Cyclists training at a high level require a great deal of mental and physical stamina, but for the women in Afghanistanâs National Cycling team it also helps to have thick skin and a great deal of optimism.
Not only are these women riding against the clock or their opponents, but also in the face of a traditionally male-dominated society, one that does not appreciate seeing women on bikes. Sometimes training in secret, changing locations at the last minute and dressed in long pants, full sleeves and headscarves under their helmets, these young women are paving the way for future generations.
Afghanistan counts 45 licensed women riders across all three categories: Juniors, Under-23 and Elite. At the Asian Cycling Championships in India last month four of the young women who failed to finish the road race through the streets of New Delhi came from Afghanistan.
No matter. The fact that they were at the start line is already a victory of sorts, according to Dominique Raymond, UCI Manager of Continental Confederation and National Federation Relations.
Dominique Raymond met members of this young team before the start of the race and was impressed by their enthusiasm and optimism, reflected in the fact that one of the young athletes has a 30km bike ride just to get to her training session.
âIt is heart-warming to see such determination from these women,â she said. âThey donât have an easy life but they are so happy to have this opportunity to cycle. Even when the conditions are trying, they are out there training. It goes to show the importance of sport in the everyday lives of people from all walks of life.
She added, âWe often talk about the globalisation of cycling and this is one of its success stories. In addition, it is a message of hope for young people everywhere.â
Dominique Raymond pointed out that a great deal of merit was due to the National Federation in Afghanistan, which was very proud of its three womenâs teams and which was now planning to develop the mountain bike discipline as well.
Salma Kakar, 17, was among those who failed to finish the Junior Womenâs race at the Asian Championships. But she is resolute in her dream which, she told NBC News, is âto wave the flag of Afghanistan in the Olympics, to prove to the world that women in Afghanistan have progressed.â
The teenager claims that, while some men try to humiliate her and her team mates, more and more are encouraging them.
âWe are changing minds,â she said.