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October 5, 2018

Racing in Dara-e Azhdahar: Mountain Biking Gains Popularity in Afghanistan

By: Farid Noori

Riders in the Hindukush MTB Challenge.
Riders in the Hindukush MTB Challenge.

At 8,300 feet above sea level, the yellow-rock canyons of Dara-e Azhdahar (“Dragon Valley”) provide a stark yet stunning backdrop for visitors in the Bamiyan Province of central Afghanistan. Last Friday, Sept. 28, locals gathered in the canyon to watch one of the country’s first-ever mountain bike races: the Hindukush MTB Challenge. Unlike most inaugural events, where mishaps, pushback and lack of interest are common, the Hindukush MTB Challenge proved to be a lively event packed with 50 racers, twenty of whom were women.

The race had an even better spectator turnout. Eager crowds gathered along the course — from the starting line to the tops of mountain ridges — thrilled to see their town transformed to a sporting venue. The success of the event and the show of support by the locals exemplify a progressive young Afghan population with a deep desire to unburden their country from narratives of war, and, for this niche crowd, to make a name for themselves in the international bike racing community.

Riders get ready to start the mens race in the Hindukush MTB Challenge.

The challenge was organized by Mountain Bike Afghanistan (MTBA), a nonprofit aiming to promote mountain biking in Afghanistan and build the necessary infrastructure for its expansion. This summer, MTBA club members in Bamiyan started weekly rides to discover the trails around their valley. Shortly after starting weekly rides, the idea for a race began to form: Club members could share their favorite local trails with other Bamiyan riders, and add hype by making the event competitive. The race also supported Mountain Bike Afghanistan’s goal of engaging young Afghans in biking competitions.

Afghanistan National Cycling Federation sanctioned the race and sponsorship was provided by Etisalat, one of the country’s leading telecommunications companies. Competitors raced along a 2.5-mile loop of loose dirt trails in the Dara-e Azhdahar canyons, jockeying for position through long, steep climbs and speedy descents. Men completed three laps around the track and women completed two.

A woman rides in the Hindukush MTB Challenge.

Sajjad Husaini, manager of MTBA’s cycling team, said the goal of the race was to introduce cross-country Olympic-style mountain bike racing to an already burgeoning interest among young people for the sport. “We hope this event becomes a spark for more interest, and an avenue through which we can discover talented Afghan cyclists and prepare them for future Olympics.”

Mahdi Mohammadi, who won the men’s race, urged his fellow athletes to work very hard, and deliver strong performances in national and international events. He also expressed excitement at the prospect of cross-country mountain biking becoming more popular in Afghanistan.

The event was also among the first in Afghanistan to host both men’s and women’s races. Until very recently, women’s cycling was frowned upon in the Afghan society. While the sentiment persists in much of the country, women can ride more freely in Bamiyan, without facing threats of physical harm. The supportive environment has led to the formation of several female-led cycling clubs.

Twenty women competed in the Hindukush MTB Challenge.

Tahira Shayagan applauded the organizers for including a women’s race — in which she took first place. Shayagan said, “Many people think mountain biking is very hard, so women shouldn’t do it. This event proved them wrong, and it encourages more women to ride.” Masouma Shayagan, Tahira’s mother, advocated for other parents to let their daughters ride: “I hope more girls and their parents will draw interest from my daughter’s performance.”

Though the race was simple compared to the production and competitiveness of European and North American events, the Hindukush MTB Challenge is only the beginning for Afghanistan — and one that was met with tremendous enthusiasm from locals. The positive response by the Bamiyan community suggests a bright future for mountain biking in Afghanistan. It may not be long before Afghanistan becomes a major player — and, hopefully, destination — on the international mountain biking stage.

Farid Noori founded Mountain Bike Afghanistan, and hopes to compete in the Olympics for his country. He currently trains in Vermont, where he is a senior at Middlebury College.

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