Roisin Thomas didn’t set out to be an endurance cyclist. In fact, when she first started riding even short distances were a struggle.
“Back then, even 30k was enough for me,” she recalls. And it wasn’t just her stamina that was missing, most of the kit was, too. “I didn’t have clip-in shoes, my helmet was too big for me – I was very amateur,” she laughs. “All I took was a little bottle of water.”
Along the way, though, the Irishwoman met fellow cyclists who would serve as an inspiration. She says: “I loved that feeling of movement and being able to cover such long distances.” Before long, she was averaging up to 650km a week and her life was devoted to riding. “I don’t go out to clubs. I’m the opposite of the Irish stereotype,”
With all the mileage she was putting in, Thomas wanted to take up a serious challenge. That’s when she had the idea of a single-day cross-country ride taking in all seven emirates. Her coach helped plan the route and the logistics. Together, they found a small team that rode together last May, completing it in just over 18 hours.
Why would anyone saddle up for a day-long bike ride in the heat of the UAE summer? “Well, why wouldn’t you?” She asks. “I look at people like road cleaners and the tough conditions they work in, and that puts things in perspective.”
Of course, having a support car, water and food made things easier. However, it was still gruelling. “Everything is about your mind-set, so if you say you are going to do something, then just go ahead with it.”
This year, Thomas was already riding up to 140km a day to prepare for some European races later in the year and she reckoned the training would stand her in good stead for another crack at the seven emirates.
This time, things went a little differently. “I had people sending me their CVs, telling me they wanted to take part,” she says. “It’s really something special. I would love to see this grow and one day make it on to the international cycling calendar.”
This year’s ride also took place in May The cyclists set off at 5am in Abu Dhabi. The pack rode through Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain, Ajman and Sharjah, before finishing in Dubai’s Nad Al Sheba.
Excluding rest and nutrition stops, Thomas and co finished in 14 hours and 43 minutes, shaving more than three hours off her 2016 time. “I really enjoyed it this year,” she says. “It was way more enjoyable because I knew what to expect and because I was training for long endurance rides.”
What It Takes
Thomas credits her focus and training for getting her through the ride. Cycling for hours on end can get monotonous, leading to a loss of concentration. Combine that with the brutal desert sun and you have a potential disaster on your hands. As your stamina wanes and your brain zones out, your reaction times to events drop.
“You have to focus on yourself,” Thomas adds. “How you are feeling, your body is feeling. You’re wondering if your sugar levels going to crash.”
Being part of a team, she was also making sure everybody else was eating and drinking. “It’s just as important to keep an eye on your teammates and the average pedal rate. If you’re starting to slow down, just pop to the back of the pack because it’s a threat to the other riders.”
Thomas has a series of international competitions lined up over the coming months. And by the time you read this, she’ll be back in Ireland getting ready to compete in the National Championships. In August, she will complete in a time trial, which is her speciality. This race takes place on space-age looking road bikes, designed with just two things in mind: “It is about power and speed… You are on your own,” she says. “You are basically trying to get your fastest time covering the prescribed distance.”
Advice for Budding Cyclists
Thomas believes that Abu Dhabi is a great place to get on a bike for many reasons. For starters, there are several places to enjoy a good ride. “There’s the Corniche, Yas Track and Al Wathba, if you’re really interested,” she says. You can also spot packs of riders around Al Bateen on weekend mornings.
She advises joining a group that rides on weekends, especially ones that cater for beginners. “If you’re looking at getting into it seriously, sign up with a coach. There are lots of cycling coaches here who can help you,” says Thomas.
Her next bit of advice is investing in a good bike. “If you’re riding a bad bike, you’re not going to want to ride at all.” The better bikes with carbon frames start at about Dhs4,000, but prices can go as high as Dhs100,000.
Just as important as the quality of the machine is investing in a good bike fit from a professional bike shop. Cycles come in different types and “geometries”. Some have higher seats, others longer pedals, some have low handlebars or ones placed further away from the body. Getting a bike that fits you just right means you can ride in comfort for as long as you have energy.
And while Thomas tracked around the UAE in the heat of summer, she says the winter months provide the “perfect cycling weather”. It also helps that the government is investing money in cycling and creating new cycle tracks. “So there is no excuse not to get out there and cycle.”