When I finished my first race season last year, I walked away determined to qualify for the collegiate national championships this year. It was a lofty goal; I had jumped into racing only after a year of riding mountain bikes, and the few podium finishes that gave me the temptation to even imagine going to nationals were only from racing in the beginner category. To go to nationals, I had to race in the advanced level against riders who are either on professional teams, or at least much more experienced than I was.
Was this a realistic goal? Perhaps it was achievable with hard training, but how much could I shrug off the fact that I had never been an athlete, and that my experience with mountain biking was still at the novice stage? I could barely hang on to any rides longer than two hours, let alone racing for that long. I lacked the many years of repetitive pedaling, “building the base” as they call it in cycling, that my fellow competitors benefited from. But I am not a stranger to disadvantages. In fact, it constitutes every young Afghan's identity. I grew up studying with a kerosene lamp, my textbooks were handwritten -- black and white copies carrying obsolete knowledge, and you can say in general that I grew up dealing with scarcity; of peace, comfort, and opportunity - things that people in the West take for granted.
But I no longer wanted these images to define who I am. After all, they are the reason behind Afghanistan's depressing image in the world. For once, I wanted to be out there... at the forefront with everyone else... for something that the world didn’t know me for. I wanted to be a cyclist. And more importantly, I wanted to be a cyclist from Afghanistan.
This past weekend, I stood at the start line of the 2017 Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships. The year that passed was full of challenges and, at the same time, fulfilling moments. It contained back injuries, near-broke situations, long hours on an indoor trainer, winning some races, and feeling inadequate in others. But I kept on pedaling. I spent the summer living alone near Kingdom Trails where I rode day after day to improve my skills and fitness. I drove to plenty of races, with constant fear that my $800 Subaru will die during the trips.
Qualifying for nationals was a nightmare. After I upgraded to the advanced level by week three of collegiate season, my bike kept on having mechanical problems that wouldn't let me finish some of my races. It had slowly deteriorated over the two years, serving me well on the rocky trails of Colorado and the wet rooty trails in the North East. There was barely any teeth left on my chain ring causing my chain to fall repetitively during races, and making me stop frequently to put it back on. One afternoon during a fun ride with my friend Ted, I was stopped from going off a cliff by a tree. Ted immediately took me to the local bike shop, appalled that I had been racing with those brakes… or no brakes. With the help of a friend, I fixed my bike just in time for nationals.
Going to nationals was the epitome of my journey so far trying to make it as an Afghan cyclist. It was a reward for my hard work, and the promises I had made to myself. Nationals was an important milestone, an achievement on which I can build my still very young experience with mountain biking. It was a test of how far I have come in cycling, and how much further I need to go. It was an opportunity to put Afghanistan’s name on the start line -- for the first time in a U.S. mountain bike national championship.
It was also one of the hardest races I have done. Although I was not expecting myself to be among the top finishers - not anywhere close, I was ready to give it my all in a field of fast racers, on a course with grueling climbs and sketchy descends, and a snowy day that made for a fun and memorable race. But I was also there for the full experience, of what it takes to race at that level, and to learn everything about racing, from tiny logistical details to staying calm, energized and present. I ended up finishing 45th out of 55 starters - not so strong a result, but I was happy with how I did. As one of my friends once told me, “it’s not only about the destination, it is more about the journey.” And the journey is not over yet. This is just the beginning. If one thing the nationals gave me is more motivation and energy to continue working hard for next year.
Kudus to my teammate Anika Heilweil for grabbing 3rd and 5th in women’s, and Katie Aman for strong finishes. Our combined points put Middlebury at number 5 nationally in Club Division II.
As I wrap this chapter of my cycling journey, I would like to extend my deepest gratitudes to my family (who supports me non-stop despite sometimes not understanding why I do the things that I do), friends (special shout out to Kai Wiggins, Ted Grace, Roberto Barbier, Mairin Wilson, Whitney Ericson, George Valentine, and Cole Ellison), Andrew Johnson for giving valuable lessons and tips for training, Middlebury College for sponsoring our trip to the Nationals Championship, Maine Huts & Trails, Louis Garneau for donated gear, and everyone else for all kinds of material and moral support.
Until next blog. Hope everyone enjoys this beautiful fall weather. I am off to some rest, and super excited to learn some cross country skiing this winter.