Yousif Mirza has just spent his first season at the very highest level of professional cycling, riding for World Tour team UAE Team Emirates.
The 28-year-old Emirati from Khor Fakkan competed against Olympic medallists such as Italy’s Elia Viviani in races all over the world, from Germany and Spain to the United States, and in his home race, the Dubai Tour.
“I started cycling when I was nine. It was a hobby, and I realised I was good at it, but it’s still a long journey to a World Tour team,” Mirza says. “I was nervous to start with, riding with the greats of the sport like [Slovakia’s three-time world champion] Peter Sagan, but when I completed my first race I had the confidence that I belonged.”
Turning professional 10 years ago, it was only in 2016 that Mirza became part of a pro-team at a lower level (Nasr-Dubai) which regularly raced abroad, but he’s won the UAE National Championships for the last four years and picked up silver in the Asian Games in 2015. He also competed for his country at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Here, he offers his top tips on what it takes to compete at the sharp end of elite-level sport.
Get up early
“The sport of cycling has been improving all the time in the UAE, but since UAE Team Emirates was established, more people follow it and there’s definitely more cycling activity in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It’s not permitted to ride on major roads, but there are places like the cycling park and plenty of private cycling roads, so I can see Emirati cyclists improving, for sure. But the only problem is you have to get up very early to train, otherwise it’s far too hot!”
“I love to race in Asia – my best result this season was in the Dubai Tour. But it’s a very different kind of race to those in Europe. There, you need time to learn how to go downhill, for example, and to concentrate on the roads because they’re much narrower. Honestly, they’re different in style to those in Asia. And then there was the United States – we started in Colorado at high altitude and I realised that I couldn’t push myself to my limits because of the difference in oxygen. It was tough.”
Be ready to learn
“The last year has been all about learning what is necessary to be in a World Tour team; the training I need, what to eat, and how to react and be smarter in races. I have to track when I’m going to sleep, when I’m waking up, when I need to have a massage… You can’t be an amateur about any of these things. It’s a great opportunity to be part of [a World Tour] team, and though it is really hard, I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Soak up the team dynamic
“When I’m with my team-mates like [Portugal’s former world champion] Rui Costa and [British Olympian] Ben Swift, I just feel more confident. I learn something from them every day – you can see how the big riders have become successful when you look at their attitude. It’s good to be friends with them, too.”
“2016-17 was my first season, and I have a lot to improve upon both in terms of my shape and my racing. But I’ve seen other riders who are not far away from me get picked for a Grand Tour – Annas Ait El Abdia started La Vuelta a España, for example. So if he can do it, I can dream about being the first Emirati rider to compete in the Tour de France, for sure.”