Cycling: Women saddle up for historic race in Middle East

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When the whistle blows at the start of the Ladies' Tour of Qatar at noon here today, the sound will not just be announcing the fact that a three-stage, 313-kilometre two-wheeled battle is about to get under way.

Qatar is the first women's professional bike race to be held in the Middle East. In a region where the struggle for equal opportunities has been well documented, the new event may quickly gainlandmark status.

"It's a real political gesture to have a women's race in an Arabic country – good for everybody: sport, Qatar, women," says Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, whose Amaury Sports Organisation are assisting the Qatar race. Prudhomme adds: "Three days of racing with seven of the eight best women's teams in the world goes a long way towards the internationalisation of the sport, too."

The Qatar Cycling Federation [QCF] official Sonia Azad could barely conceal her delight, saying: "We've been trying to do this for such a long time but the idea didn't settle, initially we didn't have any idea how to start. Nonetheless, it's a very important step for women in sport."

The American national champion, Brooke Miller, who is leading the US national team in Qatar, says: "When I first heard about this race last fall it was like, 'Are you kidding?' But it's kind of exciting to have a country open their doors when historically it's not been so common. It's an honour to be here, and it's also very surreal. I mean, we're staying at the Ritz Carlton!"

The Ritz is a five-star palace of a hotel built on a private island, complete with its own marina and nine restaurants. Rooms cost from 1,350 Qatar riyals [£250] up to a jaw-dropping 8,300 riyals [£1,570] a night. "We're not used to living so high on the hog," says the 32-year-old Miller. Given that some other women's races put the riders up in campsites, that's an understatement.

The €1,128 [£986] on offer to the victor may be a tenth of what the Belgian Tom Boonen took home for winning the men's Tour of Qatar, but the women aren't complaining about that, either.

"That prize-money puts it straight up there as one of the best-paid races in the world," says Columbia-Highroad's women's team director, Ronny Lauke. Miller puts it more bluntly: "It's a good chunk of change. We're motivated to fill our bank accounts because, as women cyclists, we kind of live hand to mouth."

But while the racers receive VIP treatment, the event itself may take some time to integrate into the local sports scene. There are no local women's teams taking part, and not just because no adult women currently have racing licences with the QCF.

Azad admits that prior to this race she has never seen a woman riding a bike on the open road in Qatar, still less in the shorts, skin-tight jersey and helmet which the 90 participants will wear. "I've never done it myself," she says. "I wear an abaya [the long, black robe traditionally worn by women across the Middle East] so it's difficult."

But Azad believes the sight of Qatar women astride two-wheel transport – even in a country where it remains rare to see women drive cars – could become more common.

She is adamant that Qatar will have a women's team in the future, and will soon be taking part in its own race."We have female riders from five to 16 participating in women's inter-school events," Azad points out, "and there are races for young girls and boys during the Holy Monthof Ramadan.

"We're also bringing young girls here from the Aspire Centre [Qatar's state-of-the-art centre for sporting excellence] so they can see the race and participate in events beforehand. Once one [local] woman does it [rides a bike in public] then the others will do it.

"And if they see the women racing like in the Tour of Qatar, that will help, too."