First Afghan Women's Cycling Team Sets Sights on Rio
There’s nothing like hopping on your bike for a sweat-drenching trek through the woods, cruise in the park, or ride around town—but would you risk your life for your two-wheeler? For women in Afghanistan, riding a bike is one step above committing a crime, but Shannon Galpin, founder of the nonprofit Mountain2Mountain and the 2013 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, is hoping to change that.
When Galpin, a 38-year-old former Pilates instructor from Breckenridge, CO, learned about the war-torn country's first-ever national women's cycling team last fall, she immediately jumped at the chance to help out—after all, she became the first woman to mountain bike through the Afghan countryside in 2009.
So she’s helping supply the 45 young, budding road riders (they're all so new to cycling, they haven't even learned to clip in yet) with nutrition products, apparel, and gear, including 10 to 12 Liv/Giant road bikes this year. Galpin’s also making trips to Afghanistan to help local Coach Seddiq teach some skills to the 16- to 20-something-year-olds and to film “Afghan Cycles,” a 20-minute documentary about the women’s team directed by Sarah Menzies (check out their cool Kickstarter page).
Just hours before boarding a plane for her twelfth trip to Afghanistan, Galpin chatted with us about her mission and the girls’ chance to qualify for 2016 Olympics in Rio.
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SHAPE: What brought you to Afghanistan in the first place?
SHANNON GALPIN (SG): It's one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. I was unhappy with how I saw the conversation in Afghanistan developing between the Americans and Afghans, and I really wanted to change everyone's perception. At that point, I had worked around the world and I knew that I was really good at creating something from nothing, so I thought why don’t I? It was pretty much an overnight decision to launch Mountain2Mountain there six years ago.
SHAPE: Why biking?
SG: When I first started traveling to Afghanistan five years ago, there were no women biking. It wasn't even a thought. The bike came into play because I’m a mountain biker and it’s an incredibly beautiful country. I decided to push the gender barrier and ride a bike as a foreign woman to challenge the idea of what it is to be a woman. My actions ended up sparking conversations along the way. It was a great icebreaker, so I continued to ride every trip.
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SHAPE: Did you have a hand in forming the national women's cycling team?
SG: No, and that’s the beauty of it—it’s fully Afghan-driven; it's not a Western project. I think they started about a year ago. My involvement is to look at what these women are doing and support them, as well as the men’s team. The stronger the men’s team is, the stronger the women’s team will be because they need the men’s team to help them break through. The women’s team is risking much more—this is a major taboo in their culture—but the men's team is paving the way for a brand new sport in a country that's all about soccer.
SHAPE: How has the Afghan community received the female cycling team so far?
SG: There’s no formal ban, but it's just that so few women ride. There’s too little encouragement and it’s culturally not acceptable: Riding a bike is essentially one step above the morality crimes that women are jailed for. It's worse than driving a car, which women have only just started to learn to do in Afghanistan. This is why we're planning to film these women in “Afghan Cycles.” We want to capture the back story of their motivation. They are literally risking their lives to ride a bike—something we take for granted. The women on this cycling team are willing to put themselves out there—on the frontlines—to start a movement. They will bear the weight of what is currently viewed as obscene, controversial, and offensive. These girls are trailblazers. They're braver than anyone I know. The least that we can do is support them.
SHAPE: How will going to the 2016 Olympics change things?
SG: If they go to the Olympics, it would be a very big thing in Afghanistan. There is such nationalistic pride for your athlete. Your whole country rallies behind you. It does not mean that it would suddenly become acceptable, but it's a starting point, for sure.
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SHAPE: Think they have a real shot?
SG: It is a really short period of time to get ready, but there is a lot of support coming together right now from Mountain2Mountain, my connections in Colorado, and the International Olympic Committee. People from all over—including those who have worked with Olympians as well as Olympians themselves—are moved by these girls and starting to find ways to get more involved.
SHAPE: How can SHAPE readers help?
SG: We're trying to raise money (donate here!) to support the racing and traveling costs. But I understand that it may be a lot easier to collect gear than to raise donations. If you would like to donate cycling items—bikes (road and mountain), cleats/pedals combinations, shoes, indoor trainers, air pumps (standing and portable), rain jackets, sunglasses and helmets—please ship them to P.O. Box 7399, Breckenridge, CO 80424. That would be a huge help, thank you!
Photo credit: Claudia Lopez