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KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — After civil war and a 19-year state of emergency, Algeria celebrates its first professional cyclist this season. Youcef Reguigui (MTN-Qhubeka) is racing this week in the VDK Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde and dreams of something even bigger.
Standing in Oudenaarde’s main square on Wednesday, 23-year-old Reguigui took it all in: the city hall, the cycling fans, and the finishing village of Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Algeria’s first professional since gaining independence from France in 1962, he lowered his sunglasses and looked down at his yellow bike, adorned with a black hand reaching up, a symbol of how the team and its sponsors are helping Africa.
“Cycling’s going better now in Algeria,” Reguigui told VeloNews. “For about 10 years, all sport stopped because of problems with terrorism. Now we have three or four pro Continental teams. [Algeria is home to four Continental teams -Ed.] There are many riders now, but they don’t have an easy way to get to Europe and turn to professional.
“My father raced in Europe when he was young, but he didn’t have a chance to race professional without a team like MTN-Qhubeka. I’ve got to thank them to be here in Oudenaarde, to have a chance to support Gerald Ciolek.”
Reguigui also thanked J.P. Van Zyl at the African Cycling Centre, the development center established by the sport’s governing body, the UCI, and its main hub in Switzerland. He spent three years there and raced several amateur races in Europe.
“We want to develop Africans for the classics, and I think he’s one that can handle it. … He’ll be one we can work on for the future; he’s one of the best Africans for these races,” MTN director Jens Zemke explained. “I know there’s a huge cycling scene in Algeria, but it’s a huge step for him to come here and leave his family behind. Also, with a different religion and Ramadan, not eating pig and beef, it’s also a challenge for a team to deal with it. It’s not other pros, where you just give them a bike and jersey, and off they go.”
It becomes even harder when an African faces one of the coldest springs in recent history. Reguigui has adjusting well, however. After his debut in Italy’s Trofeo Laigueglia, he headed north for the Belgian and Dutch races.
He rode well in the Handzame Classic, staying in the lead group nearly until the finish. Eritrean Jani Tewelde (MTN) abandoned in De Panne’s first leg yesterday, but Reguigui fought with the main group until 30 to 40 kilometers remaining.
“I want to progress this year. Maybe after one to two years I’ll have a good result. No, I’m sure I’ll get results,” Reguigui continued. “I want to race in the Tour de France, Milano-Sanremo, and Paris-Roubaix. I’m a one-day racer, so I dream of something like Roubaix and Flanders.”
First, however, Reguigui must make it to the finish in De Panne on Thursday, a task that is difficult on its own. He rode to the line in the groupetto on Thursday, 11:13 behind stage winner Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
“For them it’s a new world, especially in De Panne,” said Zemke. “It’s completely different than the U23 races; they are riding with Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen, all the big stars. They are happy just to stand on the start line. This will change; they also have jobs to do and a lot of work.”
Later in the season, Reguigui will compete in the Presidential Tour of Turkey and other one-day races. With more work and time, he will likely also become the first Algerian to race Flanders, Roubaix, and the Tour. For now, he continues to the third leg of De Panne.