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26th September 2017 by Shirin

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Annual toy ride shows motorbike clubs' softer side

In a lonely, dusty car park just outside of Dubai, reality took a backseat to perception; at least for a short while.

On one side, a collection of bikers clad in black leather, milling about their parked and gleaming Harleys, waiting. Waiting for a rumble, heard off in the distance, that eventually grew to a thumping roar as a line of more Harley-Davidson motorcycles, carrying more black-clad, mean-looking bikers, slowly rode past the parked bikes, circled the car park and formed a line on the other side, all watched closely by the first group. They dismounted, and the two leaders of each side strode towards each other; for the uninitiated observer, it could have been a tense moment.

But this was no scene from The Wild One or West Side Story; there were no shivs or chains. Instead of goading words or intimidating actions, the two leaders embraced with hearty pats on backs and broad smiles. Their meeting was friendly; it was all about bikes, the open road, camaraderie - and children's toys.

The Exiles motorcycle club, based in Abu Dhabi, rode out to Ghantoot's Jazira Resort on Friday to meet up with Dubai's Black Eagles motorcycle club - as well as a few from the Abu Dhabi Riders club - for the Exiles' annual Toy Run. The riders, all carrying toys on their lumbering bikes, planned a ride to Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, managed by the Cleveland Clinic, to distribute the gifts to sick and injured children there, showing at the same time these intimidating bikers are really softies at heart.

Jo Vlassenbroeck, an expat Belgian and the captain of the 35-member Exiles, goes by the very un-biker knickname of JoJo (pronounced yo-yo). He rides a 2009 Softail Fat Boy today.

"The toy ride has been going on for about five years; the Exiles only started in 2004. And they [bike clubs] do that all over the world; it's just to show that all bikers aren't outlaws, we have a heart as well. "We've offered toys in the past to hospitals all over the country; we've done it before with hospitals in Dubai and Al Ain and Abu Dhabi."

Both clubs relax with refreshments and mingle before the ride into Abu Dhabi. It's an eclectic mix of men and women from all around the world, with jobs ranging from engineers to CFOs to airline and fighter pilots - even the head of the UAE Cycling Federation (that's bicycles, not motorcycles) is an Exile. Eavesdropping on their conversations, you start to get a sense of why they appreciate being in a motorcycle club.

"It's a family thing; brotherhood," says Hadi Shaker, an Emirati who is the president and founder of the Black Eagles. "We have multinationality in our group, we are very close to each other.

"We support some of the clubs, as well as doing our own things; we come and support them, they come and support us."

Belinda Waugh is a Scottish expat and part owner of an oil field equipment business in Musaffah who's lived in the UAE for 10 years. She says being an Exiles member has been rewarding for her socially. "It's just a great way to meet people. It's really nice, because you meet and mingle outside of the bike rides, too: we have parties, go to peoples' homes; we're friends. It's one of the things that makes my life here better.

"Unfortunately, people come and go very quickly here. And I have really good friends that are gone, but then other great people come in, too.

If Vlassenbroeck is the Exiles' leader, Ali Kaddas is its entertainer. The Emirati's loud, neon-green t-shirt with the words "Can you see me now?" on the back is no match for his boisterous and engaging demeanor. In between holding court among the riders, he echoes the sentiment of camaraderie and friendship.

"I like meeting new people. Socially, like what I'm doing now. And being a member with a bike club is a part of knowing people socially and also an open school to share information on the bikes. It doesn't matter what colour you wear, we're all the same."

Finally, it's time to mount up. The riders throw their legs over their shiny beasts - most of them are Harley-Davidsons, though there are a few BMWs and another sport bike. Much like the clubs' open-door policies towards members' nationalities, there is no snobbery when it comes to machinery.

But they all add to the thumping roar that echoes for kilometres as the bikes are fired up. One by one, in a long line, the bikes slowly rumble out of the car park and out onto Sheikh Zayed Road, forming two groups that number more than 40 in total. The lines of shiny motorcycles attract attention from every car on the road, and more than one driver or car passenger takes pictures or video of the motorcycle train.

After a brief stop for petrol, the bikers find their way into the city and then to the hospital itself. They all pull up to the front and slowly park their bikes around the door, the thunder of their exhausts attracting everyone's attention. Instead of fear and intimidation, the bikers are met more with stares of curiosity and admiration; they acknowledge the stares with nods and waves.

And any possible worries about the burly bikers are soothed as they gather armfuls of packages and toys and bring them into the hospital's reception area, filling the entire seating area with dolls, toy cars, and other gifts.

Only six members are allowed in to see the children; as the toys are put on carts to bring to the children, most of the riders wait outside. Vlassenbroeck, the Exiles' captain, says the sight of bikers in the hospital can be a bit much for some children, especially the young ones.

"In the beginning they're a little bit scared - you know, guys in black t-shirts and leathers and pins. But after a while they start talking and ask us questions; they really open up."

The club members are greeted by Helen Maunton, the unit manager of pediatric EI at Sheikh Khalifa. With a bright smile and sly wit, she brings the small group up to the pediatrics ward. The group will only see a few children, those whose parents are comfortable with the visit. But all will get a gift, either personally or otherwise.

"If the children are here for some time," says Maunton, "they have no toys and they get bored, so I'm grateful ; we need them.

"I think it makes the children's experience as nice as possible when they come to the hospital."

Room by room, the group is led in to meet the children - all are under the age of 10, some are young babies or toddlers, and most are quite and reserved when the bikers first enter. But, as Vlassenbroeck predicted, they slowly warm up to the gifts and the soft words from the group. Worried expressions give way to cheeky smiles.

One child, Abdulrahman, lights up when the riders come in. His young sister (who also receives a toy) and mother are in the room and chat with the group, but the eight-year-old, who says he wants to be a firefighter when he grows up, talks and talks with the bikers, getting his picture taken and sharing his toys. And the bikers seem to love it just as much as Abdulrahman does.

Eventually, the visit comes to an end. Most of the other bikers have left for a restaurant at Yas Island for food and refreshment after the day of riding, so we ride up to join them.

The large group takes up half the restaurant, all sitting, mingling and laughing with each other - as friends would. And as I sit with a few club members at a table, talking and sharing stories, I can't help but remember another story Waugh recounted earlier in the day in Ghantoot.

"I had to laugh the other day," she had said. "I asked a friend to join both clubs at the restaurant after our ride, and he said 'Do you think there will be trouble?' And I said, 'C'mon, this is the UAE! These people are managing directors'!"

Neil Vorano
The National,