Afghan Cycles: Following the First Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team

Shannon Galpin was honored as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2013 for her work in Afghanistan. She will be returning to Afghanistan on Monday to distribute 50 bikes, cycling clothing, and gear to the Afghan Women’s National Cycling Team and to set up the country’s first mountain bike team. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @sgalpin or @Mtn2Mtn.

Women cyclists are rare in many parts of the world, but in Afghanistan, gender barriers make cycling culturally unacceptable. I had been mountain biking in many areas of the country since my first bike ride in the fall 2009 in the Panjshir Valley. As a foreign woman, I was curious about those gender barriers that prevented Afghan women from biking, knowing what a powerful tool the bike can be for women around the world. When women are allowed to ride bikes, they have freedom of mobility, and that mobility plays a direct role in decreasing gender violence and increasing access to education and healthcare.  It’s simple, it’s cheap, and it’s effective, but it’s still forbidden for Afghan girls.

Each time I rode, impromptu conversations developed with Afghan men on the side of roads, trails, and in remote villages. Questions about why I was there and where I was from allowed me to share some of my culture, while learning more about theirs. They rode my bike, asked questions about my work with Mountain2Mountain, what I thought of Afghanistan, and why it was like where I lived in Colorado. Their curiosity about me allowed me to informally ask them about their thoughts surrounding Afghan women in sport and women riding bikes in particular.  I wondered if I’d ever meet men who would allow their girls to ride bikes and why this, above all else, was so controversial.

Over 14 separate visits to Afghanistan I had never seen women riding bikes.  Never that is, until November 2012, when a friend introduced me to a member of the men’s cycling team. That led to a bike ride through Kabul where I met the men’s cycling team and coach and discovered that there was a newly formed Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team.  Unexpectedly, this was the same day that National Geographic Adventure publicly announced their 2013 Adventurers of the Year, and I was included in the impressive line up of adventurers and explorers.

Exactly three years after my first bike ride in the Panjshir Valley. I immediately pledged my support to Coach Seddiq to help the team with equipment, gear, coaching, and future funding for the men’s and the women’s team and started looking at long term solutions to help the women’s cycling movement grow beyond Kabul.

Less than two months later I found myself in a coffee shop in Breckenridge with filmmaker Sarah Menzies and our mutual friend, Anna Brones, discussing these amazing women and what a great story it would be to show the world the progress, determination, and courage of Afghan women in the post-Taliban era. Three short, adrenaline filled months later, we had an all-female crew landing in Kabul, with Sarah as Director, Whitney Connor Clapper as Co-Director, myself as Producer, and Claudia Lopez to shoot still photography and document the shoot.

Afghan Cycles is in production now with a future trip being planned for the spring, I thought it would be fun to interview Sarah from my perspective as a Nat Geo Adventurer and the film’s producer to share some behind the scenes insights from Afghanistan and provide a more intimate look at the woman behind the camera of Afghan Cycles.

Shannon Galpin: What appealed to you about telling this particular story about this group of women in Afghanistan?

Sarah Menzies: Their bravery.  Simple as that. I ride bikes, but I would never say that I’m a cyclist. I wasn’t drawn to the story because of the sport specifically, but rather for the symbolism of the bike being a human-powered vehicle for change. Riding a bike is still very taboo for women in Afghanistan because of the very nature of putting it between your legs and riding it. In a sexually repressed country, I think that is what struck me the most, and that by forming a cycling team, these women were automatically challenging gender barriers. I’m inspired by people who know what they are passionate about, and take risks to pursue their passion, and that’s what these Afghan girls are doing. They are taking serious risks to do what they love.

SG: What made you get into filmmaking originally?

SM: Growing up, I always had a vivid imagination. I would spend hours letting my brain wander through thoughts inspired by photos, maps, magazines, globes. I would dream of places that were a world away from the small town I grew up in. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to go to these places and share my experiences with people back home. As I got older, I started to pay attention to this passion and take it more seriously, so I studied broadcasting in college with the intention of getting into either film or radio – any medium that would allow me to tell stories. Three years ago I finally took the leap into independent filmmaking, and I haven’t looked back.

SG: Did you ever imagine working in a conflict zone?

SM: As a matter of fact, I think subconsciously I did. I haven’t really thought about it much, but I have memories of being drawn to the television when journalists were reporting from the Middle East as a kid in the 80s. It always seemed like they were in places that most Americans would never want to go, therefore making me want to go see what it was like. But consciously, no – I don’t think I ever admitted it to myself until I met you, Shannon.

SG:  What surprised you most about the first trip to Afghanistan?  I was always interested about the initial reactions of you, Whitney and Claudia, who were experiencing Afghanistan for the first time through fresh eyes.

SM: I was surprised by how quickly things felt normal. We were in a huge city yet driving on dirt roads. Buildings were guarded by two sets of thick, tall walls and men with AK-47s. Mirrors are used to check for bombs on the bottoms of cars at checkpoints. The Taliban’s spring offensive was announced while we were on production. Our crew made up of strong, brave, independent, women couldn’t walk anywhere at night.  But all of this felt normal within a day or two of landing, and this surprised me. I thought it would take us longer to get comfortable. This worked in our favor because it meant we could tell this story honestly and authentically, rather than from a place of shock and awe.  Its hard not to fall in love with the country and its people.

SG:  So much happened during the trip from interviewing a prominent women’s activist female member of Parliament and then-assumed Presidential candidate, Fawzia Koofi at Parliament, road trips with the women’s team to train, and spending intimate time with teammates families in their homes, not to mention a day of rock music and slam poetry at the opening day of Sound Central music festival.  What was your favorite memory of the trip?

SM:  As I pour over the footage, there are so many moments that stand out. Whether it’s something that was said in an interview, or the feeling we all got that first day we saw them training, there are countless experiences that I will never forget. But the moments I hold closest to my heart are the ones when the camera was turned off. The memories of eating lunch together in their homes, telling jokes with the limited Dari we knew, getting to know their families… But my favorite memory was the day we spent with one of the cyclists, Mariam. She insisted that we go on an amusement park ride together. It was one of those ships that swings back and forth, high up into the air. She grabbed my hand, and she and I stood at bow of the boat for the whole ride screaming out of fear and excitement. It allowed us both to let down any walls that were still up that the camera can often create, and just be on that ride as two people who having so much damn fun.

SG:  I think that was so striking because Mariam is such a tough woman, she looks stern, and is quieter than the rest of the women, yet it was such a playful day you two shared.  One of my favorite memories from that trip includes Mariam as well, it was on the last day of filming, when we rode bikes with the women.  We were outside of Kabul in the Shomali Plain on a deserted road off the side of the highway, no one was around, and we both had our headscarves down in the heat.  We were just a group of girls on bikes, laughing and goofing off when the Coach wasn’t looking.  It felt familiar yet this was revolutionary.  Riding with them moved me profoundly, I had wondered if I’d ever see women break this taboo in Afghanistan.

Speaking of bikes, do you remember our first bike ride together in Breckenridge before the trip to Afghanistan?

SM: Ah yes, the day I gained appreciation for gears. It wasn’t a bike ride Shannon, it was a hike. You took me hiking. Only I was pushing a single-speed mountain bike the whole way up, so it was a grueling hike. I did alright on the downhill though…

SG:  Yes you did, no crashes and big smiles!  I think singlespeed riding suits you actually.  And to be fair, we were biking at 10,000 feet, so a little hiking on your first singespeed ride was to be expected!  That ride also unknowingly prepared you for riding the bikes the Afghan women ride, with gears and derailleurs in such bad condition that they are essentially singlespeeds too.

So, how do you feel this project changed you as a filmmaker?

SM: This is a hard question for me to answer because at this stage of the project, I am still learning so much about myself, both personally and as a filmmaker.

The experience of filming in Afghanistan has certainly affected me, but I think it’s more accurate to say that the story of these brave women is what’s changed me the most. It’s certainly the biggest project I’ve taken on at this point in my career, and I have learned so much along the way. But this group of Afghan women has given me more perspective than anything else I’ve ever experienced. I am inspired by their passion.

I always try to approach a story with an open mind without any hidden judgments or preconceived thoughts. Most of the stories coming out of Afghanistan have a bias in one way or another. I want this film to be authentic, and not stem from a place of Western judgment. Keeping this at the forefront of my mind has taught me a lot about the kind of storyteller I want to be.

SG:  That is a key reason I wanted to work with you to tell this story.  So many stories out of Afghanistan focus on the war, the oppression, and the conflict, instead of focusing on the inspiring stories of courage that are set against that backdrop.  These are the stories that can inspire change and communicate across cultures and language.

Both of us typically work with men, we have male friends, and our two professions are very male dominated work environments.  What did you think about working with an all-female crew?

SM: It was a total accident that we are all females, but it ended up working out in our favor. I of course enjoy working with men. Most of my colleagues are men. But there’s a certain sensitivity that women can tap in to. I think we gained a lot of trust and respect from the Afghan girls which allowed us to ask some pretty personal questions. Gender aside, picking a crew for a production like this is a very difficult task, because you don’t know how people will react once they land in a conflict zone. I cannot believe how cohesive the four of us were as a team. Our workflows and personalities matched up perfectly. Honestly, that can be the most difficult part about an all-female crew, but it ended up being our strong suit. You’ve talked about the third gender a lot Shannon, and I felt that as well.  We were typically treated as equals by Afghan men, but having full access to the women because we ARE women.  Being an all-female crew was both nonthreatening and highly respected.

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SG:   We are already planning 2014 and you are deep into the editing/production cave.  I go back in February for a short trip, but we are planning a joint trip in the spring when I go back to launch the two new women’s teams and so that you can continue film production.  When I was back in November, I rode with the girls on a training ride and of course they asked about you, Whitney and Claudia and when they would see you again.  Are you excited to go back?

SM:  I am so excited to get back there. Selfishly, I feel so creative and inspired in Afghanistan, so I’d like to edit a bit of the film from there if I can. I also miss everyone we met there, especially the girls, and I want to get back there to see them and catch up a bit. But what I’m most excited for is to continue to learn about Afghan culture. We’re telling a story about women on bikes, but it’s so much more than that. We must contextualize WHY these women are so brave to be riding bikes. I am really looking forward to getting back to Afghanistan so I can continue to unfold the layers upon layers of complexities that make this story so compelling.

Oh yes, and the food. As soon as we land, I’m heading straight for the Kabuli rice, lamb kebab, and fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.

For More Information:


Shannon Galpin – @sgalpin @Mtn2Mtn

Sarah Menzies – @sarmenz @LetMedia


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