This article was originally published in Issue 116 - Mind.
When I scanned through the start list of the 2022 World Championships women’s road race, Safiya al Sayegh’s name stuck out. She was the lone rider representing the United Arab Emirates, a first. In fact, she was the only Arab rider in the race, dressed in leg warmers, arm warmers and a headscarf to respect her religious beliefs.
Al Sayegh didn’t finish the tough, attritional race around the roads of Wollongong, Australia – only 78 out of the 130 starters did – but her participation in the event was groundbreaking nonetheless. She’s blazing a trail as the first Arab female pro cyclist in history, aiming to “break the bias” she tells me, and “be that example for others”.
The 21-year-old’s journey in cycling began when a shop near where she grew up in Dubai was offering discounts on second-hand bicycles. Her father took advantage of the two-for-one deal, buying one for himself and one for Safiya. The pair used to ride for ten kilometres around the local neighbourhood, often early in the morning or late at night, before the sun became really fierce and when the traffic on the roads had subsided. Al Sayegh had always liked sports, taking part in gymnastics and swimming growing up, but there were no swimming competitions for women above the age of 12 in the UAE. Cycling, however, was different.
“I heard that there was actually a competitive side to cycling in the country, which was interesting,” says Al Sayegh. “I never knew there were bike races anyway, even in general in the world, but I started to get more familiar with it. I saw on social media one of my friends joined the national team, as they were competing and scouting young people from schools that showed interest in cycling.”
Then just 16 years old, Al Sayegh had no idea that joining the national squad would be the start of her pathway to making history in the sport, and that six years later, she’d be part of the UAE’s very own Women’s WorldTour squad, UAE Team ADQ.
“Around two years ago, I started achieving bigger and bigger results and that was pushing my ambitions to want more in the sport. I was so happy to be offered a professional contract,” she says. “The team is helping to open up many doors for me to lead the way, I’m grateful for those opportunities.”
Al Sayegh’s signing for UAE Team ADQ is far from a tokenistic gesture, the 21-year old commanded the attention of the team with her results in recent seasons. A four-time national champion in the UAE and bronze medalist in the U23 Asian Cycling Championships, Al Sayegh has proven she has potential in the sport.
“This year is the best season I’ve ever had, and my biggest achievement is the Asian bronze medal,” she explains. “I’m very glad to have achieved lots of gold medals for the UAE on the Arab level and in the UAE Championships ever since they happened, but I’m most happy to win a first Asian medal for the UAE women’s team. I want to keep fighting for firsts for my country.
“The fact that it’s a WorldTour team means a lot to me, it’s a big step up and to be offered to be the first Emarati rider in the WorldTour itself is a big thing for me. I think I can add my name into the history of the sport in the country,” she says. “I see it as a door to improve and lead the way for others. It’s a big responsibility to represent the country in this team but I hope to be a good role model.”
It is a well-known fact that it hasn’t always been easy for women in the UAE to compete in sports, with the country often coming in for criticism when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality. According to Human Rights Watch, the country performs better on metrics of gender equality than many other states in the Gulf region, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Neither the men’s nor women’s UAE teams have been immune from criticisms of ‘sportswashing’ by an oil-rich nation.
I ask Al Sayegh if she’s faced any challenges pursuing her career as a professional cyclist. “I’ve seen with lots of people I’ve interacted with from Europe, they believe that it’s a big step to become an athlete here or go public here. But especially in the UAE and lots of other Arab countries now actually, women are given nearly the same opportunity as men in sports, in the government and everywhere. Lots of people still don’t know much about what this country’s opening up to.
“I always like that people, through me, get to understand the revolution the country’s going through and all the changes. We’re capable of doing the sport, we’re actually supported by the government. The Sheikh of Dubai hosts a couple of races each year to support amateurs and professionals, so that itself is a big step to help and motivate lots of riders and girls to ride and compete.”
Al Sayegh argues there’s a misconception in the Western world when it comes to perceptions of some Arab countries. “If I were in the West, seeing how the Western media spread things and how little awareness of the Arab side the West has through social media, maybe I would think the same. It’s not until you actually visit the place that you get to know how it actually is.”
Still, Al Sayegh admits that it hasn’t been completely plain sailing making the step up to the professional peloton, given how much the racing style and terrain changes when competing in Europe.
“The World Championships was my first race against all the big riders and it was very challenging,” she explains. “It was a great experience to get to the level and know what I’ll be facing for the coming year. Riding those types of races in Europe definitely is very different, especially because we have quite a flat country. The mountains are quite far from my house, so I can’t do much elevation training. That’s definitely a goal to improve and work on to be able to race well in Europe.”
Al Sayegh lives in the centre of Dubai, and explains that she’s surrounded by highways, many of which are illegal to cycle on. However, she notes that the country is increasing its cycling infrastructure with bike paths and circuits, specifically an ultra desert track which spans more than 100 kilometres. Most of her training sessions involve an hour’s drive out of the city before the riding can get underway.
“We do have smaller roads, but it’s not the best to ride on them,” says Al Sayegh. “You can, but then it’s your own risk of someone coming out from somewhere and crashing into you. When I ride on the roads outside, we normally have a backup car, just to make things a bit safer.”
Juggling a university degree in graphic design with her training has also been an obstacle for Al Sayegh in recent seasons. “We’re never 100 per cent sure that we will be able to continue with sports for as long as we hope, so I always have to have a backup plan and I use university as that backup plan, to reassure myself that I will have bigger chances to get a job and have a safer future,” she explains.
“It’s about prioritising every now and then, but to try to balance cycling and studying is quite hard. I’ve got one and a half years left and then I can really focus on cycling one hundred per cent.”
Al Sayegh explains that she feels a responsibility to help more women get into cycling in the UAE, and she is instrumental in creating initiatives to ensure that access to training sessions and bikes is improved. “UAE Team ADQ currently are offering the UCI training certificate course to women in the UAE to help them become coaches. We also do ladies’ rides to motivate more ladies to ride in a group; maybe they feel more empowered that way.”
The UAE Team ADQ rider’s social media presence is an important avenue to share her experience as a professional rider, too. On her Instagram account, she documents training and racing in the UAE, aiming to prove to others that it is possible.
“I love sharing my experience on the bike as I love the sport itself. I love sharing passion and showing it through my posts,” says Al Sayegh. “I never originally intended to inspire or motivate anybody, but along the way, I got quite a lot of messages and people saying I inspire them and they like seeing the content I post. So that only motivated me to post more and try to be creative.”
But despite all of the responsibilities and attention that comes with being the first Arab rider in the women’s WorldTour, Al Sayegh is careful not to lose sight of her original aims and goals. “I want to achieve the Asian Champion title, to be the champion of my continent and work higher from there” she says. “I’d really like to qualify for the Olympics, which is a challenging goal and definitely to do more European races and try to compete on that level.”
Above all, Safiya is just a person who loves riding her bicycle. Along her journey so far, she’s broken down barriers, inspired generations of women and has never been afraid to venture into the unknown. All of this is a byproduct of her love for cycling, and it’s that which she will hold onto wherever her career takes her next.
“I have high expectations of myself and doing this is a big responsibility, but I want to represent my country in the best way possible,” she says.
“I love riding my bike, and I want to empower more people to do that with me.”