Escape: Dubai Bike Week - Whizzing Through Oz

Invading the Middle East's inaugural Bike Week

By Jamie Elvidge, Photography by Jamie Elvidge

Dubai is like no other place on Earth. Imagine Oz, only with camels instead of flying monkeys.

The richest of seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has become famous for its opulence. Like some crazy mirage rising out of the Arabian Desert, its fantastical skyline boasts some of the most creative and unrestrained architecture on the planet. You simply can't imagine Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building, with its 160 habitable floors, until you see it poking a hole through heaven. Yes, there is a 25-story indoor snow park (with real snow), where you can ski a black-diamond run or board a half-pipe, even though it's 125 degrees outside. And yes, you can live on a man-made sand-island suburb shaped like a palm tree.

So, when I tell you about Dubai Bike Week-or Gulf Bike Expo (www. gulfbikeexpo.com), as it's officially dubbed-don't go conjuring images of Jello wrestling and weenie-biters.

I first heard about the Middle East's Bike Week during my first visit to Dubai in 2007. I'd happened into the local Harley dealer trying to rent a bike, and heard people buzzing about a recent rally that sounded to me like the kind of ride my local H.O.G. chapter puts on every other weekend. It seemed a bunch of friends rode to Abu Dhabi, about 120 sandy clicks away, then returned to Dubai to kick some tires and-unlike my local club-not have a beer, since this is a Muslim country and drinking is forbidden outside the Western-minded hotels.

Three years later I heard from an Arab Em friend that the local Harley-sponsored Bike Week was about to become the real deal. Maybe not a Sturgis or Daytona, but there would be global OEM presence, a flock of stunt riders, a custom bike show and hey, Deep Purple was headlining! That was more than enough to warrant booking a plane ticket. After years of reporting on the same old motorcycle events, I'm ready for a new angle. Mohammed willing, I'm hungry for a spectacle.

Appropriately, though quite by accident, I arrive in Dubai aboard a brand-new, two-story Airbus A380-a kind of cruise ship with wings, complete with a club-like lounge where everyone can tip a few before touchdown in Islam. Once off the plane, I hop a Pink Top cab-a taxi driven by women, for women only-because where else can you do that?! First stop: the Harley dealer on Sheikh Zayed Road, where I have a press bike waiting.

Yep, this is Dubai, where the royal family spends its time watching the skyline grow on city-sized yachts. You'd imagine I'd arrive at Bike Week in style-say, aboard some customized starcraft-but instead I was gifted with a humble, stock Sportster. Mind you, I love the 1200cc V-twin, but corners are an oddity in the UAE so I was sure the bike's agility would go to waste.

As I throttle into the bedlam of Dubai's surface streets, I have a sudden change of heart. The labyrinth of roadways here is constantly under revision and reconstruction to keep up with the city's insane growth, but that's not half of what causes the pandemonium. Dubai's tantalizing tax incentives make it a magnet for international business, so about 70 percent of the population is expat. Over 100 nationalities are said to be represented here, so imagine that many different driving styles on the road, and with very few discernible traffic rules. Italians, East Indians, Americans, Germans, Egyptians, Norwegians ... you get my point. The Sportster's dexterity turned out to be a blessing.

After an hour of unintentional sightseeing, a young Arab dangling from his ape-hangers pulls up next to me and asks if I'm trying to get to Festival City. With a deafening blat from his straight-pipes, he roars away and I chase him, away from the high-rises and over historic Dubai's Creek, which divides the old city from the new, and finally into the midst of the most eclectic motorcycle party imaginable.

Outside the convention center is a piazza with colorful bean bags strewn everywhere and a huge hookah pipe stand where you can rent a big, glass water-bong and puff tobacco in flavors ranging from mint to mango. There's a big stage, and a constant changeover of local bands, almost all rocking in Arabic, but rocking just the same. Around the corner is the makeshift Red Bull Arena, where American stunt riders E-Dub and two-up team Rome & Randie are blowing up the skirts of all the Arabs. Okay, so they're not wearing skirts, but some of the locals in their long, white dishdashas don't seem to know what to think of Randie's pink Mohawk and mid-wheelie reverse-cowboy antics-sooo not Muslim! It's freestyle phenom Nick De Wit who really wows the crowd, though, slinging his Suzuki RM250 in loops across the desert sky.

The convention center itself is loaded with an impressive number of new bikes and wares. Marcel A. Bode, general manager of Harley-Davidson UAE, explains how the event came to be as he gives me the grand tour: "Harley-Davidson was the first motorcycle brand in this part of the world," he says, "and it's still the most trusted manufacturer in the Middle East." That may sound a tad ironic, but the fact is Harley has invested not just in the UAE, but the entire Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, since the late-'80s. The Asian and European brands didn't appear until very recently. "Harley was always finding ways to develop the market here," says Bode, "to promote motorcycling as a lifestyle."

So Harley invited everyone to this party, turning a small, club-style get-together into a massive festival. Every moto-maker seems to be here, from BMW to Buell, KTM to Confederate, plus Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha and even Victory. And let me tell you, watching those dishdasha-clad locals try on the space-age Vision was a huge high point for me-they loved that bike! There are lots of aftermarket products on hand, too, even deeply American brands like Draggin' Jeans and Two Brothers Racing.

Keith Code's California Superbike School also has a presence in Dubai, and this year students get to rip around the track on KTM Superdukes. The city's autodrome was the first racetrack ever built in the Middle East, and Superbike School weekends are always a sell-out. "We had 63 riders at the last school," says Petra van Zoelen, marketing director of Code's Middle Eastern offshoot. "They come from all over the world-Arabs, Europeans, Australians, Americans-and they always have a great time together."

Just like a slice of the Dubai Bike Week scene. "It's a huge melting pot here," says Bode of the biking community. "Having people from so many different places doesn't change the biking experience; it just makes it more interesting."

I'm beginning to understand that. The next morning I arrive on my trusty Sportster for the Wheels for Autism ride. There must be 500 bikes in the piazza, and I'm blown away by the diversity. I've never seen so many different brands and styles in one place: Camo Gold Wing? Check. Custom Hayabusa? Check. Can-Am Spyder? Check. Skull-laden Fat Boy? Check, check, check. As I walk around snapping pictures of men in kilts and girls in pink leathers, I'm stunned by the multitude of languages and accents drifting through the crowd. There are riders here from South Africa, Amsterdam, Lebanon, Argentina and the Ukraine, all mingling like the best of friends, brought together by the brotherhood of goodwill and two wheels.

"I've been a biker for a long time, honey," says Floridian Ricky Landrum, a gruff-talking, long-time expat, brought to the Middle East because he's in the oil business, but here at Bike Week to feel part of a family. "People here are from damn near every place in the world, but when we're on our bikes, we're all brothers and sisters."

I fall in line with the hundreds of motorcycles departing Festival City for a long, flat loop around the otherworldly metropolis of Dubai. We cross the creek and pass the old gold and spice bazaars that first spawned a hunger for wealth in Dubai; pass the fish market where men have haggled over the price of shrimp and swordfish for centuries; pass the stunning, Jetsons-esque skyline and towering Burj Dubai; pass the touristy beaches, the camel racetrack and the world's largest shopping mall; and finally back to Dubai Creek and Bike Week, where I grab a hookah pipe and fall into the nearest bean bag.

Deep Purple is on tonight's program, and "Smoke on the Water" rocks the house just as hard as it did in the '70s. Vintage rock guitar riffs and motorcycle rallies just belong together, like pizza and beer, and hot dogs and buns.

Maybe there are a few things I miss about the big motorcycle events in the States, but it's certainly not camping out in cow pastures or coleslaw wresting. Just like visiting Dubai, being present at the birth of the Middle East's first Bike Week is unforgettable. I mean, here I am, an American motorcyclist in the middle of the Arabian Desert, riding bikes and rocking out with 20,000 strangers from 100 different countries-and feeling right at home.

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By Jamie Elvidge
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