Cartoonist Charles Schulz wrote, “Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.”
A group of women in the mountains of Afghanistan, who likely never read his strip, don’t agree.
Bike riding is taboo for Afghan women, considered a marker of promiscuity and ranking on the cultural offenses index somewhere between driving and being spotted with an unrelated man. That belief eliminates a sustainable means of travel and undermines women’s mobility, creating another obstacle to accessing education. Watch a new generation of cyclists race away from the ban.
In 2006, Shannon Galpin founded Mountain2Mountain, a nonprofit that connects American mountain communities with their geographic cousins abroad. The organization focuses particularly on women and children in conflict zones. She made her first trip to Afghanistan in 2008.
Galpin claims to be the first woman to ride a mountain bike through the Afghan countryside. Bending norms as a foreigner, she’s used her bike as an icebreaker with tribal elders in remote villages, and in bold fundraisers (she pedaled 140 miles across the Panjshir Valley, rough terrain with a 4,000 vertical foot drop).
Last year, on her 11th visit, Galpin met another cyclist who told her that an Afghan women’s national cycling team had been created. They practiced before dawn with the men’s cycling team coach, helmets atop headscarves and limbs fully covered.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Galpin, a former Pilates instructor from Colorado, told The New York Times. “I’d been in the most liberal areas of the country, and I’d never seen a little girl on a bike, let alone a grown woman.”
Inspired, she spent the past winter fundraising and returned to Afghanistan last month to distribute 40 duffel bags stuffed with tools, bike seats and jerseys. Liv/Giant, a brand focused on female cyclists, joined the effort, supplying new bicycles and another company, Giro, donated helmets and shoes.
Afghanistan has 45 licensed female cyclists, according to the International Cycling Union (ICU). Some participated in the Asian Cycling Championships last March, although four of them failed to finish. The riders hope to compete in the 2016 Olympics, but need to start earning points in the ICU nations ranking through bigger events like the Continental Championships and Women’s Road World Cup.
The women are also eligible for scholarships through the Olympic Solidarity Commission, which helps countries in need to develop their sports programs.
Galpin said, “They’re no different than women in Afghanistan who risk their lives to attend school or run for Parliament.” (Or who use paint and graffiti to express themselves.) “They know the only way to break the taboo is for other women to see them riding bikes.”
This goes beyond sending cyclists to the Olympics. It’s a way to shatter a standard that curtails women’s mobility. Bikes are affordable, sustainable, healthy. They allow riders to travel independently, without guardians and absent a mass transit structure.
Galpin is creating a documentary about the team titled “Afghan Cycles“, and the cyclists remain eager to speak publicly about their team, despite having received death threats.
The women need money to train, to travel to races, and to hire coaches. Sound like a project you’d like to support? Donations can be made at the Mountain2Mountain website.
Said Galpin, “Once they’ve all finished a race, they can start trying to win one.’”
Images from Afghan Cycles Facebook page