Any sports/luxury motorcycle rider will tell you that there is little else that pumps up your adrenaline than straddling your bike, kicking the pedal and hearing the engine throttle to life, and while at it revving it for good measure. The ecstasy of the open road ahead; just you and your hog riding in the wind. That, true bikers say, is a thrill you wouldn’t trade for anything.
Life on the Corniche, when the weather allows it, or when the street lights come alive at night, can become quite a marvel — depending on how you look at it. The drone of powerful engines punctuates the air as speeding bikes whiz by, their riders deftly, and at times perilously, negotiating corners, or weaving through traffic. For a second there, you imagine the street has been transformed into a racing runway.
Welcome to Bikerville, Qatar.
The motorcycle culture has been an integral part of life in Qatar. In 1995, a small band of bike enthusiasts formed what is now known as the Qatar Motor Bike Club. Over the years, the club has grown into more than 200 members and actively participates at the Losail Circuit. Other riding groups have also emerged, consolidating a growing number of bikers in the country. There is the Harley Owners Group (HOG)-Qatar chapter and even a women riders club. Most importantly, Qatar has been a major fixture on the MotoBike Grand Prix circuit, and attracted renowned riders, including champion Valentino Rossi.
An indicator of the popularity and growth of this culture is the numerous motorcycle shops in Doha. Business is impressive. “Over the last couple of years, we have seen bike sales go up tremendously”, says Muhammad Tariq Qureshi, the sales supervisor at the Honda bike showroom on Salwa Road. “We get orders from expatriates and locals as well”.
Looking around the shop, one notices “Sold” tags on a number of bikes. “Black and red are the popular colours,” Qureshi adds. A 1,000 cc Honda bike will set your bank balance back by about QR 60,000.
Even the world revered Harley Davidson brand operates in town. With their huge tyres, unique body design and the history that tags them, Harleys are quite a statement. “Harleys are popular across the board,” says Mansour Ashour, a salesperson at the Harley Davidson shop in Doha who is also a bike enthusiast. “This is a brand that has existed for over a hundred years, so there’s definitely a sense of history and prestige. We also deal with popular biker merchandise like riding boots, T-shirts and hats.” On an average, the shop pushes close to 100 units per year.
Out of all this has emerged a hybrid sub-culture in Qatar—a cross between professionalism and the Skull & Bones hell-could-care less; a curious mix considering the stringent traffic rules in the country and the relatively conservative lifestyle here.
Ever been stuck in traffic, and suddenly this bike pulls up, its rider impatiently revving the engine? The lights of course won’t turn any redder, so you are stuck with him. Then just like that, he is gone. Like a wraith. Between the duration your car picks up from zero to twenty, he’s nowhere; just a tiny blur of furious red. Or maybe seen a group of bikers riding in formation down the road, black leather jackets, jeans et al?
“There are some lyrics to an old song that perfectly sums up a part of this lifestyle,” offers Mansour Ashour. “Ride with the wind to be free.” Freedom, it turns out, is at the heart of the biker lifestyle. “On any given weekend, we come together as a group and choose our course,” says Ashour. “Just riding and enjoying the camaraderie. We happen to have a lot in common. It’s like a brotherhood”.
Of course you wouldn’t immediately know it, but some of these riders, in their biker garb and anonymous in their helmets are individuals in the corporate world; successful people-lawyers, doctors, accountants who just happen to give in to their inner rebel now and then. For most, the weekend can’t roll by fast enough for them to climb out of their suits. “Riding to me is a hobby. You could even call it a way of life,” says Khan, an expatriate accountant in the city. “I get an immense thrill when I am out on the road, getting my mind free.”
This innocuous suggestion, however, contrasts sharply with long-held stereotypes that sit with the general public and motorists.
Try outsider, or rebel, even nuisance. “I have a problem with these loud bikes on the road,” complains Sara, a Doha resident. “The noise and the attitude are what I find hard to stand. It seems to me that they imagine they own the roads. I have been driving for a long time, and I will tell you, it’s always the same”.
“See, this is the thing,” counters Ashour, “people will always have their own perception and stereotypes concerning bikers. It’s ingrained in them, but I will tell you this: bikers are law-abiding, decent people. This is our lifestyle of choice. While at it, other motorists need to respect us on the road. I don’t find that happening on the roads today. I won’t say that there aren’t some extremes, but generally, we pretty much play by the rules”.
The main downside, of course is the risk involved in riding. Zipping at 200 k/ph, it would only take a simple misjudgement to send the bike flying in the air and certain death for the rider. Ironically, this offers a somewhat dark lure for some riders; a sense of invincibility. But the piper, most certainly, has to be paid. Over the years, there have been growing reports of bike accidents, almost all involving speeding motorbikes, with some proving fatal.
Taking a quick trip through posts left by bloggers regarding bike riding in Qatar, the sentiments are damning. “These riders have a death wish on them. They are jeopardising their lives as well as others,” rants one. “Some of them dress in jeans and a T-shirt. No protection at all,” adds another.
The debate and convictions will not ebb any time soon. Still, as an art, it’s quite a spectacle watching riders scoot down the street or rumble into town. At times, no matter how jaded you are, it’s hard not to get soaked in. It’s become part of life. Hopefully, some balance prevails.
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