Safiya Alsayegh, cycling needs heroines
Young pioneer, young revolutionary, interview with the cyclist-symbol of UAE Team ADQ
“I always saw myself on the bike, the image of my first rides with four wheels is still etched in my mind. I was less than 4 years old and cycling wasn’t very popular in the UAE…. Actually, women’s cycling was nonexistent.” The story of Safiya Alsayegh begins with this romantic overture: it’s the story of a pioneer, a young contemporary pioneer.
Twenty-one years ago, an unexpected revolutionary blossomed from the UAE’s cycling desert: a girl capable of marking and changing the relationship between an entire nation and two wheels. It’s the atypical journey of Safiya Alsayegh, the current face-manifesto of UAE Team ADQ. It’s the disruptive force of her passion, capable of modifying paradigms and customs, traditions and history, stereotypes and taboos.
It all began thanks to an old bicycle and a deep paternal bond. Now everything continues to revolve around cycling, in a pro career that under the arid Abu Dhabi sun seemed an almost utopian mission. But over the past seven years, this impossible climb has turned into continental medals, international racing, and a legacy in the making.
“When I was young, I tried almost every sport. I was particularly good at swimming, I even achieved relevant results at the national level, but I had to give up due to the absence of real competitions. I switched to athletics and, thanks to one of my teammates, discovered cycling. I immediately asked my father for a bike, and I found myself cycling with a second-hand city bike by his side. It was the second bike in my life. In the beginning, I experienced cycling as a way to connect with my father and to nurture our bond: we’d take 10 kms rides around the neighborhood and talk about everything. Then I noticed on social media that a friend of mine was training with the national team, the only women’s team in the whole country, and I decided to join her. At the time I knew very little about this sport, I even wanted to participate in the first race with my city bike…. Fortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.”
Safiya’s narrative manages to be simultaneously gentle and mature, brave and shy, highlighting a personality structured between sweetness, strength and awareness. Because it’s not easy to be Safiya, it’s not easy to be an innovator. You need a key factor, reveals this former national champion athlete, Arab gold medalist and bronze medalist in the Asian Championships: the family factor. Because paternal and maternal support can lead to individual and generational development, to a cosmopolitan process of women’s empowerment, to the heavy, yet fundamental status of icon.
“My father played for the UAE national football team and as a great sportsman he always supported my dream. His only concern was my school results, which even improved after I started cycling. He always told me: if this sport is your passion, fight and go for it. He’s a daily source of inspiration, while my mother tends to stay behind the scenes, but she has always supported me. I didn’t think I could inspire anyone, but now many girls look up to me and I want to show them the best version of myself. I want to communicate virtuous messages. It’s a strange condition, I feel privileged and somehow blessed, but also under pressure and with great responsibilities. Cycling is still a pleasure, but the more I go on, the more I realize that I’ve a relevant role, that I’m representing my country and its ongoing evolution, that I’m marking a new path for so many girls. Sometimes I feel like I’m the face of UAE Team ADQ – I’m proud to be able to carry these letters around the world, to show the varied colors of my land, as well as to spread the word of women’s cycling. I believe that our sport needs heroines.”
Safiya smiles overlooking the Persian Gulf, listing the unimaginable places she has managed to explore through her own legs and dedication. From flat vistas to the epic European peaks, from quick rides around her district to last season’s races in ten different countries… This Graphic Design student seems simultaneously student and teacher of life, rhyming in her reasoning sports and society, false stereotypes and female progress, and providing an unexpected UAE portrait.
“Western thinking is often the product of preconceptions; it’s the result of cognitive paradigms that are now obsolete. My country has changed and is continuing to change. It has become open and tolerant. What we are doing with UAE Team ADQ is crucial: we’re able to show the world a different and real perspective on the current situation of our country. Fifty percent of our government representatives are required to be female, and so many women hold important institutional roles even at the sports level. Year after year, opportunities are increasing for us. One of the few things I dislike about my country is the absence of mountains…. I’m not used to the legendary climbs of European cycling – that’s why I struggled and suffered so much in the last World Championships, but I’m training a lot on European soil and I’ll ride better in the future.”
And Safiya’s future will be both challenging and fascinating – a continuation of a personal and collective evolution, shaped by her words and deeds. “If I see people interested in my life, I like to connect with them and share as much as I can,” sums up this wise 21-year-old, “UAE Team ADQ is the perfect platform for the ideas I want to spread. Now I want to improve my results: my biggest goals are an Olympic participation and a stage race victory. In the meantime, I’ll continue to meet new people, new cultures and new landscapes, create graphic design projects dedicated to cycling, and mark a new path for both women and my country.”
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