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A 222km ride through the canyons of Riyadh

camels crossing the road in front of cyclists in Saudi

Windswept canyons, desert sun, palm trees, and camel crossings

Riyadh Pelton, one of the fastest groups in the Kingdom, announced their plans to celebrate "Saudi Foundation Day" by holding their 3rd annual "Foundation day ride." A 222kms ride through the diverse terrains of Riyadh. Why 222? It's to signify February 22nd (2/22).

The foundation day is "a national occasion to commemorate the founding of the Saudi State by Imam Muhammad bin Saud started three centuries ago, as the Imam established a political entity that achieved unity, stability, and prosperity. On that day, Diriyah became the capital of the first Saudi State." source

I joined their festivities as a sponsor, documented the ride, and brought a few sponsors along with me (Fujifilm & Fuel Bites). How often do you get to ride through Riyadh's canyons?!

I should preface this by saying that throughout my months in Kuwait, I lost a lot of my fitness. I was also recovering from a fever and lack of training. Plus carrying around a camera, hoping to get great photos. Excuses aside, I was beyond stoked to ride with this fantastic group.

Riding in Riyadh should not be missed.

cyclist riding a bike in saudi

First, I knew this wouldn't be an easy ride. After my first ride with the peloton, I realized they are a force to be reckoned with. What did I expect from a group where champions, local heroes, and juggernauts unite to push the envelope one ride at a time?

To be dropped is natural, but to fight and keep up with the peloton is the driver that keeps this group alive. Sure, they're fast and strong, demanding discipline and respect. However, they also put the interest of the group ahead of everything. A great mix of demand and support will shape the cycling scene for the better.

It's only a matter of time.

The route:

The Ride Report:

sunrise in Saudi with cyclists getting ready to ride

On a Wednesday morning, my alarm went off at 5:00 am. By 5:30, Anas and I were on the road to the meetup point. Who's Anas, might you ask? Of course, that's a story for another day! But in short, Anas is one of the peloton riders who graciously opened his home to host me for a few days. Genuinely felt like I had known him for years, even though we hadn't met before.

At 6:00 am, we were in the parking lot. The air was fresh and brisk, 11c, which is typical weather within the canyons of Riyadh. The masses were gathering, some kitting up while others warmed up their legs for the challenging ride ahead.

Omar, one of the peloton founders, gathered up the group and gave a brief speech about the ride and the milestones of the group. As someone looking for growth in the cycling community within the Middle East, that was a proud moment to witness. To the outside world, this might seem like any other event. However, those who have seen recent developments in sports in the region know that we are creating the change we want to see.

a cycling leader giving speech about ride in Saudi
saudi cyclists

With riders, sponsored support cars, and leaders ready, we hit the road through narrow canyons between farms on either side, heading north. The ride covered vast ground from the Alwaseel parking lot just outside Riyadh to the north of Huraymila, passing through small farm villages in a maze of narrow canyons, then heading back down the same roads we took on the way out.

The first leg of the route can be busy with traffic, passing through farming hubs separated by a sea of palm trees and rocky cliffs. As someone who organized group rides before, I know that maintaining a cohesive group is very difficult. However, I witnessed great collaboration between the riders and the leaders. There was a direct line of communication spread all over, and just before you zone out, you hear a cascading voice shouting "صاحي!!" (SAHEE). This roughly translates to "watch out" for potholes, speedbumps, cat eyes, etc.

Road riding needs discipline and teamwork. So it was great to witness these rules adapted to the Saudi cycling culture. That is precisely what I sought when I first started my mission to shine a light on cycling in the Middle East.

Saudi cyclists passing through a small village near riyadh
cyclists riding through a canyon outside of riyadh

The leaders, Omar, Rayan, and others, maintained the group's composer through the busy first section of the ride, just before the first climb of the route. I saw Omar pushing riders by the saddle who left big gaps, encouraging them to "mend the gap" and "work with the team." I also saw them scolding those who broke the rules and got out of line, jeopardizing the rest of the group.

Again, I've been in their shoes. A ride leader wears many hats simultaneously, and it can be quite taxing to juggle so many things in the air on top of riding 222km. Making choices in a split second while being present with your surroundings.

I played the observer role, keeping up with the group and keeping my distance to avoid getting them out of their element, especially with a camera pointed at them.

cyclists in Saudi desert climbing up a hill

The first climb brought some relief to those struggling to keep up with the pace of the peloton, most people regrouped, but that didn't last for long. The route has a series of climbs and steep descents, grouping and separating others as we went.

Past the first climb and the village of Sadous, the canyon widened and ascended out of the canyonlands. Each climb brought us a step closer to the top of the mesa, above the canyons. With the very little to nonexistent vegetation above, we were at the mercy of the wind. And it wasn't merciful that day. So I put my camera and head down and pushed forwards to avoid losing the wheel ahead of me.

Just under two hours in, we were at a major intersection leading to Huraymila, a town within the canyon below us. The descent into town was a god sent, my legs were burning at that point, and the heat started to pick up.

What happened to those cool temps in the morning!?

cyclists in Saudi heading towards Huraymila town
cyclists riding towards the town of Hurymila in Saudi

I tucked in and blazed down the hill and through the town gates. "Welcome to my home," Abdulrahman, one of the riders from the area, shouted as we descended.

Things slowly went downhill just outside of town. Some riders ran out of juice, while others got swept by the relentless wind. On the other hand, I decided to slow down since my sweet spot is around 15mph. I knew I would eventually catch up with them. This also allowed me to capture some of the scenery without the group for a change.

I watched the peloton fly up the hill ahead, with a faint trail of riders fighting to stay within the group, but eventually, got dropped.

cyclists riding up a hill in Saudi desert
cyclist riding uphill in Saudi Desert

I found my rhythm and my element, hills! A terrain that I love and miss, given Kuwait is the flattest place I've ridden in. I linked up with a fallen rider on the climb and worked together against the brutal headwinds. "The descent is just around the corner!" he shouted as we burned a match stick (energy) to catch the group, so we don't miss the rest stop.

Finally, the descent!

At the first rest stop, we all were suffering by then. However, the spirits were high, as you expect from dedicated riders.

Hiding under the shade of the gates welcoming us to Thadig's province, we refueled, stretched out, and exchanged words of encouragement to keep the morale high. It's incredible how a few sips of fresh cold water and a banana can do.

cyclists refueling at a rest stop near Riyadh

"Saddle up!!" the leaders shouted. I forced myself to eat the snack in hand and jumped on my bike. I was busy documenting the scene in front of me, this is truly history in the making, and I'm grateful to have had the chance to witness it myself.

The second part of the ride was quite hard, but it was also the best part. From the rest stop, we marched down the canyon and through the changing terrains as we crossed the rolling hills. Toward the canyon's end, we veered left, passing through a collection of scattered homes in a desolate farming village called "AlBeer." Had I had the chance, I would've loved to stop and photograph the architecture in the area; there's a story in that little village, and I hope I have the chance to tell it one day.

Past AlBeer, a sharp right turn cut through a gulch with a steep climb at the end. My legs were toast. The stronger pack maintained a steady tempo up the hill. I took the chance to check in with Anas as we suffered up the hill. The endless rolling hills and strong headwinds were destructive, but the stoke kept things moving.

a steep climb in saudi desert

Little did I know we were about to hit the best part of the whole route. After that steep climb, a few rolling hills led me back to the top of the mesa and through a canyon carved into the ground. Thank goodness I had one of the riders in my view because this was one of the better shots I took that day.

The rider, rising walls around us, and the village of Al Ulya in the distance.

cyclist speeding down a descent in Saudi
cyclist passing through Saudi village farms

At the bottom, a sharp U-turn towards As-Sufurrat, a village in the heart of a canyon carved by millennia of flash floods. Even though the air was dry most of the ride, there was a noticeable change in humidity as we passed this hidden oasis. Perhaps the recent rains replenished the many aquifers in the area. Maybe it is also the reason there were plenty of palm trees around.

Through As-Sufurrat, and under the palm trees, we zigzag out of the village and towards yet another steep kicker. But a pleasant surprise that clearly uplifted the spirits a bit, we had desert traffic. A herd of camels and their owner crossed the road ahead of us. Given that we were their guests, we gave them the right of way.

The opportunities to capture one-of-a-kind photos were a dime a dozen, just point, and shoot. All I observed was new to me, so I could only imagine it being new to you too!

camels crossing the road alongside cyclists
saudi cyclists climbing up a steep hill

The worst part of the ride came past the climb, with a howling headwind dead ahead. I resorted to my usual methods, tuck in and maintain that sweet spot. Along the way, I linked up with Nicola, a rider from Italy living in Riyadh, and we pulled each other through it all. Luckily, Abu Zuhair, a volunteer who drove a support car, blocked the wind and shielded us to the highest point on the road. We were burnt out from the harsh desert sun, hovering around 32c.

However, we returned to Huraymila, where we passed hours ago. But remember the steep descent that was a "god sent" earlier in the day? Well, that came back to bite us. Luckily, the second rest stop was a few miles up the road.

cyclist in the desert
cyclists taking a break in a gas station in Saudi
cyclists resting in the shade in Saudi

We reunited with the peloton at a gas station next to the main road. The look on the rider's faces spoke volumes about the ride so far. I bet that's also how I looked. Hiding away from the beating sun rays, we took refuge in the shade on the steps of a mosque at the gas station.

But you know we wouldn't be there for long. So, to avoid our legs cooling down too much, we hit the road for the last part of the ride. Luckily, the majority of the route at that point was downhill. However, the headwind became worse the more we pushed.

I looked down at my Wahoo, and I saw 101 miles. At that point, I had already reached a goal I had set for myself. I used to ride centuries on the regular back in Portland and Spain. However, the past 5 months in Kuwait we're very tough on my body and mind. So I wanted to test whether I could ride a century just as I used to. And I did.

In fact, that was my fasted century to date, averaging north of 19mph. So I was thrilled to see that I still had it in me and that my fitness was there, and I mostly had to work on my MA (mental attitude.)

With that, I decided to call it a day and hitch a ride with Abu Zuhair in his support car. Abu Zuhair and I had been chatting for weeks about his cycling journey and the developments he had seen and been part of over the past few years. He has a fantastic story that I hope I can share with you soon enough.

cyclists in Saudi

We drove and supported the fallen riders one by one. As I said, the wind was relentless that day; and the heat didn't help either. On our way, we linked up with Mohammad, a rider struggling with the wind. We helped him catch up with the rest of the peloton and reach the finish line.

The ride felt like a race, with all the support cars, coordinations, rugged terrain, and brutal speed. So yeah, I would classify that ride as a race!

Abu Zuhair was kind enough to help me get some rolling shots of the peloton and add another dimension to this dynamic story.

Keeping up with the peloton, we stopped one last time to refuel the remaining riders, which was the majority, with water and snacks. The break was brief, and the riders were clearly on edge, but you can't give up so close to the finish line.

saudi cyclists in the desert
cyclists in Saudi

Back where we started 7 hours ago. The look on riders' faces as we approached the final mile was worth the 6-hour drive from Kuwait to Riyadh. To many of those riders, that was their biggest ride ever. To me, that was a monumental occasion to cover as a cyclist telling the story of cycling in the arab world.

With that, the ride was over, but to many, the journey had just started. I bet many of the riders and even their peers were inspired by that day. Pushing the limits of being a cyclist in the world's hottest regions, in a place rarely associated with our sport.

Saudi still has a long way ahead. Though it's not a challenge, this is a ride towards exciting new prospects for the future of cycling in the region and the world.

Whether it was a day to celebrate Saudi, cycling, or simply suffering together through an epic type 2 ride, it was momentous. This ride will be a great story to share with the rest of the world, and we will look back at it 5 years from now to see where we were and where we went.

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saudi cyclist portraits