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Cycling: How a German cycle shop owner transformed cycling in Dubai

Cycling is now a big sport in Dubai. Kath Hudson speaks to trailblazer Wolfgang Hohmann about his instrumental role in taking two wheels to the desert

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 13 Jun 2016 issue 122
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The man and his bike – Wolfgang Hohmann in Dubai
The man and his bike – Wolfgang Hohmann in Dubai

Fourteen years ago, when cycle shop owner Wolfgang Hohmann decided to up sticks and move from his native Germany to the desert to start a cycling business, many questioned his logic. Cycling was virtually unheard of in Dubai and with such a hot climate there was no guarantee people would get excited about taking part in such a strenuous outdoor sport.

However, fed up with cycling on icy roads in inclement winter weather, Hohmann pressed on with his mission to move to sunnier climes and introduce a sport he loved to a different country. Even though hardly anyone cycled there, he saw Dubai’s climate and the flat landscape as perfect for cycling.

“There was a big risk involved and it could have gone either way,” he says. “Most of the people I spoke to at the time said it’s not a good idea because no one really cycles in Dubai. A few said if I’m a decent mechanic there might be some business for me, but not much. I, however, wanted to start a new business and a new life and saw an opportunity.”

FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
Using the template of his existing German business, he started Wolfi’s Bike Shop in 2002. A 3,500sq ft (325sq m) site, it began selling everything needed for cycling, as well as offering coffee and a place to talk cycling with people who knew the sport.

Initially business was slow and Hohmann had to work extra hard to get sceptical suppliers to work with him. “For the first five or six years it was a burden, but also an opportunity,” says Hohmann. “It was a growing market, which was interesting.”

In order to drum up business, Hohmann started holding weekly group rides. What started out as a handful of riders has now grown to three meetings a week, attracting up to 200 riders and the development of three racing teams.

Hohmann’s efforts were further boosted when the crown prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, became a cycling fan and saw the opportunity to get people active by investing in cycling tracks. As with other developed nations, Dubai is dealing with the typical diseases of affluence stemming from poor diet and insufficient exercise, such as heart disease and obesity. More than 66 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women in the UAE are overweight or obese, according to a 2013 study by the Global Burden of Disease.

SUSTAINABLE GROWTH
Hohmann’s efforts to push the sport, combined with the crown prince giving his stamp of approval and initiating the provision of safe and scenic places to ride in, has brought more people into the market and created a small, but growing and sustainable cycling scene. As a result, Hohmann’s street is now home to 11 other bike shops which have started up in his shadow.

Cycling still appeals mainly to the growing expat community – the split is around 80/20. But as there is increasing education about the need to exercise – and with the provision of child-friendly cycle tracks – it is hoped that the base of locals will continue to grow.

EXPANDING BUSINESS
What seemed like a crazy business decision has worked well. “It wasn’t obvious, which was why nobody else had tried it, but that is probably why it worked so well,” says Hohmann. “Everywhere else in the world was covered, but in Dubai nobody was doing it, which is a good base for a new business.”

When it comes to cycling, Hohmann doesn’t think there is anywhere in the world which offers the opportunity which Dubai did in the early noughties, but he is actively involved with growing cycling in the Middle East. He recently launched a distribution company, WBS Sport Equipment Trading, to support other dealers around the region and has recently helped to set up a new cycling shop in Bahrain.

Dubai cycle paths

Dubai now has a number of cycle paths. The Al Qudra Cycle Path combines two new routes with a total length of 86km, taking a scenic loop through the dunes. The Dubai Autodrome hosts a weekly event at its undulating, floodlit 2.5km race track circuit.

The Nadd Al Sheba Cycle Path has been converted from a disused camel track into a bicycle park with 4km, 6km, and 8km loops. There is also a 850m children’s proficiency course to teach them about road safety and plans for a 350m BMX track. Other child friendly facilities include a 1,5km track at Al Barsha Park and Jumeirah Open Beach Track which runs alongside the beach.

Cycling is also spreading outside of Dubai –paths have opened at Yas Marina and Mushrif Park in neighbouring Abu Dhabi.

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