From high atop the Shomali Plain north of Kabul, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Shannon Galpin lets go of the brake levers. She aims her bike straight down the deserted road through the flatlands. Four young Afghan women—members of the country’s first female bike race team—do the same. As the small peloton picks up speed, headscarves come loose and stream out from beneath helmets like ribbons, like flags. Much giggling ensues, giving way to whoops and hollers as the group hits maximum acceleration on the steepest part of the pitch. For Galpin, a cyclist and women’s rights activist, the experience is the pinnacle of her work in Afghanistan. “I never expected to be able to ride with Afghan women,” she says.
While Galpin was the first American to bike in Afghanistan in 2009, she had never seen or heard of an Afghan female cyclist. During the time of Taliban control, Afghan women weren’t permitted to go to school, let alone play sports. Rules have changed somewhat in the past decade. Indoor sports like volleyball attract female participants at the middle school and high school level. But cycling requires a new level of tolerance and security for women. Female cyclists train outside on roads, not protected in an athletic facility. Worst-case scenario: They become physical targets for fundamentalists who would restrict women to their homes.
In 2012, Galpin got a tip that the Afghan National Cycling Federation—one of the country’s 12 bike race teams—was training women. She set up a meeting with the team’s coach and founder, Mohammad Abdul Sediq, during her visit in October. At that time, Galpin learned he’d seeded the female side of the team with his own daughter and that a dozen women, most in high school, were currently riding with him. In March 2013, three of them competed in a major international race, the 33rd Asian Cycling Championships, in New Delhi, marking the first time in history that Afghanistan fielded a women’s team.
Back home in Colorado, Galpin mobilized her non-profit Mountain 2 Mountain and launched a gear drive for the women of the Afghan National Cycling Federation. “If they’re willing to take the risk, then the least we can do is support them,” she said in an interview with MSNBC.
Galpin collected more than 350 pounds of equipment, apparel, shoes, and helmets, along with six carbon fiber race bikes donated by Liv/giant. She returned to Afghanistan in April to deliver the gear and meet the women, bringing a film crew from Let Media, who plan to release a documentary about the female members of the team in spring 2015.
After spending three weeks with the women, including riding at full tilt from the top of a plateau, Galpin reports a grass roots revolution on two wheels. “It’s thrilling,” she says. “These women think of themselves as athletes, not activists, and yet they’re breaking the gender barrier in Afghanistan.”
Galpin will return to Afghanistan in the fall to donate more gear and bikes, and to assist the team in establishing best practices for women’s training. Find out more here.