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!

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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.

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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.

The Alchemy of a Roadie

Several months ago, I sat down with the Alchemy crew again about building bike #2.  A dedicated singlespeed mountain biker, I needed a road bike.  Probably with gears.  I didn’t know where to begin.

The first bike they built me, a gorgeous stainless steel 29′er single speed, had its very first ride in Afghanistan last fall in a series of rides that happened to coincide with the announcedment that I had been chosen as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.  Emblazoned on the top tube in bright pink #GIVEASHIT.  The tagline we coined for our upcoming partnership with Mountain2Mountain’s domestic program Strength in Numbers.  One of my favorite memories of that trip was when a member of the Afghan National Army took it for a spin and discovered the strength of disc brakes.  Many memories are made on a bike, even in a warzone.  Maybe even moreso in a warzone.

The twist?  I met women who bike, as part of the National Afghan Cycling Federation last fall.  This is the first time anyone has heard of Afghan women riding bikes.  Its still a cultural taboo, and in my own four years of mountain biking throughout areas of Afghanistan, I have never seen a women or girl riding a bike.  Till now.  Riding heavy steel bikes, often with kickstands, these women are the first to not only ride bikes, but to do so publicly and competitively.

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Bike Bonding in Afghanistan

The final day of filming the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team for the upcoming film, Afghan Cycles became an unexpected culmination of my own years of biking in Afghanistan.  Afghan Cycles Director, Sarah Menzies and I met up with the coach and drove outside of Kabul for the team to start their ride.  Heavily loaded Pakistani trucks thunder by as the team unloaded their bikes and coach spoke with them.  The esteemed Afghan photographer, and friend, Farzana Wahidy was joining the team to document for her upcoming book about Afghan Women, a project she’s been working on for several years.

As before on previous training rides with the girls team, it was with great apprehension as we watched the team pull out on the highway.  Men stare at the girls from all directions, cars honk, trucks swerve around each other in typical Afghan mayhem.  The girls seem so vulnerable on their skinny tires entering the fray.  Standing on the side of the road, you feel the mayhem as dust swirls, and the wind gusts challenge the girls to hold a line.  There is a sense on all of us of heavy responsibility and we all gut check ourselves as they pedal off.  They aren’t doing this for us, this is their training ground, and for them, these risk are ones they face every ride, but it still puts us on edge. We take a big gulp and  jump into the car so Sarah and Farzana can film as they ride.

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As if to add one more element of risk on an already heavily risk-laden roadtrip, Sarah is going to shoot out of the open back of the Corolla hatchback.  So I kneel backwards to wrap my arms around her waist to keep her in, wishing we had thought of bringing some straps or bungees.  Trusting in our steadfast driver, Mohammad; I held on tight, she filmed, dust swirled each time trucks passed in the opposite direction, and we kept a steady communication with Najibullah and Mohammad, while Farzana shot out the side window.

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After 30km or so we pulled off onto a side road that went back towards the mountains.  It was empty and all of us, even the girls, breathed a sigh of relief and we spent several hours filming in relative peace with the girls for specific shots we couldn’t get in a moving car.  During a water break, the girls sat down and Coach challenged me to a short race.  I hadn’t planned on riding this trip so I was wearing ripped jeans under my long skirt and tunic and my trusty Dansko clogs, but I am always up for a ride.  Since we were isolated off the main road, I didn’t worry about my headscarf or helmet and grabbed Massouma’s bike while she rested.  Luckily I”m used to standing on my singlespeed at home, because when I sat down my knees were nearly in my armpits the seat was so low.  I stood up and easily acranked along, catching up to coach much to his obvious surprise.

An hour later, Sarah wanted to get closer to the mountains and scout a shot, when we pointed it out, the tired team got into the car to drive up the hill.  I grabbed Coach’s bike, donated earlier on the trip by our team ‘mechanic’, Ky.

“Okay, Shannon, we race?” he asks with a smile.

Uh, hell yes!   Nazifa declined the car ride up and joined us, riding strong, despite her small size.  Even Sarah and Najib got on the bikes as we assembled the ‘B team’.  The four of us rode straight towards the hills, while Mohammad drove the team up ahead of us.  I struggled to keep my feet on the spd pedals in my clogs, but happily climbed out of the saddle behind Coach.  Nazifa was right behind, but starting to tire out in the heat, as she’d already been riding for a couple of hours.  Looking behind, Sarah and Najib were a ways back, and eventually I turned to check near the top to see the little figure of Najib  in the distance, walking his bike.  Coach and I stopped at the top, and walked down to cheer on Sarah and Nazifa who needed water, and to learn how to shift gears.  She was slowly grinding her way up, on her smallest ring.  Unintentionally, I realized.  I turned, and laughingly pointed towards Najib and asked Mohammad to go get pick him up and save him a long, hot, walk.  Meanwhile, Coach and I sat down to rest, and I taught him how to fistbump.

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Sarah continued her scout and decided that our final shot would be near the bottom of the road where a group of mostly destroyed mud houses remained off in a field.  I told coach he could drive down with Sarah in the car, and I stole his bike with a smile so that I could sneak in some ride time off camera with the girls.  This is the stuff that most worries me when the girls ride, the downhills, their bikes have little, to no, braking power.  Massouma, one of the newer and most unskilled riders, worryingly tends to get to a manageable speed and then drag her feet.  That could explain why she was riding with a cast on one hand.  There are a myriad of things these girls need, and basic handling skills, steel bikes with good brakes, and shifting lessons are at the top of the list.  Courage, they’ve got.  Determination, too.  A few water cages wouldn’t go amiss either so they don’t have to wait for coach to stop his car and pass out plastic water bottles.

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Regardless of their lack of ample stopping power, the girls didn’t hold back, they were riding as fast as I dared with no helmet on and we cruised down, wind in our faces, smiling and laughing.   It marked the first time in the four years of riding in Afghansitan that I had the opportunity to ride with girls.

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As Fawzia Koofi said in our last interview of the trip, “The time has come to stop referring to Afghan women as “poor Afghan women”, that changes nothing.  It is time to start calling them “strong Afghan women” Because that’s the only way to change the perception of Afghan women, and encourage them them to succeed.

These girls are pedaling a revolution – they just don’t realize it, because they are too busy having fun!

Originally posted on Mountain2Mountain: Field Notes:

Afghan Eyes,

    Musician and filmmaker, Ariana Delwari

                                                                                                                                            photo credit:  Jawad Jalali/ Afghan Eyes

Afghanistan is probably best known in the West for its poverty, oppression, terrorism, and ongoing conflict.  It’s not untrue, but its not all that it is.  Against this backdrop, are the dreamers and visionaries.   Artists, musicians, innovators, activists, media moguls, and politicians.  Just like any other country – the dreamers and the free thinkers are often those whose stories are quieter than the stories of violence and…

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