According to Youcef Reguigui, it's only natural that he has become one of the most successful African riders cycling has ever seen. “I come from Blida and it's a city on wheels: cycles, motorbikes or rally cars,” the 30-year-old Algerian champ tells us on the roads of the first Saudi Tour. The winner of the 2019 African Games, currently riding for the Malaysian UCI Continental Team Terengganu Inc. TSG Cycling Team after several years with UCI WorldTeam Dimension Data (now NTT Pro Cycling Team) finished 4th overall in Saudi Arabia.
We sat with him to discuss his journey through pro cycling, including two years at the UCI World Cycling Centre.
How do you feel riding these new roads in Saudi Arabia?
It's a privilege to participate in this first edition of the Saudi Tour and I hope the event will keep improving in the coming years. It's a beautiful race and it can be an inspiration for other Arab Federations, in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco... In the Emirates, they've already organised major UCI WorldTour events. We also need to make room for Arab riders so they can improve. It's complicated, because we don't have the same climate as Europe and we missed something on the development side, but it's moving forward.
How did you start making your way to pro cycling?
First I was racing with small clubs in Algeria, and then I was spotted at the Arab Cycling Championships held in Syria (2009). It got me a spot in the World Cycling Centre Africa, with “JP” (Jean-Pierre van Zyl, the head of the programme). I stayed there for a little less than a year, in South Africa, and then I joined the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle, at 19 years old. That was my doorway to professionalism.
Did you already have cycling experience in Europe?
I had done some races, mainly criteriums in France and Belgium as a stagiaire with the Algerian national selection. I had also raced the Mediterranean Games in Pescara. I had a general idea of what racing in Europe was. I used to train and prepare myself well ahead of each trip.
“Jean-Jacques Henry is the best coach I ever had”
How did you feel, moving to Switzerland at such a young age?
It wasn't that far, about two hours by plane. But it was different, another way of life than what I was used to in Algeria, where I had my family, my friends... When I left Algeria to go to Switzerland, I felt down for about a week, maybe ten days. I was homesick. And then it was ok. I was living at the residency Mon Séjour, where Marlyse, the landlady, was like a second mother. She was always there for me when I had a crash or felt bad and I really want to thank her.
What did you discover in this new environment?
I was really happy in Switzerland. At the Centre, everything is well organised for us. We had races every weekend and we participated in the UCI Nations' Cup. My first coach was Michel Thèze and then he retired and I worked with Jean-Jacques Henry. It's a beautiful memory for me. He's the best coach I ever had.
What did he bring you?
First of all, he gave me a great training programme. He has a nice character and he treats the riders as friends, or even like they were his children. We had a respectful relationship and everything was well organised around training, dietetics, racing... These are good memories. In his first year at the Centre, I won the Tour of Azerbaijan.
“I've had so many different experiences”
At that time, how did you envisage your career?
When I started working with Jean-Jacques, he had a programme for the whole team, about a dozen of us, and then a specific programme for myself, with extra training. I was always doing more. He had me pass some tests and he was saying I had what it takes to turn professional. It motivated me and I worked as hard as I could until I got that contract that made me so happy and proud.
Your career has brought you to many places in Africa, Europe, Asia...
I like to discover new things. If you stay three or four years with the same entourage, it's not necessarily a good thing. You need changes in your environment and in the people you work with. It's not that I have a problem with them but I like changes, it's a good thing!
The last big change in your career is your move to Terengganu Cycling Team a year ago – things immediately clicked for you!
2019 has been one of the best years in my career. I've had so many different experiences. 2018, with Sovac - Natura 4Ever, was also a very beautiful year. I won 14 races, I was one of the riders with most UCI victories that year. With Terengganu, we won the UCI Asia Tour... And my victory at the 2019 African Games was very special. It had been almost 30 years since an Algerian rider had won it, with Khelil Haddad in 1991. I was one year old! He sent me a message and I want to thank him. It made me proud.