Empowering Women in Afghanistan Through Mountain Bikes

Colorado-based cyclist and 2013 Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year, Shannon Galpin, became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan in 2009, and is now using the bicycle as a vehicle for social change.

She talked to us about her inspiring work, her love for cycling and how she found a way to marry the two.

The Clymb:  Can you share a bit of your cycling background with our readers?
Shannon Galpin:  I always rode a bike, but I didn’t fall in love with biking until I moved to Europe. It was living in Darmstadt, Germany, riding the forest trails of the Odenwald on the weekend and commuting to work during the week, that my love affair with the bike began. Nearly ten years later, during the summer of 2007 while I was living in Breckenridge, Colo., I was turned on to mountain biking—in particular single-speed mountain biking—and I haven’t stopped pedaling since.

I started racing the first summer I got on a mountain bike, and raced a few races in Winter Park in 2007 and 2008, always placing or winning overall. But keep in mind the singlespeed women’s category was quite small. I also did an unsupported solo one-day ride of the White Rim in Moab in 2007 and realized that I loved the exploration by bike much more than racing itself, although I enjoyed the challenge of both. The irony is that I fell in love with mountain biking the same year I founded Mountain2Mountain and decided to start working in Afghanistan.

The Clymb:  Can you tell us about winning the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award? Was it a surprise?
SG:  It was a complete surprise as I had no idea I had been nominated. Ten people are chosen each year from around the world, and I never would have considered myself part of that world. It’s an incredible honor to be chosen. National Geographic is a historic institution that gives a level of gravitas and legitimacy to everything it associates itself with, and I was really humbled I would be chosen for my humanitarian work and the way I weave adventure through my life and my activism. They seemed to recognize me for what I am first and foremost—an activist—and saw that adventure is simply a part of how I live my life versus a goal I chase.

The Clymb:  You were the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan. What inspired that bike ride and what went into preparing for the trip?
SG:  I started working in Afghanistan in 2009 and it was then I discovered that women and girls are not allowed to ride bikes. I was focused on other projects, but on a road trip to the northern part of Afghanistan I was struck by the beauty of the mountains and the crisscrossing goat paths that could be explored on foot. The possibility that they could also be explored by bike sparked a curiosity in me. I started asking questions and decided to bring my bike with me on my next trip. I rode in the Panjshir Valley for the first time in 2009, on a series of small experimental rides along the valley to gauge the reaction of the locals I encountered.

Here I was, an American woman doing something local women were not allowed to do, and no one was really sure how the locals would react. Yet, time and time again, the reaction was curiosity, not animosity. The bike became an icebreaker to trailside and roadside conversations about myself, my culture, my work, and their culture, their community and their family—all of which allowed me to dig deeper with questions about this deep-seated taboo.

I began to ride on every visit to Afghanistan in a different area, depending on where I was working. A year later, I embarked on a lengthier journey across the Panjshir Valley, which I tied into a series of bike rides and fundraisers back home, in the US, to take part on the same day as a means to connect communities and culture and raise money and awareness for projects that benefitted girls. That ride, dubbed the Panjshir Tour, was meant to highlight the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan, and the work I was doing, through the vehicle of a bike.

The Clymb:  Can you tell us about the trip itself? How long it was, the routes you took?
SG:  I have been to Afghanistan 19 times now and I have ridden a bike on almost every trip except the first two. Exploring different areas of the country where I was working, taking time to revisit villages and families, I realized the bike was becoming an important part of my work.

I didn’t expect to find girls on bikes for a long time as it was clear to everyone I spoke with that girls riding bikes was not acceptable. Yet, in 2012, I met a member of the men’s cycling team who introduced me to his coach who, as it turns out, was also coaching a women’s team. My mind was blown wide open and I immediately dove in headfirst to support the team and look at how the changing situation of Afghanistan could allow a shift in this controversial subject. Could girls be allowed to ride bikes just like boys someday? Could we use bikes as a vehicle for social justice like we see in other countries (to provide access to school and medical care, and reduce the rates of gender violence against young women often attacked when walking)?

It was a small rip in a fabric that was beginning to tear wide open in the post-Taliban era of Afghanistan that was seeing huge leaps forward in women’s empowerment and opportunities. Perhaps the bike could be an integral part of future women’s rights movements by providing independent mobility and freedom of opportunity.

The Clymb: 

 That bike ride inspired a book (Mountain to Mountain). Can you tell us a bit about it?
SG:  Mountain to Mountain was inspired by the desire to show the world an authentic example of what the journey of an activist looks like and what it’s like to be a survivor of gender violence, a mother, an adventurer, a traveler, an activist and an athlete all rolled up inside one body.

I wanted to open up the discussion about the choices we make, and the active role we all need to play as citizens in our global community. The bike is part of what makes me stronger. And the irony is that the bike is now part of my work—as a vehicle for social justice a tool and symbol of freedom and the women’s rights movement.

But the book was never meant to be about the bike or a particular ride. The book is about the journey one woman took to confront her demons, make a difference in the world and set an example for her daughter—and to the world around her—that individual action matters and that change is possible.

The Clymb:  Did seeing the plight of women in Afghanistan inspire your creation of the non-profit Mountain2Mountain or was it something already in the works?
SG:  Mountain2Mountain was founded by me on Thanksgiving 2006, but didn’t officially become a non-profit until 2009. I started by collaborating with two non-profits to fundraise and learn the tools to motivate communities into action. When I realized I knew what I wanted to do outside the traditional constructs of international aid and foreign development, I formed my own non-profit and chose Afghanistan as my launching off point.

I went there in 2008 on a listening tour of sorts. I wanted to understand the situation for women in a country repeatedly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. I wanted to understand what ingredients are necessary for gender violence and oppression.

I undertook a variety of projects (supporting schools; creating computer labs; collaborating on graffiti art projects; creating the photography-based, street art installation—Streets of Afghanistan; working inside women’s prisons; and spearheading a school for the deaf) during the four years I was working there before I started working with the cycling program and creating the Strength in Numbers program which encompasses the Afghan national cycling team, the burgeoning girls bike clubs sprouting up and the creation of programs that would support other girls in other countries through bike camps as a means to spark community based activism.