“I feel like we've been dragged into the black hole in the universe and just left there. I feel like if I look in front of me, I don't see anything, but I see just, from the ground up to the sky, it's just dirt.”
Farid Noori is in a bleak mood. Currently studying for a master's degree at the University of Arkansas, he’s the founder of the Mountain Bike Afghanistan, a non-profit that aims to develop the sport in his home country, but his work has come to a crunching halt as Kabul fell to the Taliban. Rather than organising events, donating bikes or coordinating local clubs, he’s now dedicating his time to evacuating mountain bikers out of the country whose lives are endangered by participating in the sport.
We caught up with him to talk about the Afghan mountain biking community, to better understand the current situation and to share some ways the Pinkbike community could help.
The Growth of Mountain Biking in Afghanistan
While people in the Western world may think of Afghanistan as an arid, empty desert, it’s actually mostly mountainous including the Hindu Kush range, which covers roughly two thirds of the country's area. The country may not be an epicentre of mountain biking but it had begun to foster a small but dedicated community of riders in the past few years of relative peace.
Despite a lack of funding, resources or distributors, hub cities such as Herat near the Iranian border and Bamyan in the centre of the country are now home to hundreds of riders. The sport was starting to gain traction in the mainstream too - the Hindukush MTB Challenge
, a cross country race that follows the XCC and XCO two-day format of the World Cups, was broadcast on television and the Danny MacAskill inspired Drop and Ride club was featured in soda commercials.
Afghanistan’s women were also starting to embrace cycling after years of repression under Soviet and Taliban rule. The country’s first female cycling team was documented in ‘Little Queens of Kabul’ and was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Those women's exploits didn’t go unnoticed and at the first Hindukush XC MTB race in 2018, of the 50 competitors, 20 were women. This year, one of the team's riders, Masomah Ali Zada, was selected to participate at Tokyo 2020 with the IOC Refugee Olympic Team and became the first-ever Afghan cyclist at the Olympics.
While mountain bikes are expensive toys to mess around on in the woods for most of us, Farid believes they offer something greater to Afghan youth. He recalls his own experience first trying the sport as an exchange student in high school, saying, “I was literally a 40-year-old in the body of a teenager… I could talk like a history book because these things were injected in my head. I mean, I lived with that reality. I lived with the burden of solving Afghanistan's problem at a young age.”
He continued, “What was I to do with all this political crap? I needed to be on a tennis court. I needed to be on a bike. So, that's when I really realized the importance of play and how it can help people deal with trauma, especially living in a place like Afghanistan. I mean, with the events of the past month, I think there's a whole new level of trauma that is even harder than what people were experiencing before.”Evacuating Afghanistan’s mountain bikers
Unfortunately, the progress the country was making has come to a grinding halt. The Afghanistan Cycling Federation told us “the situation is very bad” and “all activities are stopped.” The immediate priority for Fazli Ahmad Fazli, the president of the Federation, is to evacuate the female riders associated with the governing body as they are in danger of reprisals from the Taliban regime. There are reports of some women dismantling their bikes and burning their clothing but for others it’s simply too dangerous to stay.
Farid is working with Outride
on a program for 28 cyclists, primarily women, and their families who are in urgent need of evacuation. So far seven cyclists, including the team captain, have been safely evacuated from Afghanistan but Farid is now struggling to find the rest of the group flights. He said, “we've given up hope on the US military to evacuate these people because they were on their lists several times, couldn't do it. In the remainder of the time, we are trying to use chartered flights for the athletes.”
At this current time, it costs approximately $5,000 to evacuate each individual but as the August 31 deadline rapidly approaches, their flight and evacuation options decrease and costs increase. Farid is hoping to raise $250,000 with a stretch goal of $500,000 to safely evacuate and resettle the remaining cyclists and has so far raised $65,000. All of the organizers have donated their time for the project so all money donated will go straight into the evacuation with any leftover used for resettlement.
Farid's effort is one of a number of disconnected efforts to evacuate cyclists from Afghanistan. Alongside individual fundraisers, Cycling News reports
that UCI President David Lappartient is working with Afghan authorities to protect more than 60 athletes and their families who are in danger. While the Italian Cycling Federation is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find solutions to help evacuate athletes and their families.
For information on how to help with the evacuation efforts, head to the bottom of this piece.The future for Afghanistan’s mountain bikers
Mountain biking is expected to all but stop for the riders who remain. While men were allowed to use bikes as a form of transport previously under the Taliban, it’s unlikely anyone will be able to throw on a pair of bib shorts and head for a proper ride.
Instead, Farid is now turning his attention to Afghan communities around the world. With his work on pause back home, he now wants to help the citizens that have been displaced in the meantime. He pondered, “Can we form a team outside of Afghanistan that doesn't bow to the rules consisting of men and women? And they can go and be a voice for the people who are stuck there, not just their ability to cycle, but any other aspect of life."
He continued, “We're already thinking about how can we use the bike to get a lot of the Afghans to experience this joy here too. For me, riding in Colorado Rockies has been a way to reconnect with Afghanistan even if I'm not physically there, but I feel at home in those places. At that point, the cycling community can have a strong impact, whether it's with gear donations in the future, whether it's with organizing events. I might do a Hindukush Mountain Bike Challenge in the US, why not?”
But Farid also isn’t giving up on mountain biking flourishing again in Afghanistan. He said, “Afghan people feel very misunderstood. I think that it's nice that the world has turned attention to Afghanistan after Kabul fell, but there was a time when Afghans were desperately trying to prevent that and voice their worries, their opinions about what the world should do and people didn't really care.
“That is past now. What's important for the world to know is that the Afghan people are a very proud and hospitable, friendly, kind bunch. Everywhere you go, people will open their hearts and their homes to you, regardless of going through so much pain... Right now, history took a different turn and everyone's down and everyone is running out and fleeing but there will still be people there, there will still be those mountains. Governments will change, but people will be there.”How to Help
Mountain Bike Afghanistan’s website can be found here
but most of the website has been made private to protect the identities of the people involved. Donations in the short term will be passed on to Human Rights Foundation but will be restricted specifically to the Afghanistan Cyclist Evacuation and Resettlement efforts. Farid also asks the Pinkbike community to subscribe to the Mountain Bike Afghanistan mailing list to keep up to date with the charity’s programs. For more information, click here
A full list of ways to help Afghan Refugees that is being updated daily can be found here