Ordinarily, mountain bikers spend most of their time flying down trails that have already been blazed, not carving the paths themselves. But the relationship that native Afghan Farid Noori ’18 has with the sport has hardly been an ordinary one. The founder of Mountain Bike Afghanistan — a non-profit whose stated goal “is to empower Afghan youth with the joy of riding and competing on mountain bikes, as well as to connect people across borders and cultures through their shared love of the outdoors and the sport of biking” — only came to the U.S. to study ßat age 16, a fact surprising to many given the unmistakable feeling of comfort and ease that he projects. He hardly even knew what a mountain bike was until the summer before he began at Middlebury, when he happened to attend a race with his host family in New Mexico.
According to Noori, the connection was immediate. Without hesitation, he asked one of the riders if he could take his bike for a spin — nothing challenging, just a quick trip up and down the mountain (spend some time with Noori, and you’ll realize that he construes the word “challenge” differently than most). “That day, I realized two things,” he later said: “that [mountain biking] is something that I wanted to do; but also, something about that word, mountain biking. We were in the U.S., but all the crazy mountains are back home. Why is there such a thing called ‘mountain biking’ here, and not at home?”
So here he stands now, almost four years removed from that seminal moment and staring down the end of his career as a Middlebury student. It would be hard to envision someone taking a more comprehensive approach to the mountain biking lifestyle: in addition to his short and long-term plans for his non-profit, Noori is also pursuing a professional mountain biking career of his own in the US. Last fall, he “sort of” (his words — a typical understatement) became the first Afghan to race in the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Biking National Championship in Missoula, Montana. He has performed well enough to earn a Category–1 certification, qualifying him to race as a semi-pro, and will spend the rest of this year trying to accumulate enough points at races to garner a professional certification.
But for Noori, mountain biking has never come easily. Or rather, one should say that the mountain bikes themselves have never come easily. “Mountain bikes are very expensive,” he explains. “It’s not only an obstacle to entry in Afghanistan, which is a poorer country, but in the US as well, it’s an obstacle. The cost is a huge barrier.” When he first arrived at Middlebury, he knew he wanted to pursue mountain biking, so he immediately got involved with the cycling club and started signing up for races, even before he had wheels of his own.
Noori had to settle for road biking over mountain biking for his first foray into competitive racing. He remembers his first taste fondly. “I invested in a $265 cheap road bike that I found on Google,” he remembers. “And when the bike came in, it actually wasn’t the correct size. So I went to my first race — I hadn’t ridden more than ten miles at a time, and this was a twenty-mile race. It was a s***show. It was crazy. But I had a fun time. My goal was not to come in last, and I achieved that — well, my first goal was to finish this race, to accomplish it.”
He hasn’t looked back since. That fall, he came into the mountain bike season with even more excitement; Kai Wiggins ’16.5, a fellow member of the cycling club who raced professionally, had a spare mountain bike that a sponsor had given him for cross-training. He told Noori to meet him in a parking lot one day and gave him the bike to use as his own. The rest is history. Noori recalls taking advantage of the mild winter in Vermont that year. “It was warm,” he said. “There wasn’t any snow at all. I would ride all winter long, I would do it every day. I was kind of like a dog on a bone, just doing it every day.” But all the while, the thought lingered in the back of his mind: “Okay, I love doing this — but I want to take this home.”
That summer, Noori managed to secure CCI funding to travel to Colorado and work on an entrepreneurship incubator he had started the year before in Afghanistan, continuing his mountain bike training on the side. Of course, he soon realized where his priorities lay. To make his decision easier, the 2016 Summer Olympics were taking place around the same time in Brazil. Just like that, the entrepreneurship incubator fell by the wayside. Noori had become focused on bringing something else to Afghanistan: “We need to be in the Olympics,” he repeated to himself. “Afghanistan needs to be in the Olympics.” His pride in his home country, his own mountain biking career, his desire to spark real social change — everything was coming together, all under the umbrella of what would become Mountain Bike Afghanistan.
“My main attraction was this,” Noori went on to explain: “there’s this beautiful country, with some of the most spectacular mountains in the world — and all people know it for is war. How can we change that narrative? It’s not just a story of, ‘Hey, we’re bringing mountain bikes to Afghanistan.’ It’s about changing narratives: by building trails, by building infrastructure, by growing the sport, all of the sudden you create a projection of the country that people haven’t seen.”
And being the first Afghan mountain biker to represent his country at the Olympics — a personal goal of Noori’s — wouldn’t hurt, either. “That also contributes to the changing narrative, having the Afghan people at the forefront. So that motivates me to race, myself.”
Nor is Noori forcing a match between the sport he fell in love with and the country of Afghanistan. Listen to him talk, and you’ll start to find it a little absurd that nobody else has had this idea. “So in Afghanistan,” he says, “up until recently it was very rural: 80% of Afghans were farmers. It’s a very mountainous country. So they lived in these very isolated villages. I was born in one of them — where I was born, there are only two other houses, for as long as you can see. So how do we get places? My dad walked to school every day, for an hour and a half one way, and another hour and a half on the way back… And even in Kabul, where I live, on the weekends my dad and I go hiking in the mountains, and there’s so many people — women, young people, people who come to run on the mountain, you see people everywhere. So it’s a very active people — everybody is very healthy, they’re outside all the time.”
So Noori has the breathtaking landscape of Afghanistan and a naturally active, engaged people to work with. What will be necessary, as he explains, is simply to put a framework in place. “The thing that’s unique about Afghanistan is that 70% percent of the population is under 25 years old,” Noori says. “It’s a very young population. But in a given young Afghan’s life, based on personal experience, you go to school for three hours a day, and you do homework maybe one hour a day. All of the sudden, you have so much free time — how do you fill it up? What do you fill it up with? There’s so much energy; young people have so much energy.
“And in the US, there are so many opportunities and resources for young people. I joke with my friends that Middlebury has more sports infrastructure than the whole country of Afghanistan. So now let’s take that back to Afghanistan, a country with a young population who have also been deprived of these opportunities for the past four decades. And they’re aware of the fact that they’ve been deprived of these. They can see mountain biking videos on their iPhones and they’re like, ‘We want this… I want to be out there. I’m a young Afghan. I’m strong.’ It’s a very resilient culture, the war has been going on, and people still go about their lives every day, they’re trying to change the narrative, change their lives, and basically champion against the adversities of life in Afghanistan.”
Noori tells a story about a friend to really drive his point home. “I have a friend in Kabul — and she loves running, and she uses the same running app that I use, Strava. But because she’s female and the culture is not very recipient of people running and riding outside, I can see that her runs in Afghanistan are more or less inside a closed building — she does like five miles, but repetitively in a loop, because she’s safe there.
“And it kind of breaks my heart, but it also speaks to that sort of interest [in outdoor activities]. People want to do these things. We’ve just got to open it up. So as far as the interest goes, I feel like we’re not keeping up with it — like, this project needs to be there now.”
So it’s understandable that Noori might have a difficult time limiting the size of his project at first. But despite the size of his ambitions for Mountain Bike Afghanistan (MTBA for short), he realized that if the project was ever going to get off the ground, he had to start small and gradually expand in scope. With on-the-ground help from Sajjad Husaini, a competitive Afghan skier with some mountain biking experience (for cross-training), Noori has put together a team of 10 Afghans — ranging from teens to late twenties — who are ready to commit to serious training in the sport. He has been able to secure a partnership with a third-party organization with 501c status so that MTBA can accept donations as a non-profit. They’ve already received a number of helmets donated by Outdoor Gear Exchange, but Noori and his team still have quite a ways to go before they can even consider serious competition.
“Right now,” Noori says, “we’re raising the funds for a dozen mountain bikes of decent quality, other bike equipment like jerseys, helmets and stuff, and a bike shop/workshop for people to be able to repair their bikes. Once we have that up and going, our plan is to start building trails in this place that these guys are from, which is Bamyan in Afghanistan. It’s in central Afghanistan, up in the mountains, 10,000 feet. They have access to beautiful lakes — it’s the site of Afghanistan’s first national park and national reserve area — so we’d have permission to build trails there.”
Fortunately, the Noori who once had grand plans for an entrepreneurship incubator is hardly absent from MTBA, either. His hands are all over the non-profit’s “dollar-to-trail” concept, designed to attract the attention from major biking companies, in which donations equaling a certain dollar amount are met with a pledge to construct a certain length of mountain bike trail. “We’ll have to do the math of how much money and labor a mile of trail takes,” he says, “but this is a value that a lot of companies want to see. They don’t just want to give away bikes; they want to see some value created, which will contribute to the growth of the industry overall. So all of the sudden you have this new frontier in the world where people can go and bike, and it looks good for [the companies] — they can use it as a marketing tool. If Cannondale can do that and differentiate itself from Giant, then it’s a win for Cannondale. So it’s a good marketing tool for them.”
But Noori has hopes of raising a good portion of his funds from individual donors as well. With a grin, he warns that Middlebury students should stay on the lookout for Mountain Bike Afghanistan t-shirts on campus in the near future. But those eager to make a more immediate impact and support Noori’s tremendous undertaking can learn about MTBA, as well as how to donate, online at www.mtbafghanistan.com.
Or, for those who might find themselves more interested in Noori’s personal story as an athlete, he is currently facing a critical point in his racing career. “It has been a very tough journey,” he explains. “I’m still on those borrowed bikes, from Kai [Wiggins]— a road bike and a mountain bike. And they’re getting old: normally, in the racing world you upgrade your bike every year because of wear and tear. I’ve been riding the same bike for three years, and I’m going into my most important season this year, accumulating points toward getting my pro license. So having the right equipment is super important on this journey. And now I’m faced with the same problem again.” Moreover, after he gets his professional license, Noori has designs to participate in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan — no small undertaking. So to help him reach his goal, Noori has set up a MiddStart page (equivalent to GoFundMe for the Middlebury network), which can be found here: http://middstart.middlebury.edu/mountain-bike-afghanistan-an-olympic-dream/.
Try, if you will, to isolate Noori’s personal dream from his dreams for the country of Afghanistan, or vice-versa. They comprise two narratives — the story of a nation, and the story of a boy from that nation — that have converged at a single, astounding, inevitable point. From where we stand, it would almost be foolish to imagine one without the other.
“The biggest thing about mountain biking for me,” Noori says, “is the idea of getting outside. Forgetting your everyday stress, getting out on the trails, this act of cycling, pedaling out in the woods all by yourself or with your friends… and then after a while, through the very act of mountain biking — it’s challenging, you’re climbing all the time — you get to a point where you’re on top of the mountain, and you have this beautiful view and vista. Regardless of who you are in the world, that’s what it does to you. It’s a very peaceful process.
“And to Afghanistan, that’s so important. There’s an active conflict going on, people are fleeing the country to Europe. How do you instill in Afghans a sense of purpose and love for the place that they’re from? Without their having that perspective to look at their surroundings with an appreciative eye? It’s not hard to see a place that has been affected by conflict for more than 4 decades, where people are losing sight of hope, where there’s a corrupt government, the economy is very bad, there are explosions all around the country, there’s a war going on. How do you take a break from that?
“So my goal with the project is to give people an opportunity. The very act of building trails, and drawing and dragging people away from their troubled neighborhoods, their troubled villages, to a point where you can just relax, and take a moment to not thing about that, is super powerful, super empowering. Because if you always think about the conflict, it’s always going to be in your head. You need a break from it in order to face your challenges, in order for you to have a clear mind — and especially for the young people, it’s super important to have that. So that’s what the project can also provide. And that’s mainly one of the reasons I’m doing it.”
We might say that Noori is living his life in the hope that the Afghan people might find a new way to ride; more than that, he rides in the hope that his people might find a new way to live.