Cycling in Yemen
On bikes almost two decades old and in clothing that attracts abuse from conservatives, the Yemeni National Cycle Foundation has become a symbol for modernisation in a troubled country.
As the sun rises over the mountains shadowing the ancient tower houses of Old Sana’a, seven men dressed in Lycra meet for early morning tea. They are accompanied by seven bicycles, which are carefully lined up on the pavement outside the cafe. The riders prepare themselves for the day with mango juice and plates of fasolia beans, Yemen’s national breakfast staple.
It’s a spectacle that most of the other customers are finally getting used to, albeit slowly, although one that still attracts abuse from passers-by. “The way you dress is haram!” chides a passing motorcyclist, as the riders make the final checks and repairs to their loved, but tired steeds. The comment is ignored as inner tubes are patched for the umpteenth time and rusting chains are lubricated.
Yemen’s National Cycle Foundation members train three mornings a week and preparations usually begin this way. Their bikes would long since have been consigned to the scrap heap by even the most amateur of teams across most of the world. The oldest is over twenty years old, and the newest a little over three.
Equipment issues aside, the morning’s training passes off remarkably smoothly. Only two children offer their appreciation to the group by targeting them with stones. This reaction has become an all too familiar way for local people to express their displeasure or shock at seeing exposed knees and racing bikes. Yemen must be one of the few countries in the world where a group of young men on a morning ride can, and regularly do, attract anger and ignorance from their fellow countrymen.
As the riders pass the sixty-kilometre mark, their coach, Saleh al-Riashi, emerges from the sunroof of the accompanying vehicle. He offer’s guidance to his flock, in short sharp instructions, like the director of a pro-team in the dying stages of a grand tour.
Yet despite Riashi’s precise coaching, his team is the national cycling team of Yemen in name only, simply because they have lacked the resources to travel anywhere as a team since 2006. Riashi is the only member of the current team to have competed abroad. The memories of when his group arrived in Egypt in 2006 to compete in the Arab Club Championships are still bittersweet. His Yemeni team were almost laughed off the starting line thanks to their equipment. “Our bikes were probably twenty years old, and our clothes worn… But we showed how serious racers we are… We finished sixth out of thirteen teams and received an apology,” he says, in between bellowing orders to two riders who are struggling to stay in touch with the pack.
Shoe repairers in a village near Shibam watch Yemen’s cycling squad ride through the highlands outside Sana’a.
Riashi, who also competed in the 2008 Tour of Sharjah, is now preparing his team both mentally and physically, because he is determined that they will race abroad in 2013. “We are probably two- to three-thousand dollars short of money to even get our riders to the start line of the first race, beyond our problems with the equipment.”
Even to the untrained eye, the only thing that is professional about Yemen’s cycling team at present is their total dedication to the sport. Everything else is in short supply. They lack a team jersey and virtually all the other professional tools to service their bikes. Every spare part is ordered individually, at excruciating cost, from either the UAE or directly from China. Even consumables that are taken for granted in most of the world, like inner tubes or the plastic cleats that the riders use to clip themselves into their pedals, are as rare as hen’s teeth in Yemen. The members all jealously repair them, in order to make them last another few rides.
Money, though, is probably the least of the team’s worries ahead of the February race, which the group hopes to attend in Saudi Arabia. Leading up a steep climb is Yusuf al-Bandani, a skinny grimpeur (climber) who rides his faithful old steel mount like a champion from the late 1980s, supping on the icy cold morning air. Inexplicably, he is dressed in a bright yellow jersey, commemorating an edition of the French Tour of Brittany that took place sometime around the year of his own birth.
The mountains surrounding Sana’a are almost Pyrenean in feel as Bandani rides by the bleached, jagged rocks. The combination of his jersey and the scenery suggest he could almost be on the famous Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour de France. Up here, well over two-thousand metres above sea level, the air is suitably thin, and as he makes the summit of the climb, the rider is already more than five-hundred metres higher in altitude than the French summit.
But look closer and the scars on the young man’s arm serve as a poignant reminder that he is training in Yemen’s highlands as opposed to one of cycling’s most celebrated roads. One of the very first things Bandani had talked about before training was the wounds he had received for loving his sport. “We had been preparing ourselves for a regional competition, near Lahj, when a Toyota Land Cruiser started driving erratically near us, swerving repeatedly towards our riders before disappearing.”
The southern province of Lahj is not somewhere most cyclists would find themselves passing through. It is the location of the secretive al-Anad airbase, which is home to both a contingent of U.S. troops and also a hotbed of insurgent activity. It is firmly in the middle of Yemen’s wild tribal hinterland, where often-violent confrontations between rival sheikhs are far more common than a peloton of bicycles.
“We continued riding along, when suddenly we were swept off our bikes by the same Land Cruiser that had been bothering us. Four of our riders were wiped out. We all needed stitches and one rider needed surgery to his arm,” Bandani says with a matter-of-fact air and a shrug of his shoulders, as if being deliberately attacked and nearly killed for riding a bicycle is a normal daily occurrence.
“Maybe it’s just simple ignorance or maybe they are angry from chewing too much qat,” Bandani adds sarcastically, referring to the country’s unofficial national sport, the consumption of a green narcotic leaf that distracts most Yemenis away from anything more athletic than regular jaw exercise.
At the wheel of the support vehicle shadowing training is a character who most Yemenis would expect to be chewing qat himself. Instead, Colonel Abdul-Ghani Al-Whaji — a powerfully built man — has dedicated himself to the team and also to the idea that sport can encourage young Yemenis away from militancy and towards participating in a more civil society. The policeman sees groups like the small cycling team as a genuine way for his country to modernise and progress, one tiny step at a time.
Al-Whaji has been one of Sanaa’s most straight-talking police commanders for over twenty years, and not all of his initiatives have been met with universal popularity among his colleagues. He is on a period of self-imposed gardening leave in his battle against corruption, after becoming involved in the last of a long string of battles against laziness and petty fraud in his force. The officer has already won himself ten days in military detention for his perceived meddling, but also gained a fatherly level of respect from people on the streets.
A lifelong sportsman (and anti-qativist) Al-Whaji is using his newly found free time to invest his resources in young people, who he believes will either be lost or won in the war on terror, which he admits later, “is all most people in the world know about Yemen [at present].”
“If we [the Yemeni authorities] don’t get to the young people first and build relationships with them,” he will later claim, “then somebody else will, and that somebody else is already running youth projects in poor areas of Sana’a.” Sport, he argues, is a way of engaging people, in order to build a more secular and civic society away from the temptation of militancy. “If people have a passion and something to live for, then they are unlikely to join the bad guys.”
The cycling team is Al-Whaji’s latest interest, having just been elected onto the committee of the National Cycling Foundation, and he is bursting with ideas and energy for his new charges.
It’s one of several projects he’s currently involved in, which include police-led football tournaments in some of the capital’s poorest neighbourhoods and a Facebook page called Friends of Police, which offers young people an outlet to vent about crooked officers.
As the riders crawl their way up the eight-kilometre climb to the ancient village of Kawkaban, the police officer becomes fixated with the idea that the steep winding mountain pass could become Yemen’s answer to world-famous French Alpe d’Huez road-racing summit. “Maybe we’ll have this road closed for a mountain-top race finish, and one day tourists could be riding their bikes up this road,” he glows. “Yes… I’ll ask the ministry when we’re back in Sana’a. All the people will come and watch.”
On the high point of the newly christened “Yemeni Huez” climb, the riders bask momentarily in the golden light that reflects gloriously off Kawkaban’s stunning panorama before heading back for Sana’a. The policeman takes time to peel away from his role as escort to talk to local people who watch in varying states of surprise as the riders pass.
Coach Al-Riashi on the start line in Cairo in 2006. He is accompanied by Colonel Al-Whaji behind him and another team member.
Al-Whaji asks two bystanders what they think of his small, lycra-clad army. Neither of the men, dressed traditionally in off-white thobes with their ceremonial curved jambiya knives, seem terribly impressed with the group and both agree that they are dressed inappropriately. But then they add that, “The boys are doing a good thing for Yemen; we need more sportsmen,” before admitting that they had seen the riders several times and were getting used to the idea.
For Al-Whaji, even indifferent reviews from two local men in a small village in the highlands are great victories in his mind. “I know a group of cyclists aren’t going to change a country on their own, but piece by piece…”
In Yemen, every small kid has a bike and loves riding. I had to stay inside during the war, which is how I came across the Tour de France on French satellite television. I was hooked on racing bikes from them on; I knew this was the greatest sport on Earth
Post-training, Coach Riashi is keen to explain what motivates him to persevere with cycling, when the odds are so stacked against them. Surely starting a football team would be a safer option? Over chai-haleeb, a sickly sweet Yemeni tea topped up with thick condensed milk, he says his determination for Yemen to compete again, at least regionally, comes from his passion for bicycles as a child. It’s a memory that takes him back to the country’s civil war, which took place in the summer of 1994. “In Yemen, every small kid has a bike and loves riding. I had to stay inside during the war, which is how I came across the Tour de France on French satellite television. I was hooked on racing bikes from them on; I knew this was the greatest sport on Earth.”
The paradox between a society that avidly watches the world’s premier cycling event on TV, while chastising its own riders, is one that is metaphoric for Yemen’s post-Arab Spring transition. A battle is raging between new and old, an ancient conservative system against a new modern one. Yemen’s cyclists have in some sense engaged themselves in an extremely sociological struggle.
As the midday call to prayer echoes off the walls around us, Riashi adds that his hero is “definitely Mark”. British sprinter Mark Cavendish has become a global cycling celebrity in the last two years, and he’s one of the few cyclists to achieve household-name status in Europe. It seems plausible that the so-called “Manx Missle” might have his own small Yemeni fan club, but Riashi isn’t finished.
“No, not Mark Cavendish,” Riashi says, using his hands to mime a bald head. Surrounded by his team and sensing a miscommunication, the group set out in an almost spooky unison to emulate the late Marco Pantani. Smiling, they move from side to side in the café together, climbing vigorously on sets of imaginary drop handlebars.
How a diminutive Italian champion from the mid-1990s, famous for flying his way up the mountains, became an inspiration for a squad of cyclists in a country in the grip of profound change is slightly unclear. However, in Yemen, where everything is becoming a political statement, these men are quiet revolutionaries, much like Pantani was to the sport of cycling.
“Il-Pirata” (“the Pirate”, in reference to his trademark bandana and earrings), as he is still fondly referred to in Europe, was known for his terribly unconventional, yet terribly effective style of riding and attack. He suddenly seems an apt hero for a group of terribly unconventional Yemenis.
Before pointing his bike for home, Bandani has one last thing to add about his passion. “Cycling in Yemen is a passion not dulled by qat, not touched by government corruption. It is secular and it’s civil. It is the Yemen we are all hoping for.”