Vehicle for change

In the province of Bamiyan rides the first official women's cycling team in Afghanistan outside of Kabul. Together, they're challenging social norms and empowering local women and girls with the support of their community.

Nestled in a valley that runs through the Hindu Kush mountain range in the central highlands of Afghanistan sits Bamiyan, the capital of one of the most peaceful provinces in the country.

The rural city is home to the cliffs that once bore the Buddhas of Bamiyan: ancient carvings of what were for centuries the world's tallest Buddha statues, standing at nearly 175 and 120 feet, respectively, before the Taliban demolished them in 2001. Now the hollowed cliffs are the backdrop for a group bringing about a very different kind of change: a women's cycling team.

The team, currently coached by 24-year-old Zakia Mohammadi, is just the second women's cycling team in Afghanistan. A national team, which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, was formed in Kabul about six years ago, and a third team was recently formed in the northern province of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Despite what the presence of these teams might suggest, the concept of women riding bicycles is still considered taboo in Afghanistan, limiting women's access to schools, jobs and other resources. It was in 2014, when Mohammadi watched local girls without access to other transportation walk upwards of two hours to get to school, that she realized the full extent of these limitations.

"I was so angry," Mohammadi said in an email correspondence. "I consulted with my best friend and my family [and they] said you [can help those girls.]"

So she did. Mohammadi and her best friend, Zahra Naarin Hussano, founded the team in Bamiyan, which has grown to 12 members, ranging in age from 14 to 24. They ride together daily, traveling as far as 12 miles to train before and after work and school. They recruit and teach other girls and young women. They are registered with a sports federation in Kabul. They have won the support of their community, even the men. And they did it all on their own.

The collective goal, of course, is to eventually participate in international competitions. They have a ways to go before then but are working on competing against the team in Kabul and the one in Mazar-i-Sharif more regularly. Perhaps of equal if not more importance than the goals Mohammadi and her teammates have set out to accomplish together on their bikes is the general freedom of mobility they have unlocked, on their own, through cycling.

Bicycles have long been a symbol of such freedom throughout the world. They played a pivotal role in the women's rights movement of the late 19th century in the United States, when women began to ride. Susan B. Anthony once claimed bicycling had done "more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."

Now, more than a century later and half a world away, bicycles are still helping women to do the same.

The team exercises during an early-morning practice in a field adjacent to where the Buddhas of Bamiyan once stood. The now-hollowed cliffs are a reminder of the present-day peace in the province that allows Zakia Mohammadi and her teammates to train without constant fear of their security.

The team, which has earned the support of its rural community, loads up the truck for an early-morning ride. On Fridays, when everyone has a free day off from school and work, the team often rides at Band-e Amir National Park. Named Afghanistan's first national park in 2009, Band-e Amir is located about an hour away from the capital of Bamiyan.

Mohammadi poses with her father, Dawood, during a team ride at Band-e Amir. He first taught Mohammadi how to ride when she was 5 years old and continues to support her as she coaches the team of young women. He also owns a bike shop in Bamiyan.

Mohammadi's sister Reihana, 14, is also a part of the women's cycling team in Bamiyan.

The team rides during an early-morning practice as farmers who are going to tend to their potato fields look on.

Tahera Houssaini, center, talks to a teammate before practice begins on the main highway outside of Bamiyan when a motorist passing by notices them. The team is used to attention like this, especially when training outside of its town. But the routes that wind through the province are safe and a very different scene from the congested streets of Kabul -- which is just over 100 miles to the southeast -- where women cyclists are more likely to face resistance for riding.

Reihana Mohammadi, left, and a teammate dance for the other young women after a team ride through Band-e Amir on a Friday. In the background is one of the six deep blue lakes the national park is known for.

Reihana Mohammadi, left, shares a laugh with teammate Fatima Ataie, 18, before the team heads out on an evening ride.

Mohammadi pushes her youngest sister, Honey, 7, on her bike behind the family home. Mohammadi is also part of the Bamiyan ski club and was the first Afghan woman to paraglide, both in Bamiyan and in Kabul.

Zakia Mohammadi, left, and her sister Reihana fix their makeup after eating lunch before an afternoon bike ride.

The team rides with confidence down the main bazaar of Bamiyan during an evening practice. Beyond competing in international competitions, Mohammadi hopes cycling will bring her team success outside of the sport. "The girls will be improving ... in their skills and life so I believe that they can do everything that they want," Mohammadi wrote to ESPN via email.

Reihana stands outside the family home getting ready for a ride as her mother, Nasuna, watches. Like her sister Zakia, Reihana has been an active biker since she was 5 years old, when her father got her on a bike.

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