fantastic.”

The UAE topped the medals table of the Arab Track Championships with 21 medals – nine gold, six silver and six bronze. Morocco placed second with 20 medals including seven gold, while Egypt were third a total of 13 medals including seven gold.

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UCI insist they are still to make a decision over Astana licence

Ian Parkes 31/03/2015
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Team under threat: Vincenzo Nibali.

The International Cycling Union and Astana Pro Team have dismissed a report that the team of 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali have been stripped of their World Tour licence by the Independent Licence Commission.

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Last month the UCI requested that Astana’s licence be revoked by the commission following an independent audit into their procedures, which came after a number of anti-doping infringements by Astana and their feeder team.

Yesterday, Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported that Astana would lose their WorldTour licence and would only be allowed to apply for a Continental licence, the third tier of professional cycling, saying the decision had been made on March 20. However, the UCI said the case had not yet been heard.

“Following a misleading article published today in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) would like to clarify that no hearing has yet taken place in the Astana case and therefore no decision has been made,” a UCI statement said.

The Licence Commission is due to meet with Astana on Thursday, and the team said they believed that meeting would mark the start of the decision-making process.

An Astana statement said: “Astana Pro Team has every reason to believe that our meeting on April 2 with the Independent Licence Commission will be a properly conducted legal meeting with due process and is not a foregone conclusion.

“We aim to present evidence that Astana Pro Team is in full compliance with the ethical codes in place and is taking pro-active measures to enhance our role in the global fight against drugs in cycling.”

When Astana were awarded their 2015 licence in December, conditions were attached after five riders linked to the team failed doping tests in 2014, including brothers Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy, trainee Ilya Davidenok and two members of Astana’s continental development team – Artur Fedosseyev and Victor Okishev.

Astana previously said they would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport if their licence was revoked.

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