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Any cycling fan walking through the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport last week might have done a double-take.
“Oh, there’s a former Paris-Roubaix winner.”
“Look honey, there’s a Tour de France stage winner.”
Entire teams plodded through Terminal 3 all bound for Saudi Arabia for the third edition of the Saudi Tour.
Yet these professional cyclists weren’t flying business class. The entire entourage piled into a charter flight, and some six hours later landed in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula.
“The flight was OK. It was organized well, and there was a flight before ours and we didn’t have to carry the bikes,” said Cofidis rider Max Walscheid. “It’s also nice to have only one hotel. These races in the Middle East also have nice weather and they are well organized. The riders like them in general.”
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The spectacular expanses around AlUla once saw caravans of camel trains hauling commodities on the old spice trail.
Flash forward to 2023, and though there were still a few camels wandering around, the only caravan last week was the race entourage of 200 riders and staffers parachuting in for five days of racing.
The scene repeated itself across airports all winter.
Where there is a road, there is a race
Professional bike racing is now truly an international sport. There are major bike races on every continent (save Antarctica).
Like every early season, racers and teams pack up and head to such places as Argentina, Australia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Add Malaysia, Gabon, Rwanda, and Guadalupe during the year.
Later this summer, the Arctic Race will finish at the northernmost road in Europe at Nordkapp in Norway. In 2025, the UCI road world championships will be Africa for the first time in Rwanda. Where there is a road, there is a race.
“This feels a bit more friendly. It’s a very well run. They really look after the riders and the teams,” Bennett said of the Tour Down Under. “It does have a relaxed vibe, and the Hilton becomes home for two weeks. I really like it.”
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Once the European calendar kicks in, no one wants to be flying six hours or more to a race, but in January and February, teams and riders have learned to fit in these exotic races into their calendar.
And most of these races have one central hotel during the course of the week.
With such a long trip to get there, organizers try not to force riders into additional hours of transfers between stages. At nearly every race, riders check into the same hotel and stay there the entire time.
“There are almost no transfers in this race, maybe an hour. The Giro is what kills you,” he said. “In the Giro, you’re doing two hours before, three hours afterwards, and then all the racing.”
Taking the show on the road
Taking the cycling show on the road is quite an exacting science.
European race organizers that promote races in the Middle East have everything dialed in down to the smallest details.
Companies like ASO and RCS Sport provide the expertise, marketing, and logistical support, and then source all the race infrastructure locally. All the fencing, podiums, security, cars, and other staffers are hired out in the host nations.
Race officials walk onto the plane with little more than a carry-on bag. ASO flies in a dozen or so staffers. Add some UCI commissaires, a few motorcycle drivers, a handful of grumpy photographers and journalists, and the entourage fits snuggly inside one wide-body charter flight.
It’s quite different for teams. Everything needs to be shipped out from Europe, and that’s where things get more complicated.
Riders typically have to travel with their bikes, but ASO solved that hassle at least for its Middle East races by hiring out a second charter flight where all the bikes and materials are flown out a day earlier than the riders.
So when the riders arrived in AlUla, mechanics had already been there a full day and built out the bikes ready for training and racing.
“I travel with just my suitcase,” said Jayco-AlUla’s Zdenek Štybar. “It’s never easy when you have to take the plane and fly with all the material. You never know what will arrive or if something will be damaged, it’s a bit stressful.”
The Australian team actually arrived in AlUla a few days before the race and stayed for a few extra days, with some of its staffers and members of its women’s team coming in for training.
Sport director Tristan Hoffman said these international races put extra pressure on the team mechanics and staffers. The team has an exhaustive checklist to make sure everything is packed onto flights.
“If you forget something, it’s quite hard to find the material here in time for the race,” Hoffman said. “If you’re in the U.S. or Australia, you can, but not out here.
“We have to bring everything — bidons, two bikes per rider, four sets of wheels, energy food, tools, kits, helmets, shoes, the whole setup,” he said. “It’s quite the operation, but it’s worth it for the team to come to these races.”
Bennett echoed the sentiment that the hardest part of racing in Australia, Argentina, or Saudi Arabia is the challenge of bringing everything that’s needed during a race.
“It’s still trying to bring what we’d normally have in a truck and a bus and five team cars, and try to squeeze that into bike bags. There are a lot of obstacles involved,” Bennett said.
“This year at the Tour Down Under was even more complicated with the prologue, so you have to bring disc wheels, TT helmets, bigger chain rings, skin suits, all the stuff that goes with TT, except the bikes.”
Chasing the sun, chasing the money
So why bother?
The answer is obvious — money.
It seems there is a bit of a bragging rights competition between all the Arab princes, and countries like the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are spending billions to promote a variety of international sports.
Cycling teams and organizers are thankful for the backing.
“They are absolutely important for the sport,” said UAE sport director Fabio Baldato about financial backing the Middle East nations are giving cycling. “We represent the entire nation. We try to bring the nation to the front and to win. One of the missions for the team is to represent the nation.
“The investment from these nations is good for cycling,” he said. “It is good they also looking at each other and see who is performing better. Our job is to win races.
“We used to these kinds of races. Qatar is already there 15 years ago,” Baldato said. “It’s a different start of the season, but the riders like it. The weather is good. The racing is good. The organization is good.”
Organizers spend millions on these races. The Santos Tour Down Under is considered one of the best-organized races on the calendar, and fans turn out in large numbers every year to watch the top European stars.
That’s certainly not the case in the Middle East, at least in terms of fans along the roadway. There are more camels than people in the AlUla region, which is roughly the size of Belgium, but with only about 40,000 inhabitants.
The logistical blueprint, however, is helping race organizers to venture ever further afield.
The concept of locally sourcing all materials born from the experiences of the Middle East races in particular helped lay the foundation for RCS Sport to bring the Giro d’Italia to Belfast in 2014.
Rather than transport the entire entourage — vehicles and all — the Giro hired locals to run the show in Ireland, and the Italian crew was waiting for the transfer in Italy. A similar blueprint was followed for the ground-breaking start in Israel in 2018.
The success of those events continues to evoke dreams of bringing the Tour de France to North America. ASO, however, remains hesitant due to flight times. Québec to France at about seven hours is simply too long for a race as demanding as the Tour.
There’s one thing that’s certain, no one complains about the hotels.
At the Tour Down Under, riders stay in the modern, business hotel right downtown. Hotels were over the top in the Saudi Tour, with a few teams getting lucky to stay in the luxurious five-star resort at Banyan Tree AlUla where rooms cost $2,500 a night.
Once the race is on, it’s business time
Yet no one is there on vacation. Once the racing starts, it’s all business. Every major team wants to win at every race they go to, regardless of where it is.
Riders seemed to like the spectacular scenery and mix of geography at the Saudi Tour. Compared to the barren expanses of the UAE Tour or the now-defunct Tour of Qatar, the racing was more varied in AlUla.
“In terms in racing, I prefer this over the UAE, because there was always some action in the race,” Walscheid said. “I’ve done the UAE race a few times and there it was always super easy in the sprints or on the climbs.
“This is a good race for preparation for the season, but you also want to get some result. The organization is good and the hotel is great, so nothing to complain about,” he said. “I enjoy the weather here, it’s not crazy hot. For a European, it is very good preparation.
“It’s different than other races in the Middle East. We do not have Google street view like we do in Europe. It’s a good mix of racing, it’s not easy, but it’s not super hard. It’s a great opener for the season.”
One big difference to these early season races compared to Europe is the absence of team buses.
It’s a throwback to the times before the big buses entered the sport a few decades ago, and riders were hunting out shade under trees.
“I grew up going to the races in a little car, so I do not mind to sit here in the fresh air,” said Stybar as he prepared for a start at the Saudi Tour.
“It feels a little bit like a training camp, it’s easy going. There is not big stress, but of course, we want to perform here because it’s the sponsor’s home ground. It’s good weather. It’s not racing. For a few races we do not mind.”
Cycling’s spring training camps will soon wrap up. Opening weekend is just a weeks away for the classics riders, and by March, everyone’s deep into Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.
From then on, it’s the real deal.