This article originally published on BikeRadar
After six years of pioneering women's rights activism in war-torn Afghanistan with her Mountain2Mountain organization – and being the first woman to mountain bike there – National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Shannon Galpin is hoping to do something similar in the United States with the Strength in Numbers initiative, with mountain biking as the centerpiece of the program.
"All of that time [Mountain2Mountain] has been focused on the same idea: how do you create voice and value in women? How do you support women's rights?" Galpin told BikeRadar. "We are using the mountain bike as a vehicle for social justice. We want to use the bike as a way to build strength and voice in young women at risk and victims of gender violence. It's really a tool for our traditional programming."
Starting this spring, Strength in Numbers will hold five week-long camps, each designed to empower women who have been victims, or are at risk, of gender violence. Interestingly enough, the lynchpin of the scheme is something most of us take for granted: that uplifting feeling we get when we crest a hill, clean a challenging section of trail, or set a personal best on a road route.
"There are going to be week-long mountain bike camps where the women and the facilitators stay together for the week, mountain bike every day, and build camaraderie, literally build physical strength, build mental strength, and then talk about how to break the victim mentality – how you go from someone who has endured gender violence or who is at risk and instead how you find your voice, how you find your strength, and how you trust the other people around you to then become leaders back in the community.
"The goal really is that the camps are that first step, the catalyst to get the women to open up and challenge some basic physical fears and build physical strength."
Applicants to the program are required to sign a contract outlining how they plan to create positive change in their respective communities after the camp is over. According to Galpin, the plan is for Strength in Numbers to provide whatever support is necessary to make that happen, and it's the follow-up work that's most critical. Attendees are fully supported during the camps, too.
"We sponsor everything," said Galpin. "Alchemy [Bicycle Company] is building up steel versions of my bike, and everything's covered. In order to get a bike, [the women] have to sign a contract that lays out how they plan to be engaged and continue the ripple effect. Then we help support that as much as we can. We pay for them to come out, Primal Wear and Shredly are providing the clothing, and Skratch [Labs] is coming out to cook – we're essentially treating these women as if they were pro athletes."
Shannon Galpin's custom Agrius 29
Galpin's own bike – a stainless steel 29er singlespeed hardtail – is itself a symbol of strength. Galpin was first introduced to the folks at Alchemy through Skratch Labs founder Allen Lim, whom she met at the TEDxMileHigh event in Denver, Colorado.
"[Allen] basically knew that, while Alchemy couldn't afford to build us bikes for free, I wanted a partner that had soul," Galpin told us. "I wanted a partner that gave a shit, that would be with us for years to come, and that as they get stronger, we get stronger, versus just being another side project of a bike company who didn't really invest in what we were doing personally."
Alchemy built Galpin's bike with KVA stainless steel tubing, Paragon rocker dropouts to accommodate the Gates Centertrack belt drive, and a 44mm diameter head tube to accommodate the tapered Fox fork. SRAM provided the Avid Elixir 9 brakes, the aluminum cockpit components come from Ritchey, and the Stan's NoTubes ZTR rims and DT Swiss 240s hubs were built by Wheelbuilder.com.
"We elected to use the color pink for the decal work on Shannon's bike," said Alchemy president Matt Simpson. "I called her before she arrived to make sure pink was not a dangerous color to ride around Afghanistan. Shannon appreciated my concern for her safety but also reminded me of the cause. Together we coined the phrase, #GIVEASHIT. We elected to place a huge #GIVEASHIT on her top tube to communicate the message. When Shannon arrived back from Afghanistan we mounted her pure silver head badge."
The bikes Alchemy will supply for the Strength in Numbers program will be very similar, but with conventional chain drives and final specs still to be determined. Eventually, program attendees will get to take them home afterward.
"At this point our goal is for them to take home the bikes, but we may have to start with a fleet to use in year one depending on funding," Galpin said. "The money is coming from fundraising and corporate sponsors and private donors.
"Two of Alchemy's clients have already offered to sponsor a girl and bike – Mountain2Mountain is reaching out to our supporters – and Skratch is working on partnerships and donations. Both have offered to host a fundraiser to raise awareness and money for Strength in Numbers as well, at their 'offices' in Boulder and Denver. It's going to take the entire bike community and Mountain2Mountain's community to get these women on bikes but it's totally doable and should be our goal."
"In five years in Afghanistan I never found women that bike – because women aren't allowed to bike in Afghanistan," Galpin continued. "But there is now kind of an underground movement under the Olympic committee – there's a national women's team and a national men's team with the same coach for both. One of the reasons I was riding in Afghanistan was to push against that barrier that women can't mountain bike, and there are very few countries in the world where that's an issue.
"For the last five years, it's been my voice, one storyline, trying to tell the story of others, trying to rally support, trying to change the world. Now, after next year, we'll have 51 women and 50 more voices. Essentially, we're using the bike to create an army of community leaders of women."
Strength in Numbers will hold camps beginning in spring 2013, in several locations around the country, mostly concentrated in Colorado (Galpin is based in Breckenridge) and Utah. There are also plans to eventually hold a camp in Harlem in New York City.
For more information see the Strength in Numbers website.