Full Circle to Pedal a Revolution

I spent over a decade as a sports trainer.

When I turned 32 I left that career behind me to start a non profit that fought for the rights of women in conflict zones, and started my work in Afghanistan.

I never thought my career in sports and conditioning would play a role in my current work as an activist and humanitarian.  Yet, yesterday, after a long meeting with the Coach of the Afghan Men’s and Women’s National Cycling Team, my old profession became my new job description: Coach of Afghan Cycling Teams at the upcoming Asia Games this September in South Korea.

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The last two months I have been working with the Afghan National Women’s Team to develop some basic development and training.  I join them on training rides and work on small steps to add into their training, sometimes as simply as a lesson in shifting.  In April I brought the team to the mountains of central Afghanistan in Bamiyan province for a long training ride, and scouted as a potential location for a future women’s race.  I delivered brand new racing bikes, clothing, tools, and helmets for the national team thanks to our partnership with sponsor Liv/giant.

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The men’s national team is much more developed than the women’s, in large part because boys grow up here riding bikes while girls are forbidden to ride.  They are stronger, have better handling skills, and look like cyclists in their lycra and their clip less pedals.  But, cycling as as sport is new in Afghanistan and over the last two visits I have brought used road bikes, new mountain bikes, gear, and clothing to support their development and the development of cycling into other provinces.  Beyond equipment, both the teams need training and coaching development.  Right now, both teams need the basics: Nutrition, hydration, training plans are needed before we even really discuss racing techniques.

Ironically that’s my background.  I am a mountain biker, not a road cyclist. I do not know how to corner downhill on a road bike at speed, or how to draft, or slingshot a sprinter through the finish line ala Mark Cavendish, but I know how to build a foundation of conditioning, how to develop strength and speed, and how to teach a cyclist nutrition and hydration principles.

And I have a few aces in my pocket with my Board of Directors and Advisory Council of Mountain2Mountain.

Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Labs.  He’s worked at the Tour de France level with pro cyclists, he worked with Taylor Phinney through the London Olympics, and created a revolution in how athletes fuel and hydrate.

Chrissie Wellington, 4 x World Ironman Champion and major voice in women’s sports.

Dotsie Bausch, Olympic medalist and founder and coach of Empower Coaching Systems.

We can pull in the big guns to start building a foundation of incredible coaching development and training for both the Afghan National Teams while at the same time I work to normalize bikes for girls and create a social revolution on bikes that will allow bikes to be ridden without dishonor or controversy throughout areas of Afghanistan, creating a revolution on two wheels.

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photos by Deni Bechard

 

 

 

 

Twitterified Citizen Security?

I use Twitter a lot in Afghanistan.  Hear a big explosion and want to find out what and where it was?  Twitter has answers first.  Expat and Afghan journalists alike send out messages and queries, and the stream of information following #afghanistan or #kabul is quite substantial.  A lot of information that I wouldn’t find on traditional media sources, I can find links to on Twitter.  Three years ago I was woken by something.  Earthquake? Explosion?  I didn’t know.  10 minutes later on Twitter, confirmation of earthquake.  15 minutes later, a map showing where the epicenter hit and where aftershocks had rippled out to.

The Taliban even have a Twitter account.

The key is the ability quickly sift through the bullshit, misinformation, and mindless prattle, and to remember that just because someone says so, doesn’t mean its true.  Citizen reporting can lead to group think and endless retweeting of information that isn’t true.  I’ve seen it first hand with photos I’ve taken that have be reposted by someone else with inaccurate information, if not outright lies.  But as with all social media, it has its flaws and also its benefits.  Especially in countries like Afghanistan, where everyone has a cell phone.

Today, this tweet came through my feed:

No plate-number. Filmed windows in black. Roaming around the city. #kabul #security #election #Afghanistan pic.twitter.com/4miRV9oCM1
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As we are 6 days out from the run off elections in Afghanistan, and yesterday’s attack on Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah reminds us that road side bombs and suicide bombers are determined to create fear and suppress voter turnout, photos and posts like this one are important tools in citizen led security.
It reminded me of old-school neighborhood watch signs I’d see posted around residential neighborhoods in North Dakota when I was growing up.  This was before entire areas of towns became covered in CCTV cameras and other big brother style surveillance.  The idea was that it was up to all of us, as community members and citizens to keep an eye out for each other.  See something disturbing?  Let someone know.
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In a country like Afghanistan, and a city like Kabul, where the ring of steel can only be partially effective if you operate on random stoppages and half hearted searches, security is even more dependent upon a strong community watch.  Twitter is one potential way to make it easier to crowd source security and share in real time unusual behavior, suspicious cars, and street violence.  Structured correctly with a strong communications platform and community outreach, twitter could also be an amazing tool for gender violence and street harassment.   Of course it only works if others are playing, and more importantly, if police and security forces are watching and are engaged.  Neighborhood watch campaigns or street harassment campaigns could find a valuable tool in Twitter if developed and used correctly.

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Bikes Races on the Afghan Campaign Trail

5:30am Friday morning in Kabul.  Already a crowd of around 50 boys on bikes has gathered in the street in front of Darul Aman Palace.  Coach, along with a few of the women’s team, Mariam, Sadaf, and Massouma, are blasting the Afghan National Anthem over a loudspeaker on the roof of Coach’s car.  More boys roll up and several older men join the group with their bikes.  Many ancient Phoenix bikes decorated in full Afghan kitsch are ready to race through the now empty streets of Kabul.  Empty because of the early hour and because the route from the palace to Kabul Stadium has been blocked.

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As often happens in Afghanistan, things get strange really quick.  Presidential candidate, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, has made this a campaign stop.  The run-off elections are one week away and the two candidates are in campaign full court press.  So that means security, in the form of heavily bright green armored jeeps full of men with guns, pull to the periphery of the gathering one after another.  Until there are at least 15 jeeps full of men with guns surrounded the event.

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A tall Afghan has been handing out white tshirts to all the cyclists, and it turns out that the shirts are emblazoned with the face of Abdullah Abdullah.  Slowly the multicolored sea of nearly hundred boys and men turns white.   Another man is handing out small flags that can attach to the bikes, also with Abdullah Abdullah’s face.  This bike race just turned into a shameless campaign rally.  Now we had a large scale campaign rally for the candidate that the Taliban were vocally against, in a very public and normally busy road, now blocked by highly visible security forces.  The irony?  The candidate and his convoy was no where near here yet.  So now we get to wait.

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First Step as Liv/giant Ambassador? Bike Building in Afghanistan

The amazing company behind the delivery of 53 new racing bikes in Afghanistan are part of the Giant and Liv/giant family.  I accepted a role as their newest brand ambassador as I saw their team embrace my work and the Afghan National Women’s Cycling team in a way that spoke loudly of their commitment.  I can’t imagine another bike company involving themselves the way Liv/giant has.  Last spring I delivered 6 Avail composite racing bikes for the newly formed team in Kabul.  They watched my progress with the team development as well as the development of the documentary I am producing with Let Media and filmmaker Sarah Menzies about the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team, Afghan Cycles, and then they stepped up to the plate in full support of the team and the expansion of women’s cycling in other parts of the country.  To start, they donated 53 more road and mountain bikes, along with clothing, tools, tires, tubes, and helmets for 40 women.

In becoming their brand ambassador, they also set me up with both a road bike and a hard tail mountain bike. As a dedicated single speed rider this is my first foray into geared bikes, and the testing ground for both bikes would be Afghanistan.  A bigger test than riding in a war zone would be building up two new bikes myself, especially two with derailleurs.  Thanks to a whirlwind bike mechanic 101 lesson with my landlord, I arrived in Kabul with two bikes, tools and bike stand from Pedros, and a page full of notes to build up not just my bike, but all 53 bikes in Afghanistan.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA After a once over and a big sigh, I started the assembly process, knowing that this was one bike of 55 that I would start to assemble over the next week. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Everything was going smoothly until the dreaded derailleur and I couldn’t figure out which way was up. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA After some cursing and a few different approaches, I had the bike built up and ready for a quick test ride through the courtyard  Next stop, a much more public training ride with the Afghan National Cycling Team on the open road.  A huge thanks to Liv/giant for their incredible support of my work and their passion for women’s cycling.  #pedalarevolution OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA photos by Deni Bechard – you can follow him on instagram at @denibechard

Bishi Burro

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It took a monumental effort just to get 63 boxes of bikes, tools, clothing, and equipment to Denver Airport to fly with me to Kabul. It took an even bigger one to get them released from Kabul Airport customs house.  Apparently rules have changed since my previous arrivals with Liv/giant bikes and donated cycling equipment last spring. Instead of accepting my letter, they looked at me, one lone woman with 63 bike boxes and bags loaded onto 11 trolleys creating a Everest like line of porters, and gave me the dreaded yellow paper.  The yellow paper meant they would take the bikes into the customs house and that I would have to get a letter from the Ministry of Finance to release the bikes, ideally duty free as these were a donation and not for sale.

Najibullah was waiting outside the airport with a truck bound for central Afghanistan that I had requested.  I explained the situation and he called Coach Sedique, the head of the Cycling Federation and the coach for the women’s and men’s cycling teams and together we tromped through the halls of the Olympic Stadium offices, the Ministry of Finance, and the Kabul Airport custom house  for a total of 18 hours over two long days.  Back and forth we went from office to office, searching for signatures, given new forms to fill out, told to stamp this form here or there, endless waiting and cups of tea, and a receptive mantra of “Bishi. Burro.” Sit. Let’s Go.

My view of these two determined men became a repetition on a theme, and inconspicuous went right out the window as the tall blond foreigner dutifully followed.

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No Bike Left Behind

Originally posted on Mountain2Mountain: Field Notes:

Today 53 racing and mountain bikes showed up in a semi truck.  Thanks to the ongoing endless winter in the mountains of Colorado that meant the driver wouldn’t come down the hill to  my apartment and hilarious one-woman convoy in my Element ensued – 4 bike boxes at a time into my landlord’s garage.  Its only a temporary holding space, in two days they fly with me to Kabul, Afghanistan.


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Thanks to the incredible generosity of our partner Liv/giant – we have bikes, gear, clothing, tires, and helmets.  Along with an insane amount of donated cycling gear that has been accumulating in my home, this gear drive makes the last one look like a cake walk.  United has confirmed they will allow me show up at the passenger drop off with a 60 plus boxes, but they will not waive the extra baggage fees. We need to crowdsource the funding…

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One Woman’s Progress in the Cycling Movement of Afghanistan

April 2013 – Mountain2Mountain set up a mini bike school with a few members of the Afghan National Women’s Team as part of the outdoor entertainment on the women’s day at the Sound Central Music Festival.

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One of the young girls that rode around the courtyard was this young woman below.

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Fast forward to October, 2012.  I meet the coach and the girls for a training ride on the outskirts of Kabul to meet some of the new girls learning to ride bikes.  Guess who’s there in a pale pink helmet!

Photo credit Mariam Alimi (24)

She is attending the Goethe Institute and while we couldn’t communicate much in English or Dari – we found our common language in basic German.

Photo credit Mariam Alimi (29)

It was a fabulous day of riding with Coach and several of the national team like Mariam, Nazifa, Massouma, and Sadaf, along with six new riders from American University, Kabul University, and the Goethe Institute!  #pedalarevolution

Streets of Afghanistan Book Launched

It took four years to complete, but the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition is a project that I am enormously proud of, and one that owes its vibrancy to the photographers that took part.

A huge thank you to the photographers involved:  Najibullah Mustafer, Wakil Kohsar, Gulbidden Elham, Mariam Alimi, Paula Lerner, Paula Bronstein, Travis Beard, Tony Di Zinno, and Beth Wald.  These photographers contributed images that showcased another side of Afghanistan – the beauty and the heartbreak – as a collaborative and cohesive exhibition that I dovetailed with black and white images from the 1960’s in Kabul before 4 decades of conflict ravaged the country. I am forever grateful for the involvement of the photographers  that gave life to this vision and for the Afghans that supported these exhibitions in villages and public spaces.

The exhibition was set up as a series of pop up street art exhibitions around Afghanistan and is now part of the Afghan Center at Kabul University which houses the Afghan National Archives.  Thanks to Hatherleigh Press, I was able to produce a behind the scenes look at the entire process and exhibitions in Afghanistan, documented in 2008 and in 2012 by Tony Di Zinno.  The book, Streets of Afghanistan, is now for sale online and in select bookstores.

You can now see behind the scenes and into another side of Afghanistan through the book.  You can order the book and support the work of Mountain2Mountain.   Thanks to Hatherleigh Press, a portion of the sales benefit Mountain2Mountain’s continued work in Afghanistan.

Streets of Afghanistan by Mountain2Mountain from Mountain2Mountain on Vimeo.