“I’m just so happy,” says one rider as she removes her aero helmet in the mid-afternoon Bruges sunshine. “This feels amazing,” adds another.
These aren’t the words of the new world time trial champion Ellen van Dijk, nor of the two other riders who will soon have medals hanging from their necks. They’re the words of the two riders who will finish dead and distant last.
Just by rolling down the start ramp of the UCI Road World Championship elite women's time trial in Flanders, however, Asma Jan and Kanza Malik made history, becoming the first women to race a bike internationally for Pakistan.
Cycling is a niche sport in the southwest Asian country but then again, so are all sports that are not cricket, which is something of a national obsession.
Despite a distinct lack of government funding, cycling has found a way to expand in recent years and, after appearances from male riders at Worlds and continental events, Monday marked a huge breakthrough for its women riders.
“It’s an incredible moment for Pakistan,” Jan told Cyclingnews in Bruges.
“What we’ve done is pave the way for the future women cyclists. After this, others will want to come into the sport and they will get better training and more exposure. I think this is a first step. There is always a first step and I feel really proud that I was one of the pioneers who can make this happen for other women in our country.”
Jan’s enthusiasm was matched and even surpassed when Malik rolled through the media zone around a quarter of an hour later, adrenaline seemingly still flowing free.
“At the start I was about to have a heart attack but in end it was magnificent. I’m just so happy. It was the experience of a lifetime,” she said.
“I feel really happy that from now on Pakistani women will be here every year. We’ve just opened up the doorway for them. We’re very new at this but maybe five years down the road we’ll be up there challenging everybody.”
Malik, 34, is a mechanical engineer and mother of two. She took up cycling a few years ago as a way to keep fit around the demands of her job in the corporate sector, and things have snowballed from there. She has now walked away from that job to set up a business and free up more time for cycling, and has also started working with Jody Warrington, a coach based remotely in the UK.
“I started cycling for health reasons and just got picked up on the radar,” she explained.
“Then I got a bit competitive, and started racing at a local level, then at national level. It took me three years to get to the national level and finally now I’m at international level. You have to prioritise cycling to get here, and that’s what I did.”
Jan, meanwhile, is a 45-year-old mother of three who has had an even more rapid rise. She took up the sport barely a year ago, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, and soon became a national champion.
“I was just like any other mum, raising my lovely children, then I became a cyclist,” she said, proudly pointing out that she produced her best-ever performance in the Flanders time trial, with a normalized power output of 150 watts and an average speed of more than 35kp/h for 53 minutes.
It was perhaps in the genes all along; Jan’s grandfather, Mehta Abdul Khalique, was a decorated rider in the pre-partition Indian subcontinent, and she wants to follow in his footsteps and go even further.
“I’m cycling in loving memory of my grandfather,” she said.
“He was selected for the Olympics in 1940 but it was cancelled due to World War II so he wasn’t able to go. But here I am. I would really like to make it to the Olympics and realise his legacy.”
Jan and Malik both ride for the Bikestan Cycling Academy, a club and team run by Shoaib Nizami that grew from the bike shop he set up in Karachi. The cycling federation is poorly funded by the government and so the trip to Belgium was organised as a joint-venture with Bikestan, which has quickly managed to establish a foothold in the Pakistan cycling landscape with a number of sponsorship deals. Among them are partnerships with Bianchi, which has provided equipment, and Sportful, which has provided clothing.
Bikestan was set up in 2017, a year after the first national road championships, and the sport has become increasingly professionalised in the years since. It’s only much more recently, however, that the barriers on the women’s side have started to be broken down.
And there are significant barriers to be broken down. Although Malik argues that Pakistan is, contrary to popular perception, "a progressive country", inequalities between men and women were laid bare by the World Economic Forum's 2021 Global Gender Gap report, which placed Pakistan 153rd of 156 countries.
“Basically, the cycling culture has developed a lot because of COVID. Cycling has become very popular - it’s now a cool thing to be a cyclist,” Jan suggested.
“Women haven’t felt secure training on the roads, but I think that’s changed due to COVID. There are fewer cars and drivers are more attuned to having cyclists on the road. Women now feel more comfortable to come out and ride.”
‘Potential’ was one of the keywords used by Jan used and it’s one that’s echoed by Malik.
“I’m excited because I’ve seen the talent. We just need to get awareness of cycling and how amazing it is, and we’ll see something," she said.
“Look at me. I started post-30, for fun, and after a few years, I’m here. Imagine if someone started at the right age, and came here with a decade of experience. It would be a game-changer, so let’s do it."
Monday was the end of the Worlds for Pakistan, who also fielded two riders in Sunday’s elite men’s time trial - Ali Jawaid and Khalil Amjad - but will have no representatives for the road races. However, the sense among the riders and staff is that this is just the beginning. They’re hoping to return for the 2022 Worlds in Australia, with the possibility of representation in the junior categories, and are even starting to get excited about the next Olympics in Paris in 2024.
It will surely require a bit of cash to be diverted away from cricket, but what’s clearly not lacking is enthusiasm.
Malik concludes with something of a statement of intent: “Pakistan will be on the map soon.”
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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