Who are you?
"Asalam Alikom, I'm Abdullah Salem Al-Qahtani, 34 years old, from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I work at King Saud University, the same place I graduated from."
What got you into cycling? Did someone inspire you? And how long have you been cycling?
"Well, you better buckle up because this will be long.
Cycling came into my life in various stages, starting when I was a child, like most of my peers and the kids in the neighborhood. As a kid, I had a lot of energy, a little higher than average, so I had to rely on sports to tame it. Well, my family had to as well!
This energy isn't just physical but also mental and spiritual to some extent. So, just like many others in Riyadh, I dabbled in different sports to find out what worked for me and what didn't. Thankfully, I grew up in a family that supports a healthy lifestyle. I would say that most of my family is fond of sports in all of their forms, so I had that positive role model I needed as a kid.
Sports were the pastime of my childhood, and this positively impacted me growing up.
This was life up till middle school. Weekly rides around the neighborhood with friends here and there. This all stopped in middle school, life changed a bit, and I found myself moving away from sports. However, my dad ensured we stayed on top of our physical activities. He would encourage us to run with him around the neighborhood 2 to 3 times a week. Seeing him do that inspired me to keep up and even proactively participate in any running races I could.
Living a sporty lifestyle put a smile on my dad's face, which meant the world to me.
I stopped cycling for a while; however, a real passion never dies. So even though I stopped riding, it was always on my mind. I was longing for that sense of freedom that could only come from riding a bike.
Throughout those days, I caught the coverage of cycling tours, like Tour De France, the Giro, and La Vuelta, after school. I was mesmerized by the speed and power of those pro cyclists, going up terrains so different from where I grew up.
I didn't understand much about pro cycling, but I knew it inspired me to love it even more.
I graduated from University, got employed, and fell into the same routine as most of my peers: work, gym, a bit of leisure, and that's it. But unfortunately, that routine became a burden, both physically and mentally.
But over all those years, this feeling in my gut kept bringing me back to cycling.
To my surprise, a new bike shop opened up in my neighborhood, kismet.
I passed by the shop and checked things out. I sensed a similar passion for cycling from the shop owner, who insisted I test out a bike around the neighborhood.
That short ride confirmed what I felt over those years. I felt alive and present as if I woke up from something. So after dwelling on it for days, I decided to buy that bike. My dad was my biggest supporter in pursuing a better & healthy life, so knowing that made it an easy choice.
My dad was keen on getting me to race and participate in sports events. So he would be the first person there, supporting me all the way to the finish line.
Although I was excited about this refound passion, I was also shy about others finding out how much I paid for this bike. Because to them, a bicycle is fit only for children, and I would be wasting my time and money on this hobby.
I snuck out on my own to ride wherever I could. I kept to myself and focused on the liberation cycling brought to my life. Not even my dad knew I bought a bike! Until one day, by coincidence, he saw me riding in the neighborhood. I won't ever forget the smile on his face, his joy about this new hobby I picked up.
That was all I needed to know; I was headed in the right direction.
What does cycling mean to you?
First and foremost, cycling gave life structure and discipline. It also broke down many barriers that kept me from reaching a higher potential. I became isolated, lonely, and demotivated when I lived through that boring routine of gym, work, and leisure.
Cycling compelled me to get out and explore new roads and places and connect with new people. Especially on longer rides, I met many amazing people I wouldn't have met otherwise. Over the years, cycling helped me build a network of riders all over Saudi Arabia, which is a huge country. So I had a group to ride with in every city.
Cycling means a lot to me because it introduced me to a world I never knew I needed. It opened up a lot of potentials to rub elbows with various riders, some young, some old, some new, and some veterans of the game. Some of these riders are people in very high positions, while others are simple, so cycling leveled out the field and put humanity first.
One last thing I want to mention is that this sport helped me through depression and stress and even became a sanctuary when I had something on my mind that I needed to process and sort out. But even with all that I said, I can't describe it better than saying that cycling is part of who I am.
What was your best ride ever?
"There was an off-road endurance competition in the mountains of Neom, north Saudi, back in December 2022, which was the second time it was hosted. I'm fond of off-road and action cycling, as I usually train on my mountain bike. Mountains terrains captivate me and really draw out the adventurous persona within me. This race goes through various mountains, topography, and valleys, spanning 430 kilometers over a few days.
We camped in the middle of the desert with everyone else. The camp was the start and finish of each course, every day. After breakfast, we headed out to different courses, each ranging in distance and difficulty.
There were 220 riders, and we all agreed that race brought down the hammer. It was tough, type 2 fun, and the most challenging part was the relentless wind from the coastline. 40/kph winds, loose sand, and hills to climb definitely left their mark. But the harsh conditions brought us together, and I got to know folks from all over the world.
The third day was the hardest out of them all. The course was 140 kilometers, multi-terrain, with a 9 hours cutoff time. We road by the coast, through very loose sand, and hiked up steep rocky hills and sharp descents into valleys and canyons.
I was hooked, to say the least!
I ranked 86 out of 220."
What can you tell us about being a cyclist in Saudi Arabia?
"Life as a cyclist in Saudi is relatively simple. Smaller villages and towns welcome us with open arms. They wave, chat, and even bring us snacks and water, unlike riding in bigger cities, such as Riyadh, which is flooded by short-tempered drivers that don't want to share the road with cyclists.
However, there have been a lot of improvements over the last few years, especially in raising awareness about sports and healthy lifestyles in general. In addition, many new green infrastructures have been built all over. The future trajectory is to build even more as we grow.
There's a noticeable change around us, not just in the infrastructure but in how society perceives sports. People are more open to running, cycling, and other sports than they were 10 years ago.
I love that these changes allowed me to venture out and get to know my surroundings from a new perspective. As I said, I'm drawn to changing terrains; luckily, Riyadh has various choices.
Beyond Riyadh, you have the magnificent south, with its tall mountains, green slopes, and sharp grades. Another example is Al-Ula, where they just held the tour; that area is unique, especially with all the historical sights all over the place.
Cycling in Saudi is great, and it will improve over the years."
Saudi is changing fast; how has that changed your cycling journey so far?
"Sports overall in Saudi is changing fast, more so lately. Compared to when I started, cycling was somewhat of an individual pastime. Still, with the recent changes, communities popped up everywhere. These developments brought new changes that we all had to keep up with, given how fast things were changing.
Cycling quickly became a community effort. Riders held weekly races and rides and encouraged each other to improve through training schedules, nutrition, and much more. In addition, local and Regional clubs opened their doors to cyclists and started offering courses, trips, and more.
So I would say that good things have happened so far, and it will only get better from here."
Where do you see yourself and the Saudi cycling community headed in the future?
"I can't tell the future, but I know that cycling will always be part of my life and many others going forward. I definitely want to continue getting better, stronger, and faster. I want to branch out of racing and focus more on endurance and bikepacking. How great would it be to go from city to city?
As for the community, even though we have crossed so far, we still have a long road ahead. For example, Saudi has so much to offer; it's not just all sand and deserts. We've got some of the highest mountains in the area, forests, and a rather dynamic history & culture. I genuinely believe that in the future, we will be self-sufficient to ride within the country and even attract foreign cyclists to come and explore the wonders of Saudi Arabia.
Our future is bright, and the potential is endless."