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26th September 2017 by Shirin

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Easy Riders

There are few places in the world more suited to motorcycle riding than the UAE - the roads are straight and wide, there are thousands of kilometres of empty tarmac.  Abu Dhabi Week caught up with some of the capital's most passionate bikers.

The sand storms have finally blown away, and there;s nothing but blue sky over my head, but I'm not paying attention - no I'm flying down the highway at dizzying speeds.

My friend, engineer Paul Brown, has kindly agreed to take me for a ride on his 2004 BMW K1200 RS, a sports touring bike he calls "the best of both worlds - I can cruise on it for hours, but I can also get it up to really quick speeds."

From the passenger seat, I'm inclinde to call "really quick" an understatement.  Though Paul is most assuredly addicted to speed, he's just one of the many types of people cruising the streets of Abu Dhabi on two wheels.
The image of the biker as the rough and ready thug of Hollywood legend isn't exactly accurate in the UAE - Paul's Harley riding friend and colleague Sean Leonard is just one example.

"I have a Harley Rocker which I've spent a lot of time customising," says Sean, an air traffic control training and standards manager.  "The Harley is more a cruiser than a speed bike which suits my laid back personality."
The same is true for many bikers in Abu Dhabi, especially those whose hearts belong to their Harley Davidsons, like Jo-Jo (or Yo-Yo) Vlassenbroeck, captain of one of Abu Dhabi's most popular riding groups, the Exiles.

"I can't live without a bike - it's always been a part of me," says Yo-Yo, who works as the deputy manager of a weather forecasting office, a job he calls 'the easiest in the UAE'.

Unlike Paul and Sean, who prefer to ride on their own or with just a couple of friends, plenty of the capital's motorcycle aficionados like to ride with a group.

Social biking, in fact, has a long and glorious history in many parts of the world.  At the end of the Second World War, biking wasx made famous as an outlaw thrill by veterans who missed the brotherhood, danger and excitement of soldiering, and Marlon Brando first epitomized that image in the film The Wild One.

"My grandpa was one of those soldiers who came back from the Second World War and started biking - he was a dispatch rider," says Belinda Waugh, operations manager of an oilfield equipment business and Exiles secretary.

Even now, many riders cite the social ascept as one of their main reasons for riding.  Helmut Reichelt, company manager and proud owner of the Yellow Chicken, his customised rare American Ironhorse, loves the company as much as he loves riding.

"You have the camaraderie of a group of nice people.  Everybody helps each other - they're sophisticated people."

While the Exiles are known first and foremost for their love of riding, they also have a reputation for taking part in charitable events.  "Last week we were helping raise money for an animal shelter in Ras Al Khaimah," explains Belinda.  "In December, we did a toy ride to Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre and every year we donate money to the Special Care Centre."

Charity and good company? What about all that leather and attitude? Technically, those leathers are meant to protect the rider in the event of an accident, but a lot of riders in Abu Dhabi dismiss the practical aspect of the leathers and wear them for the image.

"I only wear full leathers during the winter - in the summer I ride in just a T-shirt and jeans because leathers are just too hot," says Yo-Yo, pointing out his 2009 Harley Softail Fat Boy.

While these riders aren't pipe wielding Hell's Angels, there's certainly an element of risk involved in riding in Abu Dhabi.

"The traffic here is dangerous, even in a car." says Yo-Yo, the Exiles' senior road captain.  "You just have to keep your eyes open and drive defensively.".

Despite the danger involved and the reckless image, these riders are not irresponsible people. "We're really safety conscious," says Belinda.  "We're the people who want to live a long time so we can still ride our bikes."
Why take the risk? According to Mohamed Khalil Shehab, his bike is a lot easier to park.  "At night you can't find a car park.  For the last month I haven't touched my car." Robert Liddington even rides his Harley Roadking to work most days.

Convenience, charity and community aside, most of the bikers here have been riding since they were kids - it's a family tradition that's been passed down for generations.  Pilot Chris Young recalls riding in his native Jamaica.

"I started riding when I was ten.  My father taught me how, my grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides all rode motorcycles - they were all accomplished riders so it was just a natural thing."

There's no hiding the element of theatre that these riders seem to relish, but as the gang rev up their roaring engines, Helmut says it best.  "Motorcycling is kind of my life, and I think that's true for everybody who rides - if you have this passion in your blood, it's never going to go away."

Laura Fulton
Abu Dhabi Week,