Yousif Mirza: the present (and future) of UAE cycling
Cycling is a hugely popular sport in Europe, with hundreds of thousands lining up the city streets to catch a glimpse of these endurance sportsmen. In Belgium for example, riders (cyclists) often have equal or greater popularity than footballers. Cycling has never received the attention it deserved here in the Gulf, mainly due to the desert sun that shines all year round.
This began to change after the additions of the Dubai Tour in 2014 and the Tour of Abu Dhabi in 2015 to the International Cycling Union (UCI) Asia Tour. Since then the UAE has established itself as an important stage in the UCI race calendars, and with initiatives from the government and support from the private sector, cycling, like many other sports, has firmly become part of our sporting culture.
Esquire Middle East spoke to Yousif Mirza, the only Emirati cyclist of the UAE Team Emirates Road Cycling team and the first Emirati cyclist to compete in the Olympic road race.
How did you get into cycling?
Here cycling wasn't traditionally as big as in Europe, not a big sport with a big following. It certainly is growing here in the UAE, especially if you compare it to 10 years ago. I think the weather is the main obstacle here, it’s so hot. But for me it's my hobby, I feel happy when I’m cycling. I started my journey in 1998, in the eastern province of the UAE. In 2005 I moved to Dubai and joined the Al Ahli cycling team and started competing. This was effectively the start of my pro cycling career. As I improved I moved to Al Nasr cycling team. And finally I joined team UAE Emirates in 2016. Being a part of our national team was a dream come true. I will do my best until I reach my goals.
What are your short and long term goals?
I actually reached my first goal in 2015 at the Asian games in Thailand when I won the silver medal in the road race. The Asian games are very big, you have Japanese and Chinese riders who are particularly good, its huge competition for the UAE to enter. When I got the medal I was extremely proud and happy. That medal actually qualified me for the Olympic Games in Brazil. That was my first goal, I will keep trying to reach more and more.
It’s an immensely competitive and physically gruelling sport. How do you keep your physical and mental spirits up?
Cycling is very hard, you need to give all you got to your bike for it to pay you back. This sport takes a lot of training, eating well and just generally being well. It’s not just riding a bike, but you need to fight on a bike. I repeat, it’s a hard sport. For example when you compete in Europe or the big tours or in Dubai or Abu Dhabi the top cyclists are there, so you are competing with the best. Sometimes accidents happen, often the weather is bad, it rains its windy, these are day-to-day changeless for us. We do it in all conditions.
How has Emirates Airlines coming on board as a title sponsor effected the team in terms of support?
I am very proud to be a part of this team, it’s my national team and I'm the only local rider from the UAE. It’s a real big chance for me and others from the region. I want to take this change to race in world tour races and compete for my country.
Rui Costa, the 2013 world champ speaks very highly of you, he said you two were training partners.
He is our leader in the team, he is a good friend, we met in the tour of Oman, it’s been my honour and pleasure to race with him. It’s like your dreams coming true when you race and train in the same team as a world champion.
Italian seems to be the dominant tongue in the team, how do you get around the language barrier.
In the beginning it was more difficult, step by step, day by day I learned a little. I will soon learn Italian formally in a language school. Also the more we speak the more I get familiar with Italian. And I teach them Arabic, the basics.
Tour takes you around 260 days, how do you cope with that.
This is my professional life, it’s my work, travelling training, it’s all part of the day job. As you do this you are serving your team and your country. You know legends don't come easy, you have to work, work and work some more. You have to race hard.
I will race in Frankfurt next Friday, in Germany I’m heading there soon for the training. But I’m really looking forward to the Tour of America in California next month, I’m a part of the team and very happy about it.
Do you have Arabic word equivalents for the generic cycling terms like Breakaway and Peloton or Slipstreaming?. Do you say Yallah to go quicker?
No it’s mostly English or Latin, all the words are universal, these are generally accepted cycling words. But I have an Arabic rider with me in the team, Anass Aït El Abdia, he is Moroccan so when we like to race together. It’s nice to have a buddy who can understand me better. When we race together we keep close. Imagine if you’re doing a 250km race and you don’t speak to another rider, it can get boring very quickly.
When have you done the Abu Dhabi Tour and Dubai Tour?
I've done the Abu Dhabi Tours in 2014, 2015 and 2016. This year Team UAE Emirates won the General Classification in Abu Dhabi, but at that time I was racing in the Asian championships. I finished 13th in general classification (GC) in Dubai Tour this year, wining against much more aggressive riders. I’m very proud of the result.
Who is the team's Captain?
The way it works is, we have leaders in the race but no selected captain, for example if we race in the UAE, and I’m automatically the leader because it’s my nation. But we all keep it professional