Afghanistan's female riders look to flee the Taliban amid fears for their lives

Afghanistans riders Masomah R and Zahra Alizada L take part in a cycling training session on June 28 2017 in Guehenno western FranceMasomah and Zahra Alizada two Afghan refugees passionate about cycling and in danger in their country of origin were welcomed in Brittany by the French family of Thierry Communal Their dreams participate in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 and become the first Afghan women medallists AFP PHOTO JEANSEBASTIEN EVRARD Photo credit should read JEANSEBASTIEN EVRARDAFP via Getty Images
Zahra and Masomah Ali Zada train in France in 2017 after seeking asylum in the nation. Masomah rode with the Refugee Olympic Team in Tokyo. (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has already had dire consequences for the country’s cycling prospects, with the national federation preparing to evacuate tens of female riders and several officials over fears for their safety. 

Huge progress has been made since the Taliban were last in power 20 years ago, most notably on the women’s side of the sport, but it all appears to have been wiped out in the blink of an eye. 

A source at the Afghanistan Cycling Federation has told Cyclingnews that the organisation and its members currently find themselves in a state of panic as the Taliban establishes its rule over the country and sets about drawing up new legislation. 

Given the Taliban’s traditionally brutally oppressive stance on women’s rights, the federation fears repercussions over what it has done for women’s cycling, such as creating clubs and teams at regional and national level.

“Many people’s lives are now under threat,” said the source, who did not wish to be identified. “This has become a great danger for us. We did not think at all that the government might fall.

“The Taliban have not taken action for now, because it has been four days since they took power, but after coming to full power, they may settle accounts with each of us, and I do not know what they will do to us. They can do anything with those of us who have worked in the field of women's liberation.”

When the Taliban last ruled in Afghanistan, there was a national cycling team comprising eight riders, all male. Since the country has been governed as a democratic republic, however, the sport has blossomed. The federation has 200 registered riders and more than 2000 unregistered members, along with a national team of more than 50 athletes. It has organised road races but also events across mountain biking and BMX. 

Women’s cycling had gained a foothold, although riders have faced the regular and recent threat of physical and verbal abuse for simply being out on their bikes. A strong contingent has nevertheless grown thanks to the organisation of a national team, provincial clubs, and a number of races and events. 

Masoumah Ali Zada, who sought asylum in France, made history by competing at the recent Olympic Games in Tokyo, where she rode under the banner of the Refugee Olympic Team and voiced a message of hope for Afghanistan, refugees, and women.

Her ride and message garnered global attention but recent events have inflicted a monumental setback. 

“We had a plan to participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics, but all our hopes have been dashed,” said our source.

Quite apart from wondering what the future might hold for Afghan cycling, there is the rather more urgent concern of the safety of those involved in the sport. Sportswomen throughout the country have reportedly been busy trying to conceal all evidence of their sporting activity, but true safety will only come when they are beyond Afghan borders. 

The cycling federation has appealed for support from cycling’s international governing body, the UCI, which has been looking to help facilitate the exits of those at risk.

“Arrangements have now been made through the presidency of the Afghan Cycling Federation so that we can move the women and senior members of the Federation out of Afghanistan to save their lives,” said the source we spoke to.

“That includes the president of the federation, the deputies, and the secretary general, because they have all done their jobs as coordinators and planners, and action will be taken by the Taliban.”

At present, flights are still running out of Kabul, with US forces still in control of the airfield. The situation of riders and Federation staff depends on whether they can be granted asylum in another country, with Canada looking like the most promising option. Time, however, is clearly of the essence.

“We have spoken with the UCI to coordinate with Canada to accommodate senior members and girls who are at serious risk,” said the source.

“We are waiting for the answer to find hope for us and provide us with a visa, we are ready whenever we receive a positive answer.”

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Patrick Fletcher

Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist, and former deputy editor of Cyclingnews, 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. 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.