Formula One Cycling at Yas Marina Circuit
Have you ever dreamed of racing on a Formula One circuit? On a ladies shopper bike? No? Me neither. In my dreams I have always been Ferrari badged, dressed in racing red, squeezed into a carbon fibre cockpit. In my dreams. But that’s not how it is today. No, this is Formula One. But not as we know it.
Out on the grid
I am on the starting grid of the Yas Marina Formula 1 Circuit but I don’t rate my chances. Around me are hundreds of other cyclists, many clad in lycra and clipped into superlite carbon frames. A quick look around and I know I don’t stand a chance of setting a track record. Not at my age, in my condition, on a rented shopper bicycle. And with an eight year old daughter to look after. But this evening is not about winning. It’s about fresh air, family fun and the chance to cycle on a circuit usually reserved for the Gods of motor racing.
A different Formula
The Gods are not here tonight. On Tuesday evenings the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit (one of only two in the Middle East) is open to everyday folk; walkers, runners and cyclists, old and young, singles, groups and families. It’s part of community health initiative, TrainYas Activelife, encouraging people to adopt healthier, more active lifestyles. UAE cities are car dominated, with hi-tech, service cultures, so if you have money (and many do) there really is no need to lift a finger for anything. I mean you can even get an electric taxi around the Malls.
Sedentary lifestyles are a real risk here. In the two weeks we’ve been here it’s been rare to see pedestrians or cyclists out and about. And the heat and desert environment doesn’t inspire exercise either. So it’s refreshing to see hundreds of walkers, joggers and cyclists out tonight, although the irony of us gathering on an £800 million motor racing circuit isn’t lost on me.
These open track nights are a tightly controlled operation; disclaimers must be signed, equipment checked and entry permits obtained before access to the circuit is allowed. But that doesn’t seem to be putting people off. The evenings are increasing in popularity and an official tells us up to three thousand people have been known to turn out to take part. All arriving by car of course.
Hannah is stopped before she reaches the starting grid. She looks wobbly on her rented bike; she can see over the handlebars but her feet can’t quite reach the floor. I think she may be disqualified before she even reaches the track.
“You can’t come in with sandals on,” explains the steward at the gate. He takes her to one side then, much to her delight, fits her out with bright blue Formula 1 racing boots.
“These are so cool,” she declares as she tries to remount her bike.
I want some too, but my old trainers are deemed acceptable. As are my soft tyres, sit up and beg frame and shopping basket. This is not my Formula One dream. I should be wearing a Ferrari badge, in a racing suit, and squeezing into a Formula One cockpit or at least an Aston Martin. But we’ve had to rent bikes. Shopper bikes. Ladies shopper bikes. It’s all they had left. This is Formula One but not as we know it.
The race is on…
It’s almost 7 o’clock and the air temperature is still over 30°C. There’s sweat on my brow before I even turn a pedal and we know we have a mini-challenge on our hands. Bike rental is for just one hour and we have at least one circuit to do. It shouldn’t be too hard. The track record for a lap is just over 1 minute 40 seconds. In a Formula One car. With a top speed of 320km/hr. But one lap is only 5.5km. Surely we can manage that pace, even in this heat. We imagine the starting lights, the roar of the engines, the cheers from the empty grandstand. And then we’re off.
The boys quickly decide they want to lap me and set off at pace. Well as much of a pace as you can muster with six gears. In minutes Matthew has disappeared from view, weaving amongst club pros and family groups. I know I’ll struggle to catch him. Youth is on his side and Hannah is by mine, looking like a circus act; a cute little girl in blue racing boots on a basket bike that’s too big for her. At least there’s no question of her stopping; she can’t put her feet down.
We click our gears and accelerate off the grid. First, second, third, fourth. Around the first of twenty one bends. Third, second, third, fourth. Past the North Grandstand and out onto the long straight, a little touch of home; 1.2km of grippy Greywhacke aggregrate, shipped here from a quarry in Shropshire, England. Click, click, click. Fourth, fifth, six. The sweat builds with our speed.
We power past walkers and pedestrians. It’s no big deal as they’re all heading the other way. Those are the rules. But it’s a struggle to keep up with the club pros passing inside and out. I’m sure some are lapping us already. We dig deep. But there’s nothing left. Not in our legs, in our gears. We’ve only got six and we’ve used them all.
We push on into the night, past the Marina grandstand and down to the Marina itself. There’s no cooling breeze but it doesn’t matter for we’re making our own, topping 14 or maybe 15km/hr. That’s what I call shopping.
The home straight
There’s no letting up as we head towards the Main Grandstand and the home straight. We scream encouragement at each other and decide to ride for victory in a valiant record attempt. We’re going to set a lap record. For Dads and daughters riding ladies shoppers on an F1 circuit. And it’s going to be under half an hour. Because that will leave enough time for a victory lap before we shake a bottle and spray cold water over the boys, if we ever we find them. And if we don’t? Well, we’ll just spray it ourselves. For this isn’t Formula One. It’s Formula Fun.
Practical Information and Tips
Yas Marina Circuit is on Yas Island, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, about an hours drive from Dubai. Check the “Yas Marina Circuit website before travelling to confirm times & details. When we went the session ran from 6-10pm and walkers, cyclists and runners of all ages and abilities were welcome. Children under 12 had to be accompanied by an adult. Rollerblades, scooters and skateboards were forbidden. But free water was available for rehydrating and spraying like champagne at the finish.
You will need to allow time to register, sign disclaimers and rent equipment if you need it, although you can of course bring your own. All cyclists must wear helmets and closed toe shoes while using the track. Entry to the track is free once you have registered but you will need to pay for any bike rentals. Last entrance is well before the track closes so don’t leave it too late. There are a few complimentary bikes available for public use but we didn’t manage to find one. Rentals are available on site from funridesports.com and can be pre-booked. We paid 30AED per bike per hour (approx £5). Rentals can run out so it’s as well to get there early or pre-book. And remember once you are on the track you are paying by the hour, so be quick!
Disclosure Note: We visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi in a collaboration with Expedia, researching, experiencing and capturing in words, pictures and video something of what the United Arab Emirates has to offer visitors. The itinerary, experience, videography, photography, views and opinions are, as ever, editorially entirely our own. Check out all our Arabian Adventures posts to find out more about what we discovered as shared here on our blog.