Biking In Afghanistan: The Power Of Two Wheels To Change Perspective

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” John F. Kennedy

Bikes have long been a simple mode of transportation, getting us from point A to point B. But riding a bike doesn’t just get you somewhere; the process is fun. There is joy in riding a bicycle.

When I travel I am always on the lookout for bikes and what the local bike culture is. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, bikes are everywhere. It’s a city filled with commuters, cross racers and road riders. It’s a city with a strong bike culture and thanks to the work of bike advocates and groups like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance there are plenty of incentives to ride.

Coming from a place like Portland, it’s easy to take my easy bike commute for granted. Other cities are not always graced with the same ease of life on two wheels; but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

My first day in Kabul, we were in the midst of afternoon traffic hour. Cars, minivans and motorcycles were everywhere. There was even the occasional goat on the side of the street. In the midst of this chaotic hustle and bustle, men on bicycles wove in and out of traffic, dodging cars and doing the kind of cycling maneuvers that are normally equated with bike messengers.I was stressed, and it had nothing to do with being in a conflict zone. The thought of bikes in this mess of traffic was too much.

I thought back to my own close calls with cars – the near misses that keep you aware every time you get on your bike. I shuddered and wondered if I would have the mental capacity to deal with cycling in the midst of Kabul traffic on a daily basis. The phrase “this isn’t Portland …” kept popping into my head.

Making a U-turn in the middle of a busy road to avoid a traffic jam, we nearly hit a man with a kid sitting on his handlebars. Both the driver and cyclist insisted on their right of way, resulting in the bicycle tapping the front of our minivan and both our driver and the cyclist shouting at each other. I looked at my friend Shannon who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and knows the ins and outs of daily life. She just looked at me and shrugged. This was normal apparently.

What is not normal, however, is seeing a woman on a bicycle. As Shannon said in a recent interview about her own experience with biking in Afghanistan, “I had one man say to me, with this very shocked look on his face, how impressed he was, that it takes a lot of intelligence to ride a bike, alluding that that’s why women don’t ride bikes,” she said. “It became an interesting conversation starter.”

But that perspective is changing. There’s an Afghan women’s cycling team that competes internationally. One day we happened upon a girl riding to school just south of Kabul. In a country where conflict is a constant and women’s rights have a long way to go, it’s things like this that keep you inspired. Small change leads to big change.

In the rural village of Istalif, Shannon and I were even invited to take a cruise down the main street on a well-outfitted old bicycle, complete with a siren-sounding bell and streamers on the handlebars. The men laughed as we pedaled back and forth. A woman on a bicycle? How amusing!

It’s interesting to think about how much a simple thing like a bicycle can do to change perspective. As Susan B. Anthony once said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The simple joys that come from riding a bicycle are undeniable; the smiles from a group of young Afghan kids on their way to school stopping to ride with Shannon when she was out on her mountain bike are a vivid memory. If there is a cultural bridge to cross, a bike may very well be the way to do it.

At the end of October 2012, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.


Watch A Cyclist Abuse A $16,000 Bike

When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France a few months back, he did it astride a Pinarello Dogma 2 road bike frame, which is made of carbon fiber, weighs just two pounds and comes with a price tag of about $16,000.

Cyclist Martyn Ashton got his hands on the very same frame recently and let’s just say he put it to test in ways that Wiggins wouldn’t even attempt. No one will ever confuse the two riders out on the road, as their styles aren’t even remotely similar. See for yourself in the video below, in which Ashton finds new and creative ways to abuse this very expensive bike.

Video Of The Day: ‘Line Of Sight’ Trailer From The 2012 Bicycle Film Festival

While most eyes are on the Tour de France, there’s a much more intriguing form of cycling that’s quickly becoming a phenomenon: underground bicycle messenger racing.

Yes, it’s a real thing, and it appears to be spreading. Filmmaker Lucas Brunelle spent more than a decade profiling and documenting messenger cultures around the world, and he recently released “Line of Sight,” a 60-minute documentary film that premiered Saturday at the 2012 Bicycle Film Festival in New York City. According to the description:

This is bike riding like you’ve never seen before, in gripping first-person perspective through the most hectic city streets, on expressways in Mexico City, over the frozen Charles River, under the Mediterranean Sea, across the Great Wall of China and deep into the jungles of Guatemala.

Sounds much more gripping than the winding, tree-lined roads of France.

Photo Of The Day: Wheelie In Pennsylvania

The photos I pick for “Photo Of The Day” are normally photos taken by others. Friends and strangers qualify equally for my photo picks so long as a photo of theirs gets my attention and I feel compelled to share it. Rarely do I use my own photo, but this photo I snapped over the weekend seemed worthy of breaking the rule to me. While visiting my brother’s family in Greensboro, Pennsylvania, which is on the border of West Virginia, my 13-year-old nephew and 5-year-old niece went outside with their bikes. My nephew, Riley, popped a wheelie and I caught it. With everything else blurred out around him and his bike at the center focus, this photo embodies a little piece of traditional summer in the country to me. I hope you don’t mind my sharing it.

Want your photo or video considered for “Photo Of The Day” or “Video Of The Day?” Just upload your photos to the Gadling Flickr Pool or comment here with links to your videos.

Win A Trip To The Tour de France From Cannondale

Are you a cycling fan who has always dreamed of attending the Tour de France? Then Cannondale has a Facebook contest with a prize specifically designed for you. The company is giving one lucky fan a chance to attend the race in July and actually become a member of Team Liquigas-Cannondale for a week.

In order to win the contest you’ll first have to “Like” Cannondale on their Facebook page and then click on the Tour de France icon to fill out the online form. In addition to providing basic contact information, you’ll also be asked questions like who your favorite rider on the team is and what your prefect ride is like. Answering those questions creatively will go a long way toward gaining some attention and impressing the judges, who will select 25 finalist for the next round of the competition. If you make the cut, you’ll then be asked to create a short video introducing yourself more fully.

The winner of the competition will receive an all expense paid trip to attend the Tour, where they’ll get to hang around backstage at the race for a week. They’ll also get to ride in the team car, hand out water bottles, help prep the bikes and more. And if that wasn’t enough, the winner will also receive a new Cannondale SuperSix EVO, a bike that is valued at more than $5500. The EVO has been called the “Best Bike in the World,” which means it should be more than adequate for your next spin around town.

The contest closes on May 31st, so you’ll have to hurry to get signed up. With a little luck, you could find yourself in France this summer.

[Photo credit: Steven Eckelberry via WikiMedia Commons]