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    Winds Of Change

    Giant-Shimano rider Marijn de Vries has her prejudices blown away at the women's Tour of Qatar.
    Photographs
    Rouleur

My roommate Kirsten Wild and I are in our insanely luxurious hotel room, changing into our cycling kit. Just bib shorts and jersey, no leg warmers or arm warmers today – because it's 22 degrees here in Qatar. While I'm putting my clothes on, I wonder again how the Qataris will fit us, women on bikes, into their world view? This is the first time I'll race here and I thought about it a lot before arriving.

The Qataris invite us to race on their roads, but when you think about it, that's practically the most contradictory thing they can possibly do. Working women are in the minority here. Women are not supposed to be athletes. And women are certainly not supposed to ride around half naked. That's basically what we do, given their standards. The women I've seen till now are either working in this hotel – all foreign and unveiled – or natives wearing burkas.

We hit the road. There are only highways in Doha, so we ride among the cars. Honking cars. Not because they're annoyed, they give us lots of space, but because they are... yes, what are they exactly? Lots of drivers open the window to cheer encouragement at us. At least, that's what it sounds like. I expected disapproval, but it's nothing like that.

Al Jazeera broadcasts our race live, which also makes me wonder whether the Qataris are watching us at home. What will they be thinking? Bare-legged girls in tight lycra must be some kind of porn to them. Or do they consider us a different species? That must be the only way to handle women racing bikes in their country, I guess.

Our sprinter Kirsten is a regular visitor to this race. In 2009, she won the first edition. The situation was totally different then. The sheikhs who attended the podium ceremony didn't shake her hand or look her in the eye. Now, five years on, the sheiks do the handshakes.

I had assumed that the Qatari women were not allowed to come and watch our race. But every day at the start and finish, the striking thing is that there are a fair few veiled women around, holding up their iPads to take photographs of us riding by. It's a strange sight and a pretty fascinating idea forms: what will these women do with those photos?

Halfway through the race, we see a group of Qatari girls riding bikes, albeit with leg and armwarmers on, veils tucked under their helmets. Qatar wants its own women's team to race at the Doha World Championships in 2016. All of a sudden I realise how prejudiced I was before arriving here, when I actually thought I had been open-minded.

Of course, I know about the role of women in Qatar and I know how some foreigners who come and work here are treated. I know about the workers who got killed building football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. I haven't seen any of it during my stay, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen every day.

I don't want to be naive, but I've got to admit that Qatar surprised me in so many positive ways. To race here is like a dream come true for a female cyclist. We hardly ever get as much support in Europe. The live broadcasting is fantastic, there are even helicopters hovering over the peloton. The newspapers pay a lot of attention to the race, which itself is organised with unbelievable professionalism. The prize money, the stunning hotel, the way we are treated – like stars – is all very different to the norm.

Europe always wants to teach other parts of the world about how things are supposed to be done, but we could learn something here. I still don't know exactly how the Qataris fit us into their world view, but they do. I have to admit it: we, female cyclists, are more equal to our male colleagues in Qatar than in any other part of the world.

Marijn de Vries is a professional cyclist with Giant-Shimano.

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