Besides being the first woman to ride a mountain bike in Afghanistan – which is an amazing feat in itself – Shannon Galpin has been improving women’s rights in Afghanistan through education, art and sport. She has worked with graffiti artists in Kabul and created the groundbreaking “Streets of Afghanistan” photography installation. She now supports and trains the first Afghan Women’s National Cycling team, and says a bike has the power to completely change someone’s life, man or woman. We at Bike couldn’t agree more, which is why we reached out to her and asked her a few question about how her efforts in Afghanistan got rolling:
Bike:Clearly you enjoy riding a bike. But out of all the locations in the world, why choose Afghanistan?
Galpin: I first traveled to Afghanistan in 2008, and after a few visits that took me to various parts of the country, I was blown away by how beautiful it was. There is something about exploring a country on a bike. I had lived in Europe throughout my 20s and loved riding my heavy cruiser bike through the forest trails of Germany and France, exploring new villages and meeting locals on their terms. In Afghanistan, my desire to ride was beyond the desire to explore, it was bolstered by the knowledge that women and girls in Afghanistan aren’t allowed to ride bikes. So I initially started to challenge the gender barriers that prevent girls from riding bikes, and raise the conversations with locals about this taboo. Since then I have visited the country over a dozen times and ridden all over the country, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally met girls that were riding bikes.
Bike: Wow! That’s amazing. So you’ve been riding bikes since your 20s, albeit a heavy cruiser bike, but still… Anyway, when did you first ride an actual mountain bike?
Galpin: I started mountain biking in 2007 in Colorado. My first ride was on a singlespeed 29er at Hall Ranch in Boulder, Colorado. I was black and blue, and slightly bloodied, but I was also completely hooked. I immediately built up my own 29er singlespeed and by the end of summer I had podiumed in my first ever bike race at Winter Park. I grew up riding a bike of course, and loved riding when I lived in Europe, but I never mountain biked seriously until I moved to Colorado and discovered singletrack and rock gardens.
Bike: Yes, for some of us, most of us, it only takes one ride and we are hooked! Is there any hope that riding in Afghanistan might evolve into a recreational sport?
Galpin: Cycling is a burgeoning sport in Afghanistan; it’s not well known as a sport, it’s a mode of transportation for men and boys. My hope is that as I continue to support the Afghan Cycling Federation and the Women’s National Cycling Team that the sport can become more visible and familiar to Afghans. This would allow the sport of cycling to normalize bikes for girls, which accomplishes my end goal as an activist. I want to see girls on bikes for independent mobility, allowing girls to ride to and from schools, or midwives to ride bikes to service their communities. Bikes were an integral part of the women’s rights movement in the U.S., England and France at the turn of the century, and I see the same revolution happening in Afghanistan today … assuming that the security holds.
Bike: In your 20 or so visits, you must have seen a fair share of the countryside. If someone were to visit Afghanistan to mountain bike, where would you recommend?
Galpin: Right now, I’d be hesitant to bike as a foreigner anywhere until things settle down unless you knew specific people and villages. The security is the worst it has been in years and until the elections are finalized, it makes it pretty dicey. I’ve been so lucky to ride there dozens and dozens of times since 2009 in many parts of the country. Bamiyan and the Panjshir Valley in particular are stunningly beautiful, as are areas I haven’t yet ridden in Badakshan and the Wakhan. Its an incredible country and even more so on two wheels, but until the security settles down again, it’s a tough recommendation to make.
Bike: That’s totally understandable. I was surprised to hear that you had ridden there at all. I saw Giant bikes being unloaded in the movie. Besides them and Liv, who else made this project a possibility? Were there local cycling chapters you could lean on?
Galpin: At this point, the work has been entirely done by my organization, Mountain2Mountain, and the support of Liv and Giant Bicycles, with assistance from Primal Wear, Skratch Labs and Osprey Packs. Now that we are starting to share this story publicly, individuals, bike shops and other organizations are starting to get involved, but up until now its basically been a one woman show.
Galpin’s memoir, Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan will be released September 16th. She is also the producer of the upcoming documentary film, Afghan Cycles, about the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team premiering spring 2015.