As news posted this weekend of two members of the Afghan National Cycling Team taking the podium at their first race in Europe, I found myself battling mixed emotions. On one hand I was elated that the girls had done so well, Massouma and her sister Zahra had taken 2nd and 3rd at a world qualifier race in Albi, France. This is a major achievement for these two young women, and for Afghanistan as a whole. This has never happened before, and was the first race that Afghan women had taken part in in Europe.
On the other hand, two members of the team ran away in France. They are fine, and I am in contact with them, but its a telling part of how difficult life still is in Afghanistan. Several members of the men’s national team left Afghanistan as refugees and are now living in Europe, applying for asylum. My conflicted emotions are tied not to the girls success, that’s is something to cheer loudly about, but to the continued barriers that surround their progress. The continued corruption of the Afghan Cycling Federation, the confusion and lack of leadership within the Afghan Olympic Committee, the corruption and abuse by Coach Seddiqi, and even with some of the French Embassy that supported the girls but refused to listen to realities of the situation for the girls.
One of the girls that took the podium was Massouma Alizada, a young woman I first met in the spring of 2013 during my first trip to support the team. She was a barely a novice, she could ride a bike, but not in a straight line, and had the unfortunate habit of slowing down her bike by dragging her feet due to the lack of brakes on her oversized, rusted out bike. I lived in fear of her crashing.
After that ride, during each visit for the next three years, I trained with the girls in Kabul and outside of Kabul on the highways. Liv Cycling donated bikes for the girls to train and race on, allowing Massouma and the others learned to brake and to shift properly with functional equipment. Each visit Massouma in particular got stronger and more determined, after one strenuous ride I dubbed her Queen of the Mountain. Her sister, Zahra, joined the team and soon it was apparent on a training ride to Paghman that they were serious about cycling. In 2014 I brought the team to Bamiyan for a training camp – the first time we worked seriously about handling skills and riding together as a team. It was also their longest ride they’d ever done, riding on the smooth highway to Band e Amir was a true joy as very little traffic uses this road and its very safe in comparison to the rest of Afghanistan.
We created the original black and blue Strength in Numbers jerseys with the design of a bike mandala in on the front as their first unified jersey and one that connected them to the cycling world around the world that was watching and supporting them from afar! We chose the color scheme based on the bluebird blue of the burqa. We then created an Afghan inspired version in the colors of the Afghan flag as their national jersey, which we were thrilled to see Massouma and Zahra wearing in France.
It has been a joy to support this team, to watch them grow as women and as cyclists. Massouma is now teaching other girls to ride as a coach at the German school in Kabul. The ripple effect of these barrier-breaking girls is moving forward as more and more girls realize that they too can ride a bike.
Massouma and her sister have qualified for a world championship race in Australia. We’ll be cheering them on!
A huge thanks is necessary to Liv Cycling, Hogan Lovells, PrimalWear, Osprey Packs, Skratch Labs, Pedros, and many many other individuals that have supported this team along the way over the past three years, allowing Massouma and Zahra to get to a point that they could compete against Europeans. After a year of corruption and setbacks, THIS is what our work is all about. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.