Recently, I skyped with Rahman Fatrat, a young cyclist from Bamiyan, Afghanistan who participated in the country's first national road race of the year - Jame Arghawan. The course started inside Kabul city, and ended 82 kilometers North of the capital on a relatively safe highway, despite increasing security threats throughout the country. Participants were mostly from Kabul, Bamiyan, and Balkh provinces, where relative peace has allowed enthusiastic cyclists to ride, and train on somewhat regular basis. In much of the rest of the country, getting outside, especially on a bike is not a good idea. Unfortunately, this leaves cycling a sports option only for a limited few. For women, it's more restrictive, even unacceptable in many places. Those who dare, do it with huge risks towards themselves, and their families.
Bamiyan, a mountainous region in Central Afghanistan, where Rahman lives, is arguable the safest of all of these places. The calm in there, and the locals' open mind towards progress, and new ideas have allowed for a web of new, and exciting activities to start and grow. There has been an overflowing support for skiing, which began seven years ago. You can read more about how skiing is starting in Afghanistan in an earlier blog post I did. Here, girls ride without a lot of opposition normal in the rest of the country. Some of the girls are members of the national cycling team. Still, to get to race events in other cities and provinces, these riders have to travel on dangerous roads, each time fearing they will be captured by the Taliban, or other insurgent groups.
Rahman showed up to the race with a heavy steel frame bike he borrowed from a friend. In Bamiyan, he trains on a mountain bike that his local bike club, Salsal & Shahmama, gave him. Though as a road cyclist, his dream is to one day have his own proper road bike. At the start line, he saw other riders with more race-appropriate gear: advanced road bikes, jerseys, shoes, helmets, sunglasses, and some even with small GPS computers (commonly Garmin). But none of these stopped him from trying to race with some of the country's best. He also noticed some racers who kicked it off without a helmet. In his own club, he says, "there are forty members, and only eight helmets. It's so hard to find bicycles and its equipment in Afghanistan."
The race started slow. The peloton was heavily accompanied by police trucks. For safety reasons, a breakaway wasn't allowed until the last 5 kilometers of the race. On the same highway, a mix of Taliban, other insurgent groups, and bandits often stop, kidnap, and murder travelers. So race organizers didn't want to take any unnecessary risks. The seventy or so racers were instructed to stay together, and only race in the last 5 kilometers. This is very unusual in the cycling world, and perhaps it doesn't happen anywhere else. But where there are factors like serious life threats to the racers, rules have to be bent, and people will do anything they can to make an event happen. It can obviously complicate race dynamics, as it may be advantageous to cyclists who are strong sprinters, and costly to those who do better over longer distances. But safety first. And that leaves no room for complaints.
Hauling his heavy steel frame, Rahman crossed the line in 8th position - a phenomenal result for him at his first at the national level. When I talked to him, he was very happy about the results, and more fired to continue training for better results in the future. When I asked him what his plans were for improving his talent, he said, "the priority is to get a road bike first. A good one." To make that happen, he told me he, "need[ed] to get a job as a waiter or security guard at the local hotel", where they would pay him around $120 per month. Rahman's plan is to invest six months worth of salary into a relatively nice road bike. From there, he has bigger dreams, like joining the national cycling team, and to even race in the Tour de France one day.
His teammates who participated in the mountain bike race had even more glorified results. Five of them, all from Bamiyan and members of the Salsal & Shahmama Bike Club secured the top five positions on the podium. Unlike mountain bike races in other parts of the world where the course is off-road, and often on single-track and technical trails, the race in Afghanistan was held on the road, together and at the same time with the road racers. This is because there are no bike trails in the country, and perhaps due to the lack of resources to plan two different events at the same time. But whatever the circumstances, for Rahman and his friends, it was a victorious day.
It's 'humble beginnings'. So much inadequacy, and yet so much hype, energy, and optimism. Rahman represents the state of cycling in Afghanistan. He is young, poorly-equipped, but full of enthusiasm to move forward. True, there are fewer roads for him to train on. But he makes sure to take advantage of whatever is available. It's very unfortunate that the obstacles they have to do deal with as cyclists are very different and far more challenging than what cyclists in other, and often peaceful corners of the world face. But their commitment and hard-work will eventually grow the culture of cycling and bike racing in Afghanistan.
Rahman, and his ambitions speak for a country on a tipping point. The recent attacks on Kabul has once again reminded people of the dangers of living in Afghanistan, and the seemingly unending conflicts, making the future look bleak, and hopeless. In these dark times, it is important to remember that our strengths lie in what gives us hope; that image of ourselves, our friends, community, and nation we now and then see that jumps our hearts, and brings a smile to our faces. The bike race in Afghanistan gave me joy. It once again showed me that the young generation do not want war. They want peace. And in seeking peace, they are finding new ways to improve their lives, and communities. Let us recognize these sources of hope, and nurture them. Who knows, the small bike shop Rahman and his friends have set up in Bamiyan will one day become a meeting point for riders, business owners, community leaders, and foreign visitors. The important thing is when and how, and we can all be a part of that.
Bonus: Rahman got the job he wanted. He is now working towards achieving his dreams.