Just weeks out from the Rio Olympics, Yousif Mirza recalls the biggest challenge he’s faced in his cycling career.
It occurred on the night of May 17, 2015, the first day of Mirza’s rest period off his bicycle. It also happened to be the day after he helped Al Nasr claim the gold medal at the President’s Cup.
Mirza suffered a motorcycle accident in Jumeirah, resulting in broken bones in his legs and shoulder and four ensuing surgeries.
At the time of the crash, the Emirati had already qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics, but in the immediate aftermath of the accident, he had to come to grips with a heartbreaking reality: his dream of representing his country on the grandest stage could be finished before it even began.
“I thought my career was over,” said the 27-year-old.
Mirza soon realised he had survived a scare. His doctor said he could continue cycling, but would need six months to recover before getting on two wheels again.
Mirza's training plan
- On training in Europe: “That’s what I need. You will race against the same riders you will race against in the Olympics.”
- On who he wants to meet at the Olympics: “I want to meet all the big stars from cycling. Not really from other sports.”
- On most challenging aspect of the Olympics course: “In the last 100 kilometres of the race, we’ll go in a circuit with five laps. In that circuit, there’s one big climb.”
That wasn’t good enough for Mirza. Instead, he travelled to Germany to get his body and surgeries checked and was cleared to return much sooner.
Twenty eight days after the crash, Mirza was back on his bike and raced for the first time since at the Nad Al Sheba Ramadan Tournament on July 3.
“It was something in my head,” Mirza said. “When you think positive, everything will become easier for you.
“I fought and fought and trained hard, doubling what I was training before. So I came back feeling better than before and in-shape.”
Mirza cleared his tallest hurdle yet, but while he’s overjoyed to be heading to his first Olympics this summer to compete in the men’s road race, he admits the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders have been weighing on him.
“Here in the UAE, cycling is new. Everybody thinks reaching the Olympics is easy. It’s not,” he said.
“For me, I want to give the message that I’m at the highest level in cycling.
“Everyone thinks you can win or do something, but I’m going thinking that I have to do my best. I get pressure from people.”
The spotlight on Mirza is magnified thanks to his lone standing atop the sport in the UAE.
He’s won the National Championships UAE four times and earned second in the 2015 Asian Cycling Championships, which sealed his qualification for the Olympics.
Mirza will be the first UAE cyclist to compete in the Games since Ali Sayed Darwish at Atlanta 1996, but he’s eager to see more riders qualify from the emirates in the coming years.
“I’m 27 years old, so I can give to cycling maybe five, six, seven years more. If not me, there will be others, the new generation,” Mirza said. “So I will support all as much as I can to qualify more riders from the UAE for the next Olympics.
“Everything right now is just about one rider in the UAE, Yousif Mirza. But it’s not only me. The team has helped me to reach there. I didn’t work alone.
“Cycling is not an individual sport, it’s more than that.”
To help develop more local cyclists, as well as prepare for Rio, Mirza has assumed a leading role for Al Nasr Pro Cycling Team, a newly-formed squad which was set up earlier this year.
Since its formation, Mirza and his team-mates have participated in the Dubai Tour and races across Europe, in nations like Portugal and Azerbaijan, to increase their exposure.
“We’re getting better and better. That team has helped me in a lot of ways. It’s a good project for UAE cycling,” Mirza said.
“The first goal for this team is to improve local riders. We don’t want professional riders from outside and that’s it. There’s no point to that. If we don’t improve our riders, the project is not correct. That’s what I think.
“Our goal with this team is to improve UAE riders, with the help of coaches, staff and professional riders. It’s like a circle.”
The plan is a long-term one, but Mirza is already in position to showcase the UAE’s talent this summer.
He said: “I will try my best to show the level of our cycling.”
Sport360 will be profiling one UAE-based Olympian each week as part of our build-up to Rio 2016.