Trucks, armoured cars, rickshaws and donkeys are among sights you expect to see on Afghanistan's roads. But a dozen helmeted, lycra-clad cycling enthusiasts, including women in hijabs?
Afghan national team cyclists in training. (Photo: Wafaurahman)
They do not have high-end graphite frame racers you can lift with a finger - obsolete models are hard enough to procure and maintain, as are spare parts. But there are enough competitive cycling devotees in Afghanistan to ensure the country gets respect at international fixtures, if not regular clusters of medals.
"When the Europeans saw my bike, they laughed and asked if I was really going to race with it," recalled Hashmatullah Barakzai, a 23-year-old member of the national cycling team who competed in the 26th Azerbaijan Cycle Tour in 2011. "But they were surprised by my performance and said I would have a shot at top-level racing if I had the resources. My bicycle was 10 years older than theirs, but they said, 'good job!'"
In his five years of cycling, Barakzai competed in international events in Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, bagging one gold and two bronze medals.His team mate Khalid, an 8th grade student in Kabul, also notes the extreme training conditions in Afghanistan. Whether riding in congested, polluted cities or on remote roads prone to criminal and insurgent activity, training sessions are a gamble.
"The worse thing is that our cyclists do not have any kind of insurance," says Khalid. "We face a great deal life-threatening risk daily, but we are thankful to God that we have suffered no accident or casualty."
The extremity of the sport in Afghanistan draws cyclists from abroad too. Romulo Pizzica, an Italian who rode from Herat to northern Afghanistan in 2007, says the elements are an equal challenge. "One of the main obstacles to cycling in Afghanistan, with a heavy bike, is the sand on the roads," Pizzica, who toured alone and faced no serious security threats, said in an email.
Rob Lilwall, a journalist and adventure traveler who cycled through Afghanistan the same year, says he met local cyclists en route, but only on short journeys. The Brit, who cycled through the Hindu Kush and surrounding deserts, described the experience "as terrifying but wonderful."
Romulo Pizzica, 2nd from right, poses for a picture with three local men during a cycling tour of Afghanistan in 2007.(Photo: Pizzica)
Mohammad Sadiq, head of the Afghan National Cycling Federation (ANCF), a small but tenacious organization with less than 100 members in a dozen provinces, says there is a tradition of cycling to build upon in the country, besides the occasional foreign rider.
While membership of the ANCF is small, this is no new fad, stresses Sadiq, a man of small stature and a sun-beaten face from years spent in the saddle.
"We had our first official cycling race from Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif on September 24, 1978," he said at his Kabul home, which doubles as the federation's headquarters. "The third race, which was more organized, was held in 1982. The 10-kilometre race started from Darul Aman Palace , the 'historic gateway of Kabul', and ended at the National Olympic Committee (NOC)."
In a country where sports suffer acutely from lack of facilities and funds, support of the NOC is crucial. For now, though, its material assistance is limited to a monthly allowance of 700 afghanis (14 US dollar) for the 30 members of the national team, which is split evenly in male and female squads. The federation has applied to the NOC for premises of its own, but is still waiting.
"When the Europeans saw my bike, they laughed and asked if I was really going to race with it." Hashmatullah Barakzai, Afghan national cycling team.
Meanwhile, it provides new members with bikes imported to order via Dubai. But those who are keenest to excel usually save for a better model, says Sadiq. "Prices vary from 350 to 400 dollars. Parts for these bikes are not available here and we import them. It's a big problem, not even we can find tires, our cyclists look for them on the internet and order them."
"I bought my bicycle with my own money, nobody else paid for it," says 20-year-old national team member Ramin Raoufi. "So far I won a bronze medal in Pakistan and one bronze medal in Iran," he adds proudly.
Developing female participation in the sport is more complicated. Girls and women aged 15 to 25 need to get permission from their parents and guardians to join the federation and try for inclusion in the national team. Most have never touched a bicycle before.
Women are increasingly drawn to joys of the sport, but developing female participation remains a major challenge.(Photo: Wafaurahman)
"We gradually taught them cycling techniques," says Sadiq. "When they start learning we give them mountain bikes, but later they use road bikes. Eventually we want them to make it as professional cyclists."
"In March 2012, our women athletes won 8 bronze medals in a cycling race in Lahore, Pakistan," he says proudly. Of eight national teams competing, the Afghan team won 4 medals in the three-kilometer race and four in the 30-kilometer event. "I think this was the biggest achievement in the history of Afghanistan cycling."
The work is starting to bear fruit. The deputy director of the Federation is a 22-year-old woman who already made her mark in the sport. Arzoo Omid, a student at Kabul's American University of Afghanistan, began cycling three years ago out of sheer curiosity.
"I participated in a race to just see if I could cycle, but I won first place," Omid said. "It really encouraged me and so my love for cycling grew. Then I took 14th place among 40 countries participating in the South Asian Athletics Federation race in Bangladesh."
But the sport in Afghanistan is not exempt from gender issues like attire worn by cyclists. "We are Muslim, so our female cyclists wear long sleeves and trousers," said federation cyclist Mariam. "During our race in Lahore, Pakistan, we wore veils; this is our tradition and culture, we cannot dress as women do in Europe."
It has been six years now since the Afghan federation joined the Asian Cycling Federation, but due to lack of funds it is still unable to compete in European events.
Prospects for growth still exist though, amid a changing sports culture in Afghanistan. Prominent events like the recent debut of the Afghan football premier league are helping to nurture a culture of corporate sponsorship. More companies sponsor events for advertising and PR purposes, although so far cycling is a harder sport to attract them to, says Sadiq.
A recent training session held in Kabul. (Photo: Wafaurahman)
An Afghan mobile telecommunications company this year sponsored two events, one which ran from Kabul to Panjshir, and a planned 150-km race from Kabul to Jalalabad. This event had to be cancelled, however, due to its coincidence with Ramadan, when cycling without sufficient water intake was unrealistic in the August heat.
Another local telecoms company sponsored a race between Kabul and Laghman Province, and the Green Foundation this year staged a race to promote environmental awareness. The longest fixture this year was the 3-day, 540-kilometre race from Kabul to Faizabad in Badakhshan.
The cyclists agree they have a long way to go as the ambassadors of the sport in Afghanistan. Ultimately, medal winner Barakzai believes it requires relative parity in equipment to allow Afghans to really break through internationally.
"Just think," he says, using a motoring comparison to illustrate the cycling dilemma. "Their Toyota Corollas race against our tractors! If resources are made available, I believe we can do much better."