Since bringing my bike to Qatar 3.5 years ago, I've had an ambition to one day cycle all the way to the Northern tip of the country, at Al Ruwais. 18 months ago, I got just over half way when I made a trip to Al Khor on the East Coast and spent the night before Eid Al Adha 2016 under the stars.
You would think the endless sunshine in Qatar would make it perfect for long distance cycling. However, the searing heat from May to September, the freezing desert nights during winter and the crazy winds that whip up sudden sand and dust storms at a moment's notice all mean that you need to choose your window of opportunity carefully.
After a few attempts scuppered by some freakish thunder storms, heavy rain and strong winds and a dust storm thrown in, the weekend of 20th April looked perfect for me to try again. Everything was prepared, my paniers packed, my chain oiled and I was up at 3.30am.
Had some strong coffee and porridge (the one time I forgive myself for eating carbs is when I'm cycling), I paused to reflect on whether I really wanted to do this, and set off nervously into the last remnants of darkness, at exactly 4.30am.
The weather was perfect, around 21 degrees and a light breeze and not much traffic to contend with at this stage.
I cycled along the Doha Corniche, past the silky calm waters of the bay, looking across to the city, and then cut behind the Emiri Diwan (Qatar's ceremonial state building) to ride along the "red road'... tarmacked about a year ago to replicate the royal road around Buckingham Palace!
It was wet from its nightly clean, so without mud guards I got a free shower to start the morning! I passed the Grand Mosque not long before sunrise, the end of Fajr, the dawn prayer.
I decided to avoid the Doha Expressway for as long as possible by taking Arab League Street until I reached Doha Festival City Mall where I would cut across to the Expressway and join the Shamal (North) Road. This would carry me all the way to the very northern tip of Qatar. So no map required.
I was feeling good and I was making great progress - averaging around 20kmph and marking my target kms every 30 mins. I kept this up for approximately 4 hours, despite my desperate need for a bathroom break.
Qatar is undergoing a total overhaul of its infrastructure, including its roads, and several times I saw signs for "Services 1km" but there were no services (I guess they put the signs up first and build the services later?), and believe me when I say there is nowhere to hide to take a pee n the desert!! And then the back pain started to creep in so I had to make one or two stops to stretch and get some relief.
Finally at 80km, I saw a Woqod petrol station. Relief at last!........I took a few minutes to stretch my legs, buy some more water and a fruit juice (the one time I forgive myself for drinking fruit juice is when I'm cycling). It was 8.45am when I stopped - Id taken 4 hours 15 mins to travel 80km and I had around 45km to go - maybe another 2.5 hrs. So I would reach Al Ruwais at maybe 11.30. Knowing the sun would get quite severe, I applied suntan lotion to my arms and face and off I went again.
The Shamal Road is a 3 lane highway running from Doha all the way up through the desert to the Northern tip of the country. I was lucky to have a hard shoulder to cycle along because the speed of many of the drivers here is terrifying.
The big trucks are directed to drive only in the "slow" lane beside me, but they too drive at reckless speeds. Initially quite terrifying, this was something which in fact I learned to love, because as they rushed past, I would momentarily get sucked along by their draft and it was a wonderful relief.
However, there was an occasional reminder that these speeds can lead to a loss of control with grave consequences. I saw several wrecks and a few abandoned vehicles along the way.
I felt better for the stop but the wind had now increased, and my progress was slower, and within 30 minutes the back pain had reappeared with a vengeance. I was experiencing back spasms which sent an electrical wave of pain through my whole body, a few times so bad that I was forced to stop peddling and free wheel for a few seconds.
I was terrified that at any time, I'd seize up completely and have to abandon the ride. So I stopped every 20 minutes to stretch and loosen up, under the shade of the nearest bridge, as the temperatures were really rising now to around 36C. I felt the risk of serious injury (having two herniated discs in my spine already, I know the signs) but I couldn't give up. I was close to my destination and although it wouldn't be pretty, I would finish, come what may.
A few kilometres on, I started seeing signs of civilisation. It must be Al Ruwais.... It wasn't. It was Shamal City. I passed a strange building in the style of a Fortress but which is actually a sports stadium! Then a few kilometres and roundabouts later, Al Ruwais! Finally. I needed to get inside an air-conditioned building and spend some time there cooling off. Id seen a shopping centre on the map so I imagined it would be a small mall where I could sit for a while and have coffee.
However, it was only a supermarket with no cafe. I bought some provisions for later and cycled around the town looking for someone to go inside. Unfortunately I'd arrived at around 1230pm, which was Friday noon prayer time, when cafes are usually closed. So instead I headed for Abu Dhalouf Park, where I was sure I could find some shade.
As I cycled towards the park, I passed half a dozen young boys around the age of 10 on beach buggies, driving recklessly on and off pavements and paying little attention to the traffic. They looked like they'd just come from the mosque, dressed smartly in their mini thobes.
I finally found the park around 1pm. Beside it was one of the most beautiful mosques Ive seen in Qatar. Once inside the park, it was very busy with families and children.
As I was pushing my bike around to find a quiet spot, a guard approached me and told me "no bikes allowed"... I asked him how to get down to the beach and eventually found the way. I found a big palm tree with lots of shade and set out my little camp to relax for a while.
It was a lovely spot looking out to the sea, a light breeze and the background sounds of children playing, and a group of Indian guys playing volleyball. After 125km and 7.5 hours in the saddle, finally I had a place to relax, recharge my batteries and rest my back.......
......Until the Qatari kids on their beach buggies arrived to tear up the beach, racing back and forth and driving straight through the volleyball net and ripping it out of the ground. They continued to terrorise the family beach goers and create noise and chaos so I decided to leave and find somewhere to watch the sun go down and see the stars come out.....
to be continued.......