Abu Dhabi, internationally beloved cycling destination, just got a UCI award

UCI: “Scratch our back and we’ll scratch yours.”

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Abu Dhabi, the second city of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, was this week awarded the international honour of UCI Bike City – making it the first city in the Middle East and Asia to pick up that award. UCI President David Lappartient travelled to Abu Dhabi to present the award at a ceremony on Al Hudayriyat Island, a “world-class cycling hub” in a city that is almost certainly not your first choice for a riding destination.

The UCI Bike City label – which you might be forgiven for interpreting as a recognition of places that are, say, good for cycling in – is a program that was, after a hiatus, reintroduced by the UCI in 2016. In the years since, the sport’s governing body has ramped up the number of cities that are handed the award. The program sits under the organisation’s ‘Cycling For All’ pillar – effectively its advocacy arm, with a stated goal of “tackling climate change, air pollution, urban congestion or obesity and physical apathy”.

A closer examination, however, reveals some uncomfortable truths in how closely commercial interests inform the entire program. 

The UCI Bike City program was relaunched with the appointment of Bergen, Norway: a fine and scenic city, but not one with an obvious wealth of cycling infrastructure. In 2017, the Road World Championships were held in that city. A smattering of Belgian, Dutch, and Danish cities followed as appointees of the Bike City honour – again, all with the asterisk next to them of being UCI World Championships hosts. 

This year, seven locations have been named as UCI Bike Cities, among them Fayetteville in the USA, the Flanders region of Belgium, Sakarya in Turkey, and Wollongong in Australia – all recent or upcoming holders of world championships. 

You may be starting to detect a theme here. And, sure enough, the announcement of Abu Dhabi’s UCI Bike City commendation coincided, to the day, with the confirmation of Abu Dhabi as a venue for the 2022 and 2024 UCI Urban Cycling World Championships, and 2028 UCI Gran Fondo World Championships. 

A document hidden in the labyrinthine bowels of the UCI website pitches the Bike City program to prospective suitors. It’s pretty up-front about how your municipality can get on the list: “the UCI Bike City label supports and rewards cities and regions which not only host major UCI cycling events but also invest in developing community cycling and related infrastructures,” it reads. To be eligible, there are two criteria to meet: 1. Hosting major UCI cycling events; 2. Investing in Cycling for All.

Later in the document, there’s further elaboration on that commitment: “at least one UCI World Championship in +/- 4 years, with at least one other major UCI event (a UCI World Championship or UCI World Cup or UCI Gran Fondo World Series event)”. And a common theme in hosting World Championships is money: money spent by governments, and money paid to the UCI. In a typical year hosting rights contribute about €10 million of the UCI’s revenue; about a quarter of all the money flowing in the doors. 

Given their direct ties to the World Championships, the Bike City labels are anything but independent – in reality, they are a pay-to-play initiative. And while the UCI is not not transparent about it, it does take a bit of connecting the dots. 

And if you don’t connect those dots, it’s fair to say that the majority of people coming across the label when it’s trotted out in local tourism documents would assume that a ‘Bike City’ has an exceptional offering for cyclists. At least in the case of Abu Dhabi, they’d be disappointed. (Doubly so if they’re homosexual, a woman, or a human rights enthusiast … but I digress.)

The UCI press release – which, remember, is trying to paint things in the most favourable possible light – touts the “world-class cycling destinations” of “28 km of waterside cycling track at Al Hudayriyat Island and a total of 40 km of cycling track at Al Wathba in the desert”. Al Wathba, on an official tourism website, is described as being “surrounded by miles and miles of desert” and was the backdrop for the desolate Jakku scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: both of which might have their charms, but probably not as a circle in a Venn diagram overlapping “an enjoyable bike ride”.

There is a total of 300 km of cycling infrastructure across the entire emirate, and while there are plans for more – including a velodrome – they are, as yet, just plans. 

In Abu Dhabi, there’s a secondary play to the Bike City label beyond the cyclist dollar and the UCI’s tick of approval: greenwashing. In the wake of this year’s COP26 conference, which briefly highlighted the dire extent of humanity’s contribution to climate change, Abu Dhabi has bid to host COP28 in 2023. 

The Bike City label dovetails neatly with Abu Dhabi’s plans to “advance cycling as a more environmentally friendly form of transport” and “drive sustainability” – which is noble enough. But on the flipside, the city is also the holder of 5% of the world’s natural gas and 9% of the world’s proven oil reserves, having become fabulously wealthy off the back of both, and there’s only so much change you can expect when the economy is predicated on keeping the gravy train rolling.  

That statement could apply equally well to the UCI. In recent years, the organisation has leaned into the power of gestures: awarding world championships to dictatorships, awarding secret certificates to dictators, awarding sustainability-based marketing labels to oppressive oil-rich monarchies. 

It’s not good, but at least you can say it’s consistent.

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