Tell us about yourself.
I am Sarah Alfalah, an Assistant Professor at the College of Architecture at Kuwait University and a national team cyclist—an exclusive road bike cyclist!
I am a big fan of the intertwining of design and cycling; I admire the craft, precision, and intricacy of bike design.
What got you into cycling? Did someone inspire you?
It's hard to remember a specific time when I started cycling. Like most kids from my generation, I grew up riding a bike around the neighborhood, but that did not last very long. The structure of our social lives and the infrastructure of our cities at the time in Kuwait did not encourage using bikes for purposes other than riding around the neighborhood.
However, years later, I moved to the United States to pursue my graduate degree, and one of the first things I purchased was a bike. I intentionally lived 10 minutes away from campus and refrained from owning a car to force myself to use a bike to commute—and I did.
I lived two years in Virginia without a vehicle, depending solely on a bike to commute. The city was not the friendliest to bikes, but coming from Kuwait, it was a massive difference in terms of societal acceptance and systematic serving. Two years later, I moved to Minneapolis—one of (if not) the most cycling-friendly cities in the United States and the differences between both states became very evident. Even though Minneapolis was cold most year long, the city's infrastructure is built around cycling. There are countless bike lanes and bike rails where you can ride your bike safely away from cars for long distances. However, after I moved to the perfect city to grow as a cyclist, I stopped riding my bike. I got occupied with my Ph.D. studies and, unfortunately, lived to see my bike stolen because of neglect.
A year before graduation, I decided to get back to riding bikes. However, I wanted to challenge myself more this time and pursue it as a sport rather than just for commuting, so I purchased my first road bike, and I then decided that this bike would travel with me back to Kuwait to help me start riding in Kuwait—and it did. In January 2019, I moved to Kuwait, and in March of the same year, I rode my bike for the first time in Kuwait, and I have not stopped since then. I found a small group of cyclists to ride with, and this group opened the door to a whole community of cyclists that I had never imagined existed in Kuwait. I quickly became one of them, and each one helped me become who I am today.
So back to your question, I wouldn't say I am or I was inspired by one person precisely. I have always followed what I am passionate about, even if it's impossible to reach; I make sure to put an effort towards it, with a strong belief that I will eventually get it, even if it's as simple as buying a bike to move it to a country where cycling almost doesn't exist and then finding that magical door to a whole new world of my dreams!
What does cycling mean to you?
Ideally, cycling, to me, would be a lifestyle and a sport. I failed to pursue the former but succeeded in achieving the latter. Ever since I rode my bike as a child, I daydreamed of riding my bike to school, to parks, or my cousins' houses in other areas of Kuwait. But it was and still is almost impossible to live this lifestyle here in Kuwait due to the lack of awareness of the importance of alternative ways of commuting.
Kuwait is built to be a car-centric country, and the government fails to build appropriate infrastructures for alternative commuting, which empowers car drivers and discourages the growth of any alternative means of transportation. So, as much as I would love to have cycling as my lifestyle, it is not feasible.
I am currently a national team cyclist; I train on the roads every day for at least 2 hours and more on the weekends. So it is safe to say I spend a considerable amount of time on my bike.
I included cycling as a crucial aspect of my life, and I am happy about it. I enjoy the early rise to catch the sunrise on my bike, the adrenaline rush during high-intensity workouts and races, and most importantly, I am proud to compete alongside the strongest Kuwaiti female cyclists from my team.
What was your best ride ever?
In the past three years, I've had a lot of good memories riding my bike, surrounded by friends who quickly became family, and traveled to a few places with my bike. So it's tough to pinpoint one ride as the best.
However, if I recall one ride I enjoyed the most, I would say climbing Mare de Deu del Mont in Girona, Spain. It was an 18 km long climb to an elevation of 1,130m; needless to say, a breathtaking view once we reached the top, but the climb was challenging yet very rewarding.
With most climbs, I wait to arrive at the top to enjoy the views. But, with this specific climb, I decided to take it a little easier and enjoy every mile of it while being completely aware of my surroundings, so the experience was priceless! Once you get into this state of mind, you start to be mindful of the sounds of the mountains, your breath as it gets heavier, the smell of the trees and fresh air, and the feel of the wind getting colder as you go higher and higher to the top. So yes, a very memorable climb!
What can you tell us about being a female athlete in Kuwait? (were there any stigmas or hurdles, especially in a male-dominated sport)
I would say we have come a long way. I have been interested in sports and being an athlete since I was a child, but the opportunities were minimal. Sports were exclusive to men, and to football specifically, there was little attention to women’s sports. I always enjoyed outdoor sports, and I tried running a few times in neighborhood walkways, but it never felt safe, and it was out of the norm to see a young girl running.
Fast forward to 2022, now there are a lot of women's sports teams and clubs for many sports, such as futsal, cycling, basketball, padel, and football, to name a few. And the number of women athletes is noticeably increasing per year. Young athletes and women must see athletes such as Fay AlSultan competing at the Rio Olympics, Mudhawi AlShammari at the Tokyo Olympics, and many other Kuwaiti female athletes competing regionally and globally.
These athletes etched their names internationally and carved paths for future athletes. So to see and live this vast shift in the development of women's sports in Kuwait is promising.
Regarding cycling specifically, as you said, it is still a very male-dominated sport, mainly because of the cultural boundaries set for women here in Kuwait and the many challenges that come with the sport, such as the dangers of riding outdoors, the high risk of accidents, and the time demand of cycling.
However, the challenges make it even more rewarding to me because, as a cyclist on the national team along with my teammates, we are fighting for every young woman who aspires to be a cyclist. With our persistence and dedication, we are shaping the future of the sport in Kuwait, and we will always be part of its history.
What is your take on cycling advocacy here?
During the past few years, we have witnessed a few initiatives led by individuals and groups supported by parliament members and political figures, but we saw little to no change. Most initiatives took place after tragic accidents and were reactions to the trauma caused by these accidents.
All the efforts received good support from the public; we gained social media and traditional media attention, but that did not yield permanent or long-lasting solutions. These incidents left most passionate cyclists hopeless.
What do you need as a cyclist in Kuwait? Do you have any advice on how to get there?
We have a long way to meet other countries regionally and globally regarding cycling. But a turning point, in my opinion, would be to develop a well-designed cycling track in a vibrant location to attract all kinds of cyclists; kids, teens, families, professionals, and leisure riders.
We also need to develop pedestrian and bike-friendly areas, especially in newly developed areas. Where kids can grow up riding bikes safely, and car drivers are forced to share the roads with cyclists; we need a culture change, and this only happens if this change is embedded within a larger goal of building a proper infrastructure targeting alternative means of transportation and shift away from a car-centric system.
My advice for every cyclist is not to give up; keep spreading awareness of the importance of cycling for our health, communities, and country by pushing your pedals daily. Invest in your kids, teach them the importance of cycling, and show them the beauty of living with alternative commuting methods because if they genuinely believe in this, they will lead a true change.