It’s winter* in Qatar again, which means it’s finally safe for the lesser-spotted leisure cyclist to emerge from hibernation
This strange and rare breed is only visible for a few months each year. Tell-tale signs include a nervous disposition, a look of slight incredulity that they’re out and about on two wheels at all, and a palpable sense of imminent harm.
Technically, these delicate creatures could ride on the city streets – and a tweet this week from Baladiya, the Ministry of Municipality & Urban Planning, implies that Doha is some sort of cycling utopia:
But the reality is that, if a leisure cyclist did dare try and use the open road, their sliver of space would soon be taken up by something far larger, more air conditioned, and way less patient.
It’s not even as if there’s anywhere for them to escape to. Even where there were once pavement/sidewalks (delete as applicable) they are being rapidly deleted by the ceaseless construction work for the city’s new Metro or yet more freeways.
(To be fair, coaxing people out of their cars is a problem across the whole region. For Dubai’s recent public transport week, lucky punters were brib- sorry, incentivised with prizes of Actual Gold for buying a weekly travelcard.)
So you would think encouraging people to get out of their cars and switch to a bike would be a priority: four wheels bad, two wheels good and all that.
You would, however, be wrong.
Smiles not Miles
As the leisure cyclists emerge, you can follow an ant trail of them to local bike shops, where they have their dust-blasted bikes serviced and repaired after a long hot summer of inactivity.
This is in stark contrast to their far keener cousins, the Lycra Louts, who have been busy getting up about 4am every Friday throughout the summer in order to ‘beat the heat’ and get their miles in.
Some leisure cyclists form groups, seeking solace and safety in numbers. Doha Joy Rides has recently launched, with their Smiles not Miles campaign aiming to encourage cyclists of all ages and abilities to ride together for fun. It’s not quite Reclaim The Streets, but it’s a start.
And they’re not alone in discovering (or rediscovering) a love for all things bike.
As well as adults on two wheels being unwelcome, the privately owned and operated park’s rules – depending on what day it is, and which guard stops you – also extend to 10, 8 or even 5-year olds.
But what’s this? [slams on brakes]
Because, in much the same way that a newly-divorced, middle-aged man might suddenly profess a previously unhinted-at love of clubbing in order to impress the girl half his age he’s now dating, so the Aspire Zone management are now officially Big Cycling Fans.
Yes, as of last month, and for whatever reason (remember Doha Golden Rule #1: Never Ask Why) the park’s management has announced the opening of a new 5km cycle track and bike hire scheme, claiming (and I quote) “Cycling is now a major feature of Aspire Zone.” Yes, really.
I couldn’t wait to try it out.
So I returned to Skate Shack on Salwa Road to collect my newly-restored bike. Whilst there, I had one of those moments where my mind briefly tricks me out of thinking I’m still 18 and reminds me that I am now a parent in my forties.
Yes, I saw the rear-mounted bike racks for sale and thought that’s just what I need for my car.
It may be a little easier on the wallet than a sports car and/or a Harley-Davidson, but my midlife crisis purchases are no less obvious. Let’s just be grateful I left the shop without buying anything made out of Lycra and move on, shall we?
So imagine my delight on arriving at Aspire to find that the stories were true: there was indeed something resembling a bike track.
It may not be perfect (it’s bisected by at least a dozen sliproads for one thing, and actually just flat out disappears at one point, for another) but it is nevertheless a path. For cycling.
With spray painted bike logos to prove it, and everything.
The mother of all u-turns
I therefore expected this gist of this post to be: “This is a great start and we should show our appreciation by voting with our wheels.”
I got home and told the kids the good news. No more crossing the city to MIA or Dhal Al Hammam: finally, we can all cycle at the park down the road. You can imagine their excitement.
Of course, by the time Kid A and I returned the following week, the track had gone from recently-opened to even-more-recently closed.
Complaints had been received, apparently, about children cycling (on, er, a cycle track) and as result, the track had been closed to bikes with immediate effect.
I shared the news on Twitter and was deluged with responses ranging from incredulity to weary resignation. It prompted local journalist Tory Scott to pen this article asking where exactly our kids are supposed to play.
(Before you think I have it in for Aspire, they are far from alone in making head-scratching decisions. Up by the Corniche, the arrival of cooler temperatures means it’s the perfect time to, er, close one of the city’s largest and most central parks.)
The bike hire scheme’s management had filed a counter-complaint and, at time of writing, I am no wiser as to what the official story is.
But it doesn’t matter whether the ban is lifted by the time you read this, in a month, or just in time for February’s National Sport Day public holiday.
Because reputationally, the damage is done. Any locals who, like me, had been excited about the apparent change in the park’s attitude will now be thinking instead “same old Aspire“.
And so the cycle, pun very sadly intended, continues.
*Round our way, ‘winter’ refers to daily temperatures below 30C, and a pleasing lack of suffocating humidity. Other winters are available