When Yousif Mirza pedals off with the rest of the peloton on Tuesday for the first stage of the fourth edition of the Dubai Tour, he knows he’ll be making history.
Making his debut for the newly-formed UAE Abu Dhabi outfit, Mirza will be the first-ever Emirati cyclist to represent a UCI WorldTeam.
After years making his way up the cycling pecking order, the 28-year-old has finally found a home at the highest level of professional cycling.
Abu Dhabi had stepped in to save the Lampre-Merida outfit which lost its funding end of last year. An Abu Dhabi company, Kopaonik Property Investment LLC, took over the sponsorship and the team was rebranded as UAE Abu Dhabi, and had their official launch earlier this month.
Mirza, the nation’s first rider to compete in the road race at the Olympic Games, was the leader of the now-disbanded UCI Continental team Nasr-Dubai last year.
He received an offer from Bahrain Merida – a new team founded in the neighbouring kingdom – but had heard rumours that Abu Dhabi might form its own outfit and decided to hold out for a chance to compete for a home team.
“My patience was rewarded,” Mirza told Sport360° on Monday. “I accepted UAE Abu Dhabi’s offer and signed a one-year contract that can be extended to two seasons.
“This is an opportunity, and opportunities don’t come by twice. So of course I made sure I grabbed it with both hands.”
Mirza has long been a dominant force in regional cycling and is one of the best riders in the Arab world. He now must take the massive leap and ride alongside some of the very best in the business.
His team-mates include former world champion Rui Costa, Giro d’Italia stage winner Andrea Guardini and last year’s Milan-San Remo runner-up Ben Swift. The Emirates-based team already claimed a victory this season as Costa triumphed in stage 5 at the Vuelta de San Juan three days ago.
“Of course this is a dream come true. Riding alongside the pros is completely different than me taking part in Arab or Gulf competitions. It’s a huge difference. So this is a new experience for me, it’s a difficult challenge, but it’s not an impossible one,” said Mirza.
“Taking things step by step is always the best thing. So I’ve gone from the amateur level, to Continental, to Pro Continental, to now WorldTour. So that’s what I like, that I have experienced all this gradually and that I’ve taken part in races of all categories. So I don’t have any excuses now.”
Mirza looks and sounds confident regarding the mammoth task at hand. Perhaps having the seal of approval from sprint superstar Mark Cavendish has something to do with it.
Cavendish had been in Dubai for the past week training and he rode from the city to the Hatta Dam (same route as the tour’s fourth stage) with Mirza and his brother Bader a few days ago.
“It was a good ride actually,” said Cavendish, who rides for South Africa’s Team Dimension Data. “(The challenge for Yousif would) just be learning to race in Europe, it’s a different thing. We were talking about it, he’s going to come over – we’re good friends and I’ll look after him. I’m sure he’s going to be alright.”
Mirza says Cavendish usually calls him when he’s in town and says they have good fun together.
“We gave him a ‘kandoora’ to wear and he posted the picture on Instagram,” said Mirza with a smile.
“Mark is a very nice guy. The whole time we rode together we talked about the Dubai Tour, the Abu Dhabi Tour, the World Championships he lost, the Olympics… so talk about the sport, and also about life in the UAE in general. He can see that cycling has made lots of progress in the UAE.”
Mirza spent two weeks training with UAE Abu Dhabi in Italy this month before returning home for the Dubai Tour and he says he’s been getting along with the few team-mates he has met so far.
“The atmosphere in the team has been great. The team has about 27 riders so I still haven’t met all of them. Some were in Argentina, some in Australia, some in Dubai… But the ones I’ve met so far, I have a great relationship with them – be it the Italians, the Slovenians… there’s a Moroccan rider called Anass (El Abdia), who of course is closest to me as an Arab rider,” he explained.
The riders lining up alongside Mirza in the Dubai Tour will be Matteo Bono, Simone Consonni, Kristijan Durasek, Roberto Ferrari, Sacha Modolo, Matej Mohoric and Jan Polanc.
Modolo, a 29-year-old Italian sprinter who had been with Lampre since 2014, is one of the riders to watch at this week’s Dubai Tour.
“I feel good and I’m very motivated for many reasons, the first is personal because I wanted to make this season better than the past season, because I wasn’t completely satisfied with my performances and I want to do better,” said Modolo.
“The second is this is a hometown race for the team and we want to be as competitive as possible in rider to honour the jersey and the UAE flag.”
Speaking of Mirza, Modolo added: “I met Yousif twice in the training camp and here, so we haven’t had a chance to spend a lot of time with him.
“I feel that he is a good rider and the team is welcoming him in the group and we’ll be happy to support him, to give him suggestions and advice to improve. We’ll be happy for him to reach his goals this season.”
Mirza admits he is being realistic and wise regarding his goals with his new team, but still he is not lacking in ambition.
“When you’re with a new team, you give them a short-term goal and a long-term goal. For me, I’d like to be crowned Asian champion this year and long-term, I’d like to make it to the Olympics again,” said the UAE national champion.
Mirza is still uncertain about his schedule for the year but he is confirmed for the Dubai Tour, and February’s Tour of Oman and Abu Dhabi Tour.
He will then take on the challenge of racing in Europe for the first time.
“The only thing I’m worried about in terms of racing in Europe is the weather,” said Mirza, who can handle the 40+ degree weather of the UAE desert but is yet to fully experience the cooler wet conditions in Europe.
“Still, I plan to be ready wherever they decide to take me.”
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