Slipping Through the Crack: Putting Afghanistan on the Map for International (UCI) Mountain Bike Racing
Doing your country's first international (UCI) race is a huge burden and responsibility. Everyone is watching, and not only you want to do well, you have to do well. At the same time, knowing that you aren't good enough yet can amount to a lot of pressure, which can either break or make you. On the other hand, recognizing that this was an incredible lifetime opportunity, for me and for the country, allowed me to handle the pressure and muster enough strength to line up against cycling's best. Though the results were disappointing compared to everyone else, I personally had one of my best races to date. I learned how to race like every second counted, and that's the biggest takeaway from my first UCI race. From here on, there is only one way forward: keep getting better.
In all honesty, I was very nervous before the race. The thought of lining up against the tip of the iceberg, the best of the field, was very very scary. A huge thank you to all of you for your support; it really gave me the confidence I needed to do this race. There was Stephen Hyde, the U.S. cyclocross national Champion who is not only super strong, but a wizard on the bike. There was Nick Lando who is one of the best emerging talents in the U.S. There was the Japanese junior national champion, and the list goes on… It was obvious I didn’t belong in this breed of riders, not yet, and thinking that everyone else that day thought the same, gave me goosebumps… But I also wanted to be up there. I needed to know what it was like in that league, what it takes to race at that level, and where I was sitting currently because the goal is to race at that level some day. There was one way to find out: show up, and do the race.
Not to mention that this was the first time an Afghan had participated in an international mountain bike race. That in itself weighed a lot. I reminded myself to be grateful for this opportunity, and to remember that my journey is different, that there was no use comparing myself to others, that this was my quest, and I need to do it my own way. All journeys must start somewhere, and this was the beginning of mine.
At the start line, the announcer called the riders to staging based on our international ranking, which I was at the bottom of. When at last, he said, “Farid Noori from Mountain Bike Afghanistan”, a voice spoke in my head: “hell yeah, Mountain Bike Afghanistan, you have made it! You are here, with everyone else. Now just ride your bike.” That was the first time the hundred or so spectators in this part of the world was hearing those words together: "Mountain Bike" and "Afghanistan". And, my self-made jersey was a near perfect exposé for that, with a thin strip of Black, Red, and Green running down the back. The whistle was blown, and off we went.
The pace was very fast right from the start. I was only able to hang on with the group for maybe three minutes before I was on my own. A big slap in the face. But I wasn’t surprised, and the race wasn’t over for me yet. I was going to ride as hard as possible, for as long as possible. There is a rule in these high profile races, and that is if you are getting caught by the front of the race, you will be pulled out. So after three laps and 1 hr and 13 minutes of racing, I was pulled out of the race. It was a disappointing result, but I honestly don’t think I could’ve done better. In fact, this was one of the best races I had done to date. The pressure before the race, the high stakes, the unique opportunity… all of them forced me to focus on the race, and give it everything I had, a feeling I fully experienced for the first time. For the entirety of the race, I raced like every second counted. I haven’t felt like that before.
Though the result wasn’t near anywhere I had hoped it would be, I find it to be in a good and hopeful place to build on and inch my way up. At last, the crack has opened, and Afghanistan has slipped right through it. And I am grateful to have been presented the opportunity to do it. It’s time to awaken the giant, and see where we can take Afghan Cycling next. For that, I am prepared to do anything.
Thank you to my coach Dave McIntosh, Ted King for his relentless mentorship, the Afghan National Cycling Federation, and every single one of you for the encouragement. The journey continues.