Riding twenty year old bikes in mismatched jerseys with the threat of violence every day just for doing so - this is the challenge that faces the Yemen national cycling team. Last month the Guardian published an article surrounding the circumstances of the Yemen National Cycling Foundation and it struck a chord with many cycling fans - now there is an effort online to raise much needed funds for the team to be able to ride in the Arab Club Championships this month. The fund raising effort ends this Sunday and the money is needed to afford basic necessity's such as tubes, tyres and kit. Here's a little background and all the information you need to lend a hand to the Yemen Cycling Team - not just making racing possible, but changing attitudes and making the impossible, possible...
Here is an exert from the original Guardian Article "Cycling in Yemen: an uphill struggle against insurgency and ignorance":
The cyclists have been pedalling through the dusty outskirts of Yemen's capital, Sana'a, for just 30 seconds when the first rock comes hurtling at their wheels.None of the seven riders of Yemen's National Cycle Foundation so much as flinch, as the perpetrator, a local shopkeeper, identifies himself. He shouts and waves an arm. "You gays! Cover up!"Dressed in an eclectic assortment of sun-faded Lycra cycling attire, and riding an archaic selection of bikes in varying state of repair, the group keeps silent, and together, as they keep on pedalling.Yemen must be one of the few countries in the world where a group of young men, on their morning ride can, and regularly does, attract such anger and ignorance from passersby. Their crime? Wearing shorts and tight jerseys.
As the riders approached the first steep climb, their coach, Saleh al-Riashi, emerges from the sunroof of an accompanying vehicle. He makes this trip three times a week, every week, with near-religious devotion, barking commands out of the car's roof, much like the director of a pro-team on the grand tour. It is inaccurate to describe the team as the national cycling team of Yemen, simply because they have lacked the resources to travel anywhere as a team since 2006.
Riashi is the only member of the current team to have competed abroad. He says that when they arrived in Egypt in 2006 to compete in the Arab Club Championships, his Yemeni team were almost laughed off the starting line."Our bikes were probably 20 years old, and our clothes worn … but we soon showed we are serious racers … we finished sixth out of 13 teams and received an apology," he says.
The Cultural differences between the UK and Yemen are all to plain to see but cycling is, or at least should be, a universal common ground. Cycling is by no means danger free in this country - look to Bradley Wiggins and his recent fight with a car and that is obvious - but cycling in the Yemen is a completely different ball game:
"We were riding along, when suddenly we were swept off our bikes by a man in a Toyota Landcruiser. Four of our riders were wiped out. We all needed stitches and one rider needed surgery on his arm," Bandani says with a matter-of-fact air and a shrug of his shoulders, as if being attacked and nearly killed for riding a bicycle is a normal daily occurrence. "It's just simple ignorance."
The sport of cycling breeds passion - anybody riding or watching regularly is likely to be fanatical, its just something that happens in this sport and for the riders in Yemen to keep riding in conditions like these, well, they must be some of the most fanatical of all - would you still go out for your Sunday morning club run knowing that SUV's full of troops were waiting to ram you off the road? It makes staying in because of the rain seem pretty pathetic that's for sure! (Guilty as charged). Those touched by cycling will likely always hold a flame for the sport though at times, as fans, we are tested - just ask the many who gave up on the sport in the 90's thanks to systematic doping, ask those who believed in Lance Armstrong and whom were so badly let down - but it's stories like this one from Yemen that makes the sport worthwhile again. The determination and audacity through pure belief and love in a sport, forget the cultural differences - invite the Yemen cyclists to an English cafe for an espresso and conversation would likely be much the same as on the usual club run. There are no barriers here.
The Yemen National Cycling Foundation need around $3000 to be able to race in the Arab Club Championships (some of us are guilty of spending more than that on our bike!) and the total raised so far is around $500. If you are feeling charitable, then head over to IndieGoGo before Sunday to find out a little more and make a donation. The full article from the Guardian can be found Here and is well worth a read if you haven't already...