Learning from Qatar
At the podium ceremony of the 2013 Ladies Tour of Qatar Eddy Merckx came over to me and said; “The Sheikh would like to speak with you. They want you to be involved in Qatar Cycling.”
I smiled, and nodded and pretended I understood. Then he walked away.
I didn’t really understand. Maybe it was because I was star struck that the great Eddy Merckx had spoken to me (albeit 16 words) or maybe it was because of the outrageousness that Qatar Cycling wanted to speak with me. Needless to say, the first question that popped in my head was; ‘about what?’
Sure enough though Dirk De Pauw (the business partner of Eddy Merckx) called me that night. Minutes later I was in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton meeting with himself and the president of Qatar Cycling H.E. Sheikh Khalid bin Ali bin Abdullah Al-Thani.
We spoke for 45 minutes about cycling in Qatar, the 2016 World Championships and the Sheikh’s vision for cycling in the region.
And did he have a vision; he wanted to create a women’s cycling team to grow the sport in Qatar so that his country could have the opportunity of fielding their own national team, at their own World Championships, in 2016. And he wanted me to be involved.
It was a very long discussion but it was evident it was still very much in the planning stages. So when I opened cyclingnews one morning in November and saw that Qatar Cycling had formed a 22 rider strong women’s development cycling team I had to smile.
Ten months on the Sheikh’s vision was becoming a reality.
When I arrived in Qatar this year my Hitec Products team and I were asked to meet and ride with the newly formed squad.
When we rode up to the team who were kitted out in brand new Qatar Cycling kit, Merckx road bikes and helmet we didn’t really know what to expect.
I asked the teams coach, recently retired professional cyclist Pia Sundstedt from Finland, what she wanted us to do.
She answered; “Just ride with the girls. They only got their road bikes yesterday and have only been riding for three months. It’s just for them to experience riding with you.”
As we say in Australia, too easy. I introduced the team and off we went. Six of the world’s best female cyclists with 13 of Qatar’s newest female cyclists.
It was like day and night; these women had only been cycling for three months, most of my teammates have been cycling since they were teenagers, myself since I was 12. We wore short sleeve jersey and pants and the Qatari women had long leg warmers and sleeves on. Many had their head scarves tucked under their helmets.
But these differences didn’t matter. As soon as we kicked off their initial nervousness faded away. Straight away a young girl rode up to me and said, “You’re Chloe? I’ll ride with you” and she powered on ahead. We gapped the group behind us and I had to tell her we should probably slow down.
I rode with another girl, 17 year-old Hiba, who’s gears weren’t working but was still having a great time. She loved her bike and she loved her country, when I asked her where she was from she said; “Qatar, this is my country.”
This is the power of the bike; it breaks down all barriers and allows everyone the same freedom. Here we were, three Norwegians, two Australians and one Frenchie riding with 13 Qatari women who shared our same passion for cycling.
Their excitement and enthusiasm for the sport and their dream to one day represent their country in cycling was infectious.
As we rode home my teammate rode up to me and said, “Thank you.”
“For that. It was so nice to see how much they enjoyed riding their bikes. It was so nice to be a part of.”
Qatar Cycling is changing the face of cycling in the region and around the world.
I was recently having a conversation with Olympic gold medallist Sara Carrigan about women’s cycling and what needs to be done to grow it; we both agreed that steps need to be taken to get more women on bikes and once this is achieved the sport can grow.
It is a bottom-up process and not necessarily a top-down process. Participation spawns interest and interest creates demand; demand for coverage, demand for information, demand for more.
Cycling is not one of these sports you just wake up one day and decide you might try. It is expensive, at times daunting, and overall just not that approachable. We sit at coffee shops with our fast bikes, fast wheels, and perfectly positioned lycra and laugh at the new person in the bunch who still had the visor on their helmet; it’s intimidating.
What Qatar cycling is doing is making sure cycling isn’t expensive, isn’t daunting, is approachable, and most importantly isn’t intimidating. They realised that if they wanted to have a women’s team on the start line of the 2016 World Championships they needed to do something about it, and they have.
The Sheikh came and spoke with me at the awards ceremony of this years Ladies Tour of Qatar. We spoke briefly about the Qatari women’ team, my meeting them, and my initial impressions while Kirsten Wild pulled on the golden jersey.
He said it doesn’t take long to get from zero to 80 percent, but it takes a long time to get from 80 to 100 percent. He and Qatar cycling have invested in women’s cycling and they know it will need time before they start to see results however, that is something which they are willing to provide. More countries around the world need to invest time so that women’s cycling can grow.
Involved in the project or not, I look forward to following the progress of this team and there are many countries around the world who would do well to watch with interest too.
Read this blog written by one of the Qatari cyclists I met. She talks about meeting the Hitec Products team and how we both learnt from each other.
Read this blog written by Tom Palmer and my Dad about The Ladies Tour Qatar. Tom labels it the ‘most progressive race in the world’.