Fifteen years ago, Wolfgang Hohmann left Germany and came to the United Arab Emirates to start up Dubai’s first bike shop.
BikeRadar met Hohmann while visiting the city for the Dubai Tour, and had an interesting chat with the man from Freiburg who's making waves in cycling in the Gulf Region.
Eyes on the Middle East
Racing in the Middle East has been piquing interest over the first part of 2016, with WorldTour teams competing in the Dubai Tour, Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman. Drawing in former world champions, One Day Classic specialists and Grand Tour winners aplenty, the cycling season’s opening races have grown in stature in recent years and are fast becoming a fixture for many in the racing calendar.
A look at Wolfgang Hohmann's shop from the outside
But it wasn't always this way. While skyscrapers, smooth roads and a burgeoning cycling culture may be the norm now, only a few decades ago Dubai wasn't much more than a highway and a few low-rise buildings.
Combine this with the fact the desert temperatures can rise to over 50C in the summer, and Dubai might not have been our first-choice location to open up a bike shop around the turn of the millenium. Yet this is exactly what Wolfgang Hohmann – ‘Wolfi’ to his friends – decided to do.
Following his sister and brother-in-law, who had already emigrated to sunnier climes, Hohmann left his existing bike shop in his hometown in southwest Germany to begin the new venture.
A variety of Colnago frames hang from the ceiling
"Dubai wasn’t anything near what it is today. 15 years ago there were only a handful of cyclists and no cycling scene whatsoever," he tells BikeRadar. "Business was incredibly slow for the first few years and I found it difficult to get suppliers to sign up to the shop."
Hohmann would head back to Europe to meet brands at the yearly cycling expo, Eurobike. "Some suppliers would laugh at me [when I told them where my store was], now 15 years later they are all emailing me!" he recalls.
Today, the eponymous Wolfi’s bike shop stocks Scott, Colnago, Cervélo, Storck, Lightweight, Zipp, Ceramic Speed, Selle Italia and Prologo to name but a few. On top of this, the store also acts as a distributing hub for many of these brands to the entire Gulf region.
But Hohmann's involvement in the cycling scene in Dubai goes beyond simple retail and distribution. As well as building a successful store, he's been at the forefront of making cycling one of the U.A.E’s most popular sports.
Many of the Wolfi's shop rides have to take place early morning to avoid the desert heat
The store is involved with three cycling teams; one women's team and three men's teams. It also provides support for the Dubai Tour, IRONMAN 70.3 and TriYas in Abu Dhabi.
Hohmann can also boast royalty among his customers. A chance encounter with members of Dubai's Al Maktoum royal family at the store has blossomed into friendship, leading to intercontinental phone conversations while watching the Tour de France – and sowing the seeds of a newfound passion for the sport
Committing not only to cycling, but also the culture of the sport, the royal family have apparently seen the value that riding can bring to the health of the nation. With more than a million cases of diabetes in the UAE in 2015 (nearly 15% of the adult population), exercise and a healthy lifestyle are national priorities, and cycling is viewed as an increasingly popular way to achieve it.
All smiles in the workshop
While cycling was initially focused on road and racetracks, there are now several new cycle-specific circuits opening to the public – funded by the royal family – and including an 85km bike-only track. It's clear that this connection, and the benefits it has brought to the people of Dubai, are a source of pride for Hohmann, as he shows us a picture of himself riding with the ruling monarch, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
This influx of business and passion has created a unique cycling culture at a pace and ostentatiousness that perhaps replicates the growth of this incredible desert city. "We're very proud to see how cycling in the Middle East region has developed in this time, and how thousands of people enjoy riding their bikes on the amazing facilities every day," says Hohmann.
And while cycling is experiencing a surge in popularity in Dubai, there's plenty more room for growth. The concept of commuting is still rare, with most cycling done entirely for exercise, leisure or sport.
But with the announcement of Dubai’s first ‘Cycle Café’ opening soon and whispers of a new Bahraini-supported team headed by Bjarne Riis, could this be the start of another new chapter for cycling in the Gulf region?