Challenges for Yemen’s National Cycle Foundation include steeps hills, a lack of money – and angry locals trying to kill them
The cyclists have been pedalling through the dusty outskirts of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, for just 30 seconds when the first rock comes hurtling at their wheels.
None of the seven riders of Yemen’s National Cycle Foundation so much as flinch, as the perpetrator, a local shopkeeper, identifies himself. He shouts and waves an arm. “You gays! Cover up!”
Dressed in an eclectic assortment of sun-faded Lycra cycling attire, and riding an archaic selection of bikes in varying state of repair, the group keeps silent, and together, as they keep on pedalling.
Yemen must be one of the few countries in the world where a group of young men, on their morning ride can, and regularly does, attract such anger and ignorance from passersby. Their crime? Wearing shorts and tight jerseys.
As the riders approached the first steep climb, their coach, Saleh al-Riashi, emerges from the sunroof of an accompanying vehicle. He makes this trip three times a week, every week, with near-religious devotion, barking commands out of the car’s roof, much like the director of a pro-team on the grand tour.
It is inaccurate to describe the team as the national cycling team of Yemen, 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. He says that when they arrived in Egypt in 2006 to compete in the Arab Club Championships, his Yemeni team were almost laughed off the starting line.
“Our bikes were probably 20 years old, and our clothes worn … but we soon showed we are serious racers … we finished sixth out of 13 teams and received an apology,” he says.
Riashi, who competed in the 2008 Tour of Sharjah, is now preparing his team for the next challenge, this year’s Arab Club Championships, despite some key shortcomings. “We are probably $2,000-$3,000 dollars short of money to even get our riders to the start line, beyond the problems with our equipment.”
Money, though, is probably the least of the team’s worries ahead of the event, which is being held in the United Arab Emirates next month. Leading up the first climb is Yusuf al-Bandani, a skinny grimpeur (climber) who dances on the pedals of his steel bike like a champion from the late 1980s.
The mountains surrounding Sana’a are almost Pyrenean in feel and as Bandani climbs by the bleached, jagged rocks, he could almost be on the famous Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour de France. The air is suitably thin, and as he makes the summit of the climb he is already more than 500 metres higher than that French summit.
It is the scars on the young man’s arm that serve as a poignant reminder that he is actually training in Yemen’s highlands. “We had been preparing for ourselves for a regional competition, near Lahj, when an SUV started driving erratically near us.”
Lahj is not somewhere many cycls find themselves. It is the location of al-Anad airbase, which is home to a contingent of US troops and also a hotbed of insurgent activity. It is firmly in the middle of Yemen’s wild tribal hinterland.
“We were riding along, when suddenly we were swept off our bikes by a man in a Toyota Landcruiser. Four of our riders were wiped out. We all needed stitches and one rider needed surgery on his arm,” Bandani says with a matter-of-fact air and a shrug of his shoulders, as if being attacked and nearly killed for riding a bicycle is a normal daily occurrence. “It’s just simple ignorance.”
Sitting down for a post-training tea, Riashi is keen to explain his motivation for cycling, and his determination for Yemen to compete again, at least regionally. It takes him back to the country’s civil war in 1994: “In Yemen, every small kid has a bike and loves riding. I had to stay inside during the war, and came across the Tour de France on French satellite television. I was hooked on racing bikes from them on.
“Most families in Yemen watch the Tour de France on TV and it’s extremely popular. My hero is Mark.”
The British sprinter Mark Cavendish is fast becoming a global cycling celebrity and superstar. “No,” says Riashi, using his hands to mime a bald head. “Not Mark Cavendish.”
The group, sensing confusion, jump up in unison and begin to emulate the late Marco Pantani, climbing vigorously on sets of imaginary drop handlebars with his trademark shaved head.
How a diminutive Italian grimpeur, famous for his tenacity in the mountains, became the inspiration for a squad of Yemeni cyclists is still slightly unclear. But if Riashi and his team want to make it to race in the UAE next month, they’ll need all the Pantani attacking spirit they can muster.