The UAE’s fastest man on two wheels, Yousif Mirza, talks about hope, expectation and national pride ahead of his Olympic debut in the men’s road race
When Yousif Mirza finished second in a prestigious road race in Thailand in February 2015, he wasn’t just celebrating winning the UAE’s first medal in the Asian Cycling Championships. Significantly, the result confirmed him as the first Emirati cyclist since Ali Sayed Darwish in 1996 to qualify for the Olympic Games.
Securing qualification at such an early stage helped Mirza plan his schedule and gear his training towards Rio 2016 and, with the generous support of the UAE’s National Cycling Federation and National Olympic Committee, he was able to leave his job at the Ministry of Interior at Abu Dhabi airport to train full-time as a professional cyclist.
“Our journey started back in 2014 with the aim of qualifying for the Olympics, and it was with this goal in mind that we participated in every competition over the last couple of years until we achieved it,” says Mirza, who was able to test himself against the world’s best on home soil in the 2015 Abu Dhabi Tour and the 2016 Dubai Tour.
I see my qualification for the Olympics as the first stepping stone to the world stage
“My dream of qualifying for the Olympics has finally come true. I was the first athlete to make it to the Olympics, a year and a half before the event, and this in itself gave me the perfect opportunity to prepare well for my participation at the Games.”
Preparation has not always been smooth, however. In May 2015, Mirza’s Olympic dream was almost over before it started, after he was involved in a career-threatening motorcycle accident in Jumeirah that caused broken bones and required surgery.
But less than a month later Mirza was back in the saddle, focusing on his ultimate goal. And when he lines up on Saturday alongside Tour de France winners such as Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali, he will do so as a man who has proved he can hold his own on the big stage.
“I am at my best when I compete, and I boast as much experience as anyone else,” says Mirza. “The National Federation and the National Olympic Committee provided me with everything I needed during my preparations – it was perfect. I trained in fantastic conditions, and my self-confidence is high as I head to the Olympics.”
It is vital that Mirza is fully fit and confident approaching Rio, because the 241.5km course for the road race in Copacabana is regarded as a challenging one, with some particularly tough climbs. But after completing a pre-Games training camp in Portugal with coach Vitor Carvalho, Mirza has acclimatised in the “Marvellous City”, and is excited to be the first of the 13-strong Emirati Olympic team to sport the UAE colours.
I am at my best when I compete, and I boast as much experience as anyone else
“I will do my very best to honour my country and fly the Emirati flag high,” he adds. “If I don’t win a medal, I’ll at least try to finish among the leaders.”
The four-time national champion has become a role model in the UAE, and while concentrating on his competition Mirza has also kept an eye on the future, with a view to raising the profile of cycling in the UAE and inspiring the Emirate’s next generation of Olympians.
“We have excellent cyclists in the national team, and they have a promising future ahead of them,” says Mirza. “I see my qualification for the Olympics as the first stepping stone to the world stage. I am sure that my team-mates will continue on the same path until we achieve an Olympic medal in cycling.”
Yousif Mirza will be competing in the men’s road race on Saturday, August 6, starting at 4.30pm (UAE time)