RIYADH: When the Tour de France 2021 started on Saturday, there would have been extra interest from one corner of Saud Arabia in particular.
Only days earlier, the Kingdom’s Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) had announced it was partnering with GreenEDGE Cycling, also known as Team BikeExchange, ahead of the sport’s most famous tour, which runs until July 18.
For the RCU, it was the latest sporting tie-up aiming to attract visitors to the heritage and cultural destination.
Philip Jones, the RCU’s chief management and marketing officer, said: “It was our desire to position AlUla as a sports hub for northwestern Saudi Arabia and we obviously believed cycling is a good fit for the destination.
“We have amazing landscapes, beautiful backdrops where you can do mountain biking and desert biking, but you can also do some very significant road biking, because we have a vast network of roads and very little traffic, so it lends itself to a cycling culture.”
By raising the profile of cycling in the Kingdom, Jones is hoping the RCU can attract young Saudi men and women to the sport, and to AlUla’s desert trails.
“It’s a great sport for the destination in terms of the profile of people who watch professional cycling. They tend to be frequent travelers, and they are also folks who are looking for adventure and outdoor experiences.
“So, it’s something that aligns nicely with our brand, and it’s also a way of introducing the sport of cycling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a professional level because I think there is tremendous potential for it,” he added.
With more Saudis taking up the sport, the aim will be to produce professional riders down the line.
Jones said: “What I like about the partnership with GreenEDGE is that they have a professional men’s team and professional women’s team, and they were telling me about their young new star rider who is from Trinidad and Tobago, not exactly a cycling hotspot.
“If we can provide the same opportunity for young Saudi cyclists, both male and female, to ultimately become part of a professional team one day, I think that is something that we’d be very excited about, and very proud to do.
“The more people who are exposed to cycling and fitness through cycling, the more popular the sport will be in Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Jones pointed out that cycling facilities in AlUla were set to proliferate in the coming years, with a 26-kilometer track due to open in October.
“We’re putting the infrastructure in to allow people who come to AlUla to do some significant riding in a beautiful setting,” he said.
“One of the exciting things for us is that we’ll host a training camp with professionals such as Simon Yates who won Vuelta a Espana and came in third in Giro d’Italia, with the other professional team members, men and women, and they’ll do cycling camps, training tips, nutrition, and coaching so we can open it up to a limited number of Saudi cyclists.”
That the RCU’s announcement of the partnership took place on the eve of the Tour de France 2021 was no coincidence either.
“There are 2,000 journalists covering the Tour de France. It’s an opportunity to get maximum visibility, it’s exciting for us, and it has been so well received,” Jones added.
“The team members are so excited, and they’ve been posting on social media. Simon said he wants to come and visit AlUla as soon as the season is over because it’s exactly what he’s looking for, adventure and the unknown. It really helps us from a destination marketing perspective to have multiple facets to this partnership.
“GreenEDGE is a great team, and the brand association with us is very positive. And we share the values, sustainability, commitment to female empowerment and bringing young people into the sport.”
The rise in cycling popularity elsewhere in the Gulf has already meant several regional tours and Jones is confident there will be more in the future.
“The Bahrain team is here, and the UAE team is just across town,” said Jones from the French city of Brest.
“There is a recognition that the Middle East is a new cycling hotspot. And I think that AlUla is the first in the Kingdom to announce a partnership that will hopefully lead to other opportunities to bring professional tours, stage racing, as well as Grand Tour type racing throughout the Middle East where we can partner with Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia and put together a major race.”
Thanks to its stunning desert terrain, AlUla has in recent years hosted several high-profile sporting events such as Extreme E rally racing and desert polo.
“As you bring different events, you target different segments of the travelling public. Someone who is interested in desert polo is very different to someone who is interested in professional cycling, or a horse race, or camel race, or mountain bike race, or an eco-trail ride.
“One of the advantages we have in AlUla is that we have this amazing natural beauty and it’s the perfect setting for multiple sports and I think our goal is to position AlUla as one of the sport hubs for Saudi Arabia because we have this opportunity to capitalize on that,” Jones added.