Sports UAE cyclist wants to ‘battle with the best’: Safiya Al-Sayegh’s historic road to Paris Olympics

Safiya Al-Sayegh is accustomed to being first. The American University of Dubai student has emerged as the UAE’s most exciting young cycling talent in recent years, having won the UAE National Cycling Championships in 2022 and 2023.

Alongside her studies, she is now forging a career as the first Emirati woman to become a professional cyclist, racing for UAE Team ADQ.

This summer, Al-Sayegh will record her most significant first to date. In Paris, the home of her sport’s most iconic race, the Tour de France, the 22-year-old is set to become the first female cyclist from the UAE to compete in the Olympics.

Her road to the starting line has certainly been one less cycled. From teenage bike rides with her father, Al-Sayegh has grafted her way through years of grueling training sessions and exhausting races to earn her place in Paris.

“It has been on my list of career goals so to achieve it will be special,” Al-Sayegh told Arab News. “As an Arab cyclist, just qualifying for the Olympics is a big thing because not many have done so and as an Emirati woman, I’m the first.

“Before there was not a clear pathway for female cyclists but as the years have rolled by, we now have our first professional team here in the region and we are working to carve out that way for others to follow.

“When I started cycling, the Olympics was just a dream, but in the past couple of years it became clearer that we now have the support to make that a reality.”

Al-Sayegh is still at the start of her professional cycling journey but will be embracing the challenge full-time after she graduates with an honors degree in graphic design from AUD in May. It has not been easy balancing sports and studies.

“I always wanted to continue with my degree because it’s important to have this backup plan for the future,” Al-Sayegh said. “As an athlete you never know when your career will come to an end.

“It is just sometimes quite tough. Some days I have to be in a classroom and then get home really quickly to change for a bike session. It feels like you are pulled in different directions and can be really crazy.

“AUD has been really supportive, though. They posted on social media after I qualified for the Olympics and people there have been behind me. Still, studying has for sure been a big challenge.”

An additional challenge right now for Al-Sayegh is navigating Ramadan, which has altered her training patterns. While the holy month requires major schedule changes, the young cyclist insists it also provides many favorable opportunities.

“Obviously you are training at a different time of the day and with different plans, but I don’t feel that it has physically been any tougher,” she said. “In the team we have a physiotherapist and a professional coach that I’m working with, which makes it easier to follow the right plan that ensures I do not burn myself out but also keep developing.

“It’s even more crucial to play with the nutritional game too, as you want to keep your performance levels as high as possible. If you don’t plan well, you could end up in really bad shape after Ramadan because you are generally not fueling as well.

“But honestly I really enjoy cycling during Ramadan, particularly from the community point of view because most people will train at the same time in the evening. I actually get to connect more with people and ride more with people than any other time of the year.”

Al Sayegh still trains most of the year in the UAE, with Al-Qudra, Nad Al-Sheba and Jebel Jais among her familiar routes. The infrastructure and profile of cycling in the Emirates has improved dramatically over the past decade. And in terms of attracting local riders to the sport, few have played a more important role than Yousif Mirza.

A pioneer of the peloton, Mirza was the first Emirati professional cyclist and competed in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“He inspired me to want to reach the Olympics,” Al-Sayegh said of Mirza. “The year he qualified in 2016 was the same year I started cycling so it was a really good point to start dreaming of the Olympics myself as a cyclist.

“For the first time, someone in the UAE could believe that competing at the Olympics in cycling was possible. That opened my eyes a bit more.

“Since then he has been really supportive of me too and he said recently he sees his own journey in what I’m doing at the moment in women’s cycling. He too has been first with many things he has achieved; he is a real role model for me.”

Al-Sayegh now finds herself in the same position, inspiring young girls in the UAE and beyond to take up cycling. She has a busy schedule ahead in the next few months, including defending her UAE national title in April and then competing in the Asian Road Cycling Championships in Kazakhstan from June 5 to 12.

There will also be time spent training with UAE Team ADQ’s Tour de France riders as she prepares for her debut Olympics. Al-Sayegh is under no illusions about the challenge in Paris.

“The first aim was to qualify but I don’t want to stop there,” she said. “I’d really like to go into Paris and be in that battle with the best; it is not right to say that I will win a medal over there because that’s not being real and honest.

“But I really hope to represent my country in the best way I can. I want to be in the race and be competitive, that’s what I’m working towards.”

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