With four professional stage races this year and the World Championships set to be held in Qatar in late 2016, professional cycling has never had such traction in the Arabian Peninsula.
Soon, the United Arab Emirates could have its own WorldTour team too. UCI Continental squad Skydive Dubai have designs on joining the sport’s top tier.
Directeur sportif Humaid Mehrab Al Sabbagh said that Skydive Dubai plan to go up to the second tier, Professional Continental, by 2016 and to be in the WorldTour “after five years [by 2020]. We have the budget, we have everything, but we’re going step by step.”
Skydive Dubai is a skydive and freefall company based in the UAE city, started by His Excellency Nasser Al Neyadi. Its backers include Audi and Dubai Sports City, a vast complex dedicated to sport. Its professional cycling team supports billionaire and sports fan Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s vision for the region’s future.
Skydive Dubai's evergreen road captain Francisco Mancebo ramps up the pace at the Tropicale. pic: Gautier Demouveaux
“Cycling is on the up in the UAE,” says Mehrab. “My dream is to see local riders at the Tour de France, so we have many riders under 16 and 18 who we are planning to coach in the future, including my son,” he said.
Skydive Dubai’s cycling team started life in 2014, nearly pulling off an immediate coup by signing Samuel Sanchez; the former Olympic champion later opted for BMC.
The squad combines UAE youngsters and journeymen professionals like road captain Francisco Mancebo – a former Tour de France contender implicated in Operation Puerto – Vladimir Gusev and Rafaâ Chtioui. They took a dozen wins in races on the Asian circuit last year.
The riders are aware of the squad’s lofty ambitions too. Asked about his future at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo, race winner Chtioui replied: “I hope this team will be WorldTour. In the next two years… we will try to get some money. If not, Pro Continental.”
Tropicale Amissa Bongo race winner and Skydive Dubai rider Rafaa Chtioui pic: Gautier Demouveaux
Skydive Dubai has started the season strongly, winning four stages at the Tour of Egypt, and three stages and the overall at the Tropicale Amissa Bongo. The team will continue to primarily take part in UCI Asia Tour events for the rest of 2015; the Tour of Langkawi (March 8-15) approaches, offering a chance to measure themselves against some of the WorldTour’s best.
However, Mehrab knows where the team needs to be competing. “If you want to go up [in the ranks], you should be racing in Europe. So we need support from a European company,” he said. He eyes the Tour of Portugal in August as a possible debut, helping them to escape the intense UAE summer heat.
As a UCI Continental team, Skydive Dubai is currently not a member of the UCI’s Biological Passport programme, but if they become Pro Continental in 2016, they will be obliged to join it.
Mehrab hinted that they would do internal testing with an Italian doctor next year, saying "we know they are the best in the world for this." Although the team has Mancebo and Gusev on board, both of whom have been involved in past doping cases, he indicated that the team takes background into consideration when it comes to hiring.
“There were many riders who contacted us last year who had a bad history, so we didn’t sign them,” he said.
Undoubtedly, the potential for WorldTour-worthy wealth is there. The squad currently races on Cervélo S5 and R3 models, is sponsored by Audi and has a team house in Dubai, where several riders spent part of the winter.
What is the current budget? “This is a secret,” Mehrab said. “But it is big. You know what Dubai is like.”