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.
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.
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.
My first thought? “Great, now we are sitting ducks”. And we were. This is not where I want to be 7 days out from the elections.
30 minutes later, more police and security arrives and a three car convoy pulls up. Everyone starts clapping. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah gets out of his car with a couple of bodyguards, walks through the crowd of cyclists, and eventually stops to pose with a bike and give a speech to the Afghan media that had been told that Abdullah Abdullah would be making an appearance. A few photo ops and Coach gives him the starting flag and lines up the Men’s National Team in front of the 150 or so young boys and old men waving flags and wearing white t-shirts on their ancient cruiser bikes. Abdullah Abdullah waves the flag and they are off.
The national team quickly put some distance between them and the malay quickly developing behind them. Helmet-less riders who have never ridden a race before in their life charge forward with wild abandon, several collisions, a few full blown crashes, and one guy crouched over his bike in the middle of it all with his chain thrown 15 feet from the start line.
Coach and 10 of us jump into the car, or rather 6 of us jump into the car and 2 climb onto the roof and 2 more hang off the back. We speed through the crowd of ill-controlled bikes and I realize that Coach is not a skilled moto driver, he is driving a right hand drive 5 speed while still holding his microphone and yelling at the security and spectators through the loudspeaker being held by one of the guys on top of the roof. His voice blasts through the empty streets, while young boys weave back and forth.
Miraculously we get through the crowd and catch up to the national team, who are grouped together and we easily pass by, although the speeds we are now traveling in the LandCruiser are worryingly fast considering we have men literally hanging onto the roof and the back tailgate, I’m sitting out of the window shooting photos, and no one crammed inside clown car style are wearing seat belts.
Abruptly, Coach’s yelling stops and he slams on the brakes. He jumps out and grabs a red flag from one of the guys on the roof. He runs a few feet and standing authoritatively in the middle of the empty road, with pedestrians watching curiously, he starts waving the flag back and forth and I realize that he has deemed this to be the finish. Less than two minutes the peloton comes around the corner and we have our first place finisher. Surprisingly close behind the first of the ‘amateur’ riders come through, and within 10 minutes its all over. Like a band leader, Coach, still holding his red flag aloft and a few of the final riders walk down the still empty streets and turn into the Kabul stadium like the world’s smallest parade. I’m exhausted and its only 8am.
After an awards ceremony inside the stadium against the backdrop of an ongoing football match, we left to the Intercontinental Hotel for lunch. Except it was actually the next stop of Abdullah Abdullah’s campaign rally. We left early, which turned out lucky, as his convoy left the hotel his convoy was attacked, while Abdullah Abdullah survived the attack, one of his bodyguard did not. In the end, 7 dead and 17 badly injured by a roadside bomb and a subsequent suicide bomber. A grim reminder of how deadly election season is in Afghanistan and Example A that bike races should not double as campaign rallies. A day of laughter on bikes deserves to stand on its own without being co-opted into a shameless photo shoot for a Presidential candidate one week before the elections when violence and security is tenuous at best.