For a long time, the name Yousif Mirza has been almost single-handedly carrying the sport of cycling in the UAE.
But over the past couple of years, a new face has started to emerge, following in Mirza’s footsteps and joining him in the UAE Cycling Federation’s quest for glory on the Asian stage.
That new face belongs to Ahmed Al Mansoori – a 24-year-old who admits he has been inspired by his countryman’s success and is looking to capitalise on the boost cycling has been receiving lately, to achieve his dreams.
Initially a handball player, Al Mansoori got introduced to cycling 11 years ago but his parents were not too keen on it, worrying about the dangers of going out on two wheels on the roads of the Emirates.
Three years ago, he joined Al Nasr Club, and it coincided with new leadership coming into the Federation, looking to breathe new life into the sport.
At Nasr, Al Mansoori joined forces with Mirza, who has been showing him the ropes and is helping him reach new heights in the world of cycling.
“I’ve been experiencing a lot of progress, especially in the past two years. The increase in level has been unbelievable but it’s never enough. I’m hoping for a lot more,” Al Mansoori told Sport360°, speaking from Algeria where he was part of a UAE team that topped the medals table at the recent Arab Championships.
“I’ve been improving since I joined Al Nasr Club three years ago. I saw a real change in myself and I owe a lot of it to Yousif Mirza. He started teaching me a lot, how to train, why do this or that, to get better.
“And through that, I saw myself drastically improving and now I feel I’m following in his footsteps. I’m much more serious about the sport at the moment.”
He says he dreams of winning a medal at the Asian Championships and it is that goal that has been spurring him on.
Earlier in the year, both Al Mansoori and Mirza qualified to the world championships by placing fourth in the Madison event at the Asian Championships in Kazakhstan. Mirza was also fourth in the points race.
At the Asian Games in Incheon last month, Al Mansoori teamed up with Yousif and his brother Badr Mirza, and Majid Al Balooshi, to make it through qualifying in the Team Pursuit on the track. The quartet then went on to beat Iran for the first time and set a new Arab record in the process. They placed seventh in the final standings.
“Considering the wide gap in facilities and support, compared to other Asian countries who receive a lot more, I felt that our level at the Asian Games was quite close to the best cyclists on the continent,” says Al Mansoori.
“We’re not far off. The difference is that for them, cycling is their job, it’s how they make money. They have sponsors, the best bikes, the best equipment and gear, everything.
“But for myself, with the bare minimum, I’ve killed myself trying to reach their level and I realise I’m not too far away from them.”
Al Mansoori has a full-time job with the government but says they’ve been cooperative, allowing him to take time off for training and competitions.
One of such competitions was the Dubai Tour last February, the UAE’s very first professional tour which brought the world’s very best teams and cyclists including the likes of Mark Cavendish and Vincenzo Nibali to the streets of the northern emirate.
“It was a great experience. Considering how much I like sprint, seeing top sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel was just too good to be true,” Al Mansoori recalls.
“As I’m trying to improve my time trial, watching Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara up close was a brilliant learning experience for me.
“It’s indescribable, I really didn’t want the Dubai Tour to be over, unfortunately it passed too quickly.”
Does he see himself winning a stage at the Dubai Tour in the future, he added: “Nothing is impossible, I feel that our team can be competitive but it’s not easy. Competing against world champions who have had years of preparation, they have an advantage over us.”
Asked what his team needs in order to help him get that Asian medal, he says: “Cycling in general needs exposure. Competition is key. We need to travel to all the Asian tours so we increase our level. We sometimes limit ourselves to the local league which is never as strong. We try to travel more and more but we need to do more. The more we compete against our Asian rivals, the bigger chance we’ll get to beat them.”
Over 650 cyclists have registered for the second last build up ride this weekend ahead of the Spinneys Dubai 92 Cycle Challenge, with the big race set to take place on 12 December.
The Duabi Cycle Challenge, its fourth since its inception in 2010, is a 92km ride around the roads and past the iconic landmarks of Dubai. The event is set to attract over 2,000 cycling enthusiasts from all over the world, four times more than the number of participants four years ago.
With the numbers growing with each build-up ride, preparations are well underway as cyclists of all abilities from around the region and overseas ready themselves for the most popular mass participation cycle challenge in the Middle East.
The Spinneys Dubai 92 Cycle Challenge started in 2010, and now attracts cycling enthusiasts from all over the world. This year more than 2,000 riders are expected to enter – four times more than took part when the event was launched, and organisers are delighted that so many cyclists use the build-up rides to prepare themselves for the 92km ride around the roads and past the iconic landmarks of Dubai.
The build-up rides increase in distance each time in preparation for the full 92 km challenge, with the third ride this Friday, 31 October on a 65 km course, and the final one on 28 November over 85km, both held at the Dubai Cycling Course.
With the numbers growing for each ride, organisers are delighted that the build-up rides are providing strong motivation for people to get involved and to prepare well for the big race.
"Whether you are a serious rider or just love cycling it’s a great to be part of such an amazing event," organisers said today.
"It’s a great idea to join in the last two build-up rides so you feel comfortable in a group of the day. It’s also a good way to test your fitness, and to meet other people taking part.”
In addition, due to the increasing popularity of the event, the Challenge will consist of an expanded program catering for all ages, which will see two junior races take place prior to the official event.
“We’ve had great demand to include rides for under 16 year olds, and we are happy to announce that there will be two junior races on the day before the big one.
"So now there’s something for all the family in a full weekend of cycling, with the two Junior Challenge races for 7-11 year olds and 12-16 year olds on Thursday 11 December, and the Mini Rides for under 6s and the Spinneys 92 itself on Friday 12 December."
Yousif Mirza’s omnium gold on the final day completed an unprecedented haul for the UAE at the Arab Cycling Championships and guaranteed them top spot in the medal table.
The UAE have excelled in Algeria, travelling back home today with nine gold, six silver and seven bronze medals to finish ahead of second-placed Morocco.
Yesterday’s final events saw Mirza’s dominant display rewarded with top spot on the podium, with team-mate Ahmed Al Mansouri a place behind. In the other race, the UAE’s three-man sprint team of Ali Thani, Mohamed Al Mansouri and Ahmed Al Mansouri took bronze behind winners Algeria and Qatar.
The omnium included a 200m sprint, individual pursuit, points race, elimination race (where a rider drops out every lap until ones remains), 1km time trial and scratch.
There was joy elsewhere in the juniors, Ahmed Jassim Saif finishing third in the omnium.
The 26-year-old Mirza won five of the six elimination races to end on seven points, adding 1km time trial and scratch victories yesterday.
Team manager Abdullah Suwaidan praised Mirza’s and the rest of his team-mates’ achievements.
“I am very proud, because in the past nobody could beat Algeria and Morocco,” he said.
“Nine gold medals is an incredible achievement, we are very proud – UAE are No1. We are talking about a big gap between UAE cycling and the other Gulf nations.
“It was an amazing result for Mirza. We are very proud of him, he is not a normal rider. One day, we hope he will ride with a professional team.”
This success came after the UAE seniors sped away with three more medals on the penultimate day.
Talisman Mirza won gold in the points race, while there was a one-two for the Emiratis in the kerin, with Ahmed Al Mansouri taking gold and Thani grabbing silver.
The UAE now hope to excel in the Sharjah Cycling Tour which runs from November 18-23 and is part of the 2013/14 UCI Asia Tour.