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Meet Safiya Alsayegh: The first UAE woman to ride the WorldTour

The 20-year-old is currently balancing life as a graphic design student and the challenges of a fledgling professional cycling career.

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Being the first is never easy, but Safiya Alsayegh is looking forward to it.

The 20-year-old will become the first rider from the UAE to race in the Women’s WorldTour this season after she signed for the new UAE Team ADQ, which took over the Alé BTC Ljubljana team last winter.

It is her first pro contract after previously racing for the national squad and the Dubai Police Cycling Team. She joins fellow Emirati Yousif Mirza — who rides for the men’s UAE Team Emirates and is someone Alsayegh looks up to — as the first riders from the UAE to race at WorldTour level.

“It is a big responsibility as many people already look up to me and are hoping for the best results from me,” Alsayegh told VeloNews. “That pushes me to strive and to work harder for best results for the UAE and for my team. I’m looking forward to it, I’m excited, and I have a lot of passion to get to the best level.”

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As well as being the first woman from her country to get a professional cycling contract, Alsayegh will be the only member of the WorldTour peloton to race wearing a hijab. In a sport that is still very much dominated by white western participants, Alsayegh will be an unusual sight in the bunch.

She already felt that slightly when she traveled to Spain for the team’s first training camp earlier this year, but she sees her step into the pro ranks as an opportunity to educate as well as a chance to inspire more Muslim women to ride and race.

“I’m out here to encourage more, especially Arab and Muslim, girls to ride a bike and join the pro level as well and to strive to reach it,” Alsayegh said. “I’m sure people do find it quite surprising and unusual. Even on the team camp, we were at a hotel and pro teams were staying at it. I did feel I was quite an unusual person because of the looks I was getting. But I aspire to let the world know more about my religion and my culture and maybe I get them to know about it.”

Cycling is a sport that is growing in popularity in the UAE, particularly thanks to the success of the men’s WorldTour squad.

Many women are taking to two wheels, but Alsayegh says that there’s still a dearth of female riders looking to race at the top level and she hopes to change that.

“We currently have quite a lot of Emirati girls [riding], but not many that are striving [to turn professional],” she said. “We have an amateur level in the country, and we have pro-level and lots of girls are staying in the band of the amateur level, and currently do not want to join the national team. We find it quite a struggle as we need more riders to race international races with the national team.

“I do hope to be an example for more girls to join onto the pro level and help us build a better base of pro riders here in the UAE.”

Balancing studies with racing

Alsayegh, who is the national road race and time trial champion, made her team debut at the Al Salam Elite Women’s Race this week and will go on to race the Asian Cycling Championships next month. She will continue to race in Asia for the first months of the season before heading to Europe to join the rest of her new teammates.

As well as learning how to be a professional rider, Alsayegh is trying to balance her training load with her studies. She’s currently halfway through a course on graphic design, a career she would like to get into when she’s no longer racing.

Concerns about neglecting her course work and finding the balancing act too overwhelming meant Alsayegh almost turned down the opportunity to race with UAE Team ADQ. However, the team was persistent, and she realized it was too good of a chance to miss out on.

“I was offered it and I was overwhelmed by the opportunity and the offer,” Alsayegh told VeloNews. “In the beginning, I took a step back and said, ‘I don’t think I can commit to this.’ It was already quite hard with the university, especially after my last travel to Egypt for the Arab championships. I was away for both a camp before the race and for the track and road championships. When I came back, there was just a whole pile of work from the university, and it was a disaster, as I wasn’t able to keep up on work over there.

“It actually traumatized me a bit. I was worried about the step, but hopefully, if races are short, and I don’t have to be away from university for too long of time, I will be able to balance out. They offered it again and they were like ‘we really want you on the team’ and I did not want to give up this opportunity. I’m happy I did agree.”

Balancing schoolwork and sport has been the tale of Alsayegh’s life so far. She was a very active child and took part in gymnastics, swimming, athletics, and more as a youngster.

In her early teens, she started riding mountain bikes with her father but was inspired to ride on the road with the national team after seeing a friend out with the squad. At the time, there were no cycling clubs that she could join so the national team was the only way she could race.

Her father was reluctant at first as he had given up his education early to pursue a career in football and he didn’t want his daughter to do the same. It was only when she proved that she could manage both that he relented.

“At that time, I was 14 and I was doing well with my studies, I was an A+ student, so he really didn’t want me to go down on that side,” she said. “But I promised to try out to balance my grades if I was to start cycling. Upon the end of the first semester, while I was cycling with the national team, my grades increased even more so he was very happy he saw there’s nothing wrong thing with doing sports and your studies.”

At 20, Alsayegh is still finding her feet as a rider, and she doesn’t yet know the extent of her capabilities. With the step up to pro-level, she hopes to find out the sort of rider she is.

“I’m currently still exploring and trying to discover what type of road rider I am best at,” Alsayegh said. “I do like to do a bit of track cycling as well. I do see that I’m more endurance-based than sprint-based. But I will try my best to innovate both sides of the endurance and the sprint to hopefully be an all-rounder in the future.”