DUBAI: The first Saudi Tour, organized by Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), kicks off the 2020 cycling season on Tuesday, and is the latest high profile competition to launch in the Kingdom.
Coverage of the recent sporting events, including Formula E, wrestling and boxing, have served as a postcard of the Kingdom’s facilities and locations that few outside Saudi Arabia knew existed.
With few sports traversing such a wide, disparate landscape as cycling, the five-stage Saudi Tour will raise the Kingdom’s ever-increasing level of exposure to new heights.
At the announcement of the five Saudi Tour routes, Subah Al-Kraidees, chairman of the Saudi Cycling Federation, said he was proud “to have Saudi Arabia recognized as an important station in the international biking scene,” and that it was “a great opportunity for Saudi athletes to rub shoulders with international bikers”.
Former Tour de France winner Mark Cavendish will lead the charge, as the tour winds through Riyadh’s streets and desert tracks on the city’s outskirts.
Starting Tuesday, stage one sets off from the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee headquarters in Riyadh and heads towards an uphill finish in Jaww.
Day two sees the riders attack the longest stage from the historic Sadus Castle before heading back to Riyadh Turki Road.
On Thursday the route starts in Riyadh, taking in several climbs, winding its way to Al-Bujairi.
The penultimate race day, contestants will take off from Wadi Namar Park and head to Al-Mazuhimiyah’s King Saud University.
Finally, on Saturday Feb. 8, the riders will race from Princess Nourah University to Al Masmak Fort, via Riyadh city’s streets.
Stewart Howison, founder and owner of Revolution Cycles in Dubai and a leading authority on cycling in the Middle East, will be following every step on the ground in the Saudi capital.
“What a lot of us hope to see in Saudi is the same sort of pattern that evolved from the Dubai Tour,” he said.
“There was definitely a direct impact after the Dubai Tour, we had the Abu Dhabi Tour and now the UAE Tour.”
He said local interest in cycling has grown significantly among amateurs, adding that he hoped to see the same happen in the Kingdom.
Howison was actively involved in the organization of the Dubai Tour from its inception, he also worked on the project that developed the design of Dubai’s Al Qudra cycling track.
He is confident the 755 kilometer Saudi Tour, with 18 teams from 13 countries, will be embraced by the riders and audiences.
“The terrain will help the big bunch sprinters that will come at the end,” he said.
“Seeing the teams that are coming down for the season opener, there’s somebody that everybody knows, Mark Cavendish with the Bahrain McLaren and he’s got something to prove. There’s so many big teams that will be there, Rui Costa will be there as well for the UAE Team Emirates. It’s going to be an exciting one to watch.”
Other riders include Dutchman Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie) and Frenchmen Nacer Bouhanni, who is joined at Arkéa-Samsic by British riders Connor Swift and Daniel McLay.
“Geographically, it’s not only going to encourage cyclists to be involved more in what’s happening in our region, but from a tourism point of view, it’s going to show the landscape to an international audience that has no idea what Saudi Arabia looks like,” Howison added.
Cycling has already made a significant mark on Arab riders, with one Emirati in particular - Yousef Mirza - set to take to Riyadh’s roads in the coming days.
And Howison is certain that other Saudi, and Middle Eastern, riders will soon make the same leap.
“Yousef Mirza has progressed and got so much better over the years, and now all these youngsters coming through have a local icon they can try and emulate,” Howison said.
“It won’t be long before you see a very strong Arab cycling team coming out of the region. We’ve got the facilities, we’ve got the infrastructure. We’re geographically located to be able to succeed.”