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The Afghan Women’s Cycling Team

Mountain2Mountain Founder Shannon Galpin with the Afghanistan National Women's Cycling Team Photo: Deni Bechard

Mountain2Mountain Founder Shannon Galpin with the Afghanistan National Women’s Cycling Team Photo: Deni Bechard

 

 

They’ve been run off the road, hit by vehicles, had stones thrown at them, slingshot and verbal abuse vehemently spat in their way – they’re the bravest cyclists in the world and by far the most inspiring.

Meet the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team.

In one of the world’s most oppressive countries, where being a woman can sentence you to the most horrific of crimes and a lack of basic human rights, there are those daring to do something that no female in Afghanistan has done before. Something so simple, so commonplace in the western world, that many of us simply take it for granted. But along the most dangerous roads on the planet, these girls risk everything, to ride.

They’re breaking a long held taboo, but the girls don’t see themselves as trailblazers according to Shannon Galpin from nonprofit organisation Mountain2Mountain which supports the team and female riders in Afghanistan.

“They know what they’re doing is risky, they know they’re the first women to ride for Afghanistan, the first generation and that just doesn’t come without risk.”

“There isn’t that feeling when you speak with them that ‘we’re revolutionary, we’re going to change the world, we’re activists’,” Shannon tells Sportette from her home in Denver, Colorado having just returned from another trip in the war-torn country.

“They’re simply are taking advantage of the opportunity to try something new, to ride a bike, to be healthy and what comes through is this pure joy of riding.”

Shannon has been working in Afghanistan for six years and in 2012 her tyre tracks crossed with these extraordinary girls.

Shannon's journey and work in Afghanistan has been written into the book Mountain to Mountain.

Shannon’s journey and work in Afghanistan has been written into the book Mountain to Mountain.

“They know what they’re doing is risky, they know they’re the first women to ride for Afghanistan, the first generation and that just doesn’t come without risk.”

Since then Mountain2Mountain has supported the girls, organising vital equipment and training resources to be transported to Afghanistan as well as financial assistance and sponsorships with women’s cycling brand LivGiant.

“It started with the simple fix of, alright, I can get equipment, so I organized gear to be donated and also secured the partnership with Liv,”

“LivGiant has given us around 60 bikes as well as close to $50,000 worth of helmets, clothing, tyres, tubes, everything.”

“But then I bought them all steel commuter bikes as well, which are really heavy and sturdy that they could take home and, if their families would allow, then they could ride, but it’s up to you and your families to assess your safety.”

As encouraging as it is to see this kind of progression fighting through in a country of such oppression, the organisation knows it has to take small steps.

“My biggest fear is that a foreign face would put the team at risk so I‘m always assessing that and talking that over with coach and the team,” Shannon tells Sportette.

“It was started by Afghans it needs to be viewed as an Afghan team. They’re taking these risks, they’re assessing where they want to go with this. My job is to support them and find them resources, mitigate the risks and provide opportunities.”

Shannon riding and coaching the Afghan Women's Cycling Team. Photo: Deni Bechard

Shannon riding and coaching the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team. Photo: Deni Bechard

It all started when the daughter of the national men’s team coach Abdul Sediq wanted to ride. She started to train with the men’s team and more women wanted to be involved. Coach Sediq would meet with their families first, ensuring they had full support and approval before joining.  The team is based in the progressive capital of Kabul and when they ride, coach Sediq drives a support vehicle to protect his team.

The sport has allowed these women simple freedoms many of their peers could only dream of. They travel overseas to compete and next year will head to Italy for a two week training camp, in a program organised by Mountain2Mountain.

The organisation’s goal is to support other women who want to ride both competitively or as a basic mode of transport.

Shannon riding through Afghanistan. Photo: Deni Bechard

Shannon riding through Afghanistan. Photo: Deni Bechard

“There are little pockets of girls, which I hope are indicative of what will happen in the future, where there is a group of girls in Kabul and a group of girls in Bamiyan completely unaware of the team, that just started to learn to ride bikes.“

“One girl knew how to ride and taught others. We then help the girls with equipment and any other support they need.”

Shannon believes there are now around 80 women in Afghanistan who have learned to ride and are slowly breaking down those barriers. While such a taboo seems archaic given the current freedoms women in the western world enjoy, Shannon’s quick to point out western women fought the same battle at one stage.

“When women started riding bikes about over 100 years ago they were labelled immoral, they were labelled promiscuous, they feared society was going to change for the worse because women were riding bikes,” Shannon recalls.

“It was always a precursor to a women’s rights movement and I find that fascinating because whether or not the same thing will happen here in Afghanistan, it shows the power of a bike not only as a symbol of freedom but also as a literal tool for freedom.”

Shannon’s own journey through Afghanistan has seen her challenge many of these gender barriers. She vividly documents her story including the thrill and fear she felt the first time she dared to take to the Afghan landscape on two wheels in her new book Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan.

Since then, Shannon has rode on every trip to Afghanistan. Each rotation of her foot on the pedal, a crowd would gather, intrigued by the sight of a woman riding. It’d become the catalyst for conversation with locals – the men in particular.

Shannon’s nationality often acted as a gender armour. She was seen as foreign before female.

“That has played into my being able to colour outside of the lines of gender barriers. I am very aware of what I’m able to get away with I wouldn’t have been able to get away with as an Afghan woman,” Shannon admits.

Shannon's rides in Afghanistan have been the catalyst for many conversations with locals. Photo: Deni Bechard.

Shannon’s rides in Afghanistan have been the catalyst for many conversations with locals. Photo: Deni Bechard.

“I’ve felt like if I can do that as a foreign woman and they can see that a woman is doing this, does that begin to change the perspective of Afghan women doing this?”

“If it becomes normal seeing a girl ride a bike, does it matter what nationality she is?”

The current state of the country does have Shannon fearing a rollback of some of the gains made in women’s rights but she also can see that the potential of two wheels here is infinite.

“These women are going to normalise bikes thought the sport of cycling for the rest of the country. Young girls could eventually ride bikes to school and midwives could ride bikes and access more patients and save more lives. Women can use bikes as a vehicles to combat gender violence and have a safe mode of transformation.”

Cycling in Afghanistan isn’t about a race, it’s more than a means of exercise, more than a mode of transport. Riding is change. Riding is freedom.

Mountain2Mountain continues to support women cyclists all over Afghanistan and hopes to grow their reach to other women repressive countries. A documentary is currently being made to tell the incredible stories of the girls riding in the Afghan National Team and Shannon’s fascinating book on her journey and work in Afghanistan has just recently been released.

 

 

 

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