All is calm on the Dubai-Al Ain E66 highway just off the Al Lisali desert. Except for a car or truck meandering languidly to or from Al Ain, things are quiet on the road that connects both the emirates.
Suddenly, the calm is shattered by the roar of a 450-cc four-stroke KTM SX-F and the low, menacing growl of an FC 250 Rockstar edition Husqvarna motorcycle.
But these are not your usual speedfreaks out to get their weekend high. They are the UAE’s very own all-women group of riders who call themselves the Grit Girls — a group of amateur and semi-professional women who have taken the path less ordinary: dirt bike riding.
The group, founded in 2018, is an open bike rider community that encourages women to experience the tremendous adrenalin rush of riding rough in the sands.
Every weekend, at least 20 women from all ages and different walks of life, including CEOs of companies, get together to pursue their passion for off-road motocross and enduro riding at the MX Ride Dubai, a favourite haunt of dirt bike riders next to the Inflight Dubai Indoor Skydiving Centre.
Centred around determination, inclusivity and fun, Grit Girls are a band of sisters who say riding gives them a feeling of liberation, accomplishment and joy that cannot be ‘explained in simple words.’
Over the weekend, Khaleej Times got up to speed with the group at the off-road race track. Since it was summer, the women had gathered there as early as 4.30am to beat the heat.
Martinette Van Vuuren, the founder of Grit Girls, said: “My first ride here was with a group of male riders, and as soon as I was done with that ride, I said to myself – you know what, I don’t enjoy this; they’re not waiting for me. I decided I want my group of friends to do this with,” she said.
Van Vuuren kickstarted the Grit Girls group by organising a ‘try day’ for interested women, with support from ANB Automobiles, distributors of KTM in UAE, in 2018. She soon launched the group by hosting over 30 new women riders for one-to-one basic training.
“We’ve grown a lot since then, and ride a lot more during winter. We’re more than a community, we bond together, and we forget all of the hardships we go through in our lives when we ride together,” said Van Vuuren, who is head of people and culture at a human resources tech company.
The group hosts try days for interested riders during the winter months. “Everyone and anyone is welcome to try,” she said.
Seasoned riders Michelle Christie and Sandra Lazar, who are recovering from non-riding related injuries, said though all women are welcome, basic balancing skills are necessary before getting on the dunes. “You need to be able to keep your balance, and you cannot ride bikes if you don’t know how to ride a bicycle,” she said.
A South African expat, Christie caught the riding bug from her daughter, who started riding at four. “She learned to ride from her father and would ride an electronic bike. She would ride pretty often, but lost interest over time,” she said. After just one try day with Grit Girls, she was hooked. “It’s fun and an excellent community,” she added.
Lazar, on the other hand, first experienced riding when she was three. “My father and uncle are into racing, and when I turned 40 a few years ago, my husband gifted me with a bike, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” she said. The Croatian expatriate is the CEO of a school group in the Northern Emirates.
The women said that while there aren’t many dirt tracks to practise on in the UAE, the abundance of desert sand makes it easier to gain riding proficiency. Italian expatriate Martina Mozzicato said: “I think it (the abundance of a desert) encourages the sport. It’s so easy to go out and find a spot. You don’t need to find a track, and anyone can go out and learn. That’s what helps widen our community.”
While Van Vuuren admits the sport is risky, they say the idea behind the group is to create a safe space for women who love to ride. “Safety is essential to us. We’ve all had our fair share of accidents, and we lost a very dear friend early this year,” said Van Vuuren. Roxi Franks, a 40-year-old South African expatriate, died in a dirt biking accident in Dubai on January 2 this year.
“We never think this will happen to us, until it happens. Since then, we’ve placed paramount importance on safety. We only do organised rides with our friends, and we’re doing it because we love it, and we want to keep doing it for a long time,” she added.
“Especially when it comes to boots and helmets, you cannot go for cheap stuff because that keeps your head safe,” explained Lazar.
British rider and competitive racer Faye Knowles said: “That’s the good thing about the whole community as everyone looks after each other. If anyone falls off, they’d come back and help each other. Riding with people you feel safe with is so important.”
Van Vuuren said: “It’s (perceptions) changing as more women are riding. Initially, we did have a lot of men who wouldn’t take us seriously, and they can be condescending, and we’d almost have to prove ourselves.”
British rider and competitive racer Elisha Dessurne said: “Sometimes, they (men) would be more encouraging if the guy (rider) is not good. That being said, girls act differently around a large group of men. The jokes are different, and the overall vibe is different. You can’t help but isolate yourself. It’s not intentional… but the more girls you get, the easier it is to operate.”
Rae Chase, another UK expatriate, said riding with people you feel safe with is what’s important. “Men ride very fast, and if I felt safe with them, I would ride with them in a group. However, it’s not about men, but the people we ride with that we need to trust. You need to trust who you are with and trust that they understand your ability and cater to your needs. It’s not about going as fast as possible.”
Some women in the group have also begun competing in motocross championships in the UAE with sponsorships from leading motorsport brands in the country. “It would be far more competitive if we have more women competing in the sport,” said Dessurne, who recently won third place in a DMX Dubai Championship.
While many couples in the group ride together, some also bring their children along for the ride. Take the case of Marie Diab, a German expatriate: “I began riding in February 2022. The bike was a Valentine’s Day gift from my husband. He gave me a different kind of roses,” she laughed.
Marie is often joined by her 20-month-old son Leo during her rides. “While it is too risky to take him out in the desert, he accompanies us on rides near our home. He has his baby carrier. We take our dogs along on the rides as well,” she said.
“I enjoy riding with the Girls Grit group. They are very welcoming, and I’m learning a lot from them. Learning from men is difficult as they are not as patient,” Diab added.
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