There was an unmistaken glimmer on the faces of the young women that bright morning in L’Aquila a few weeks ago. Those shining eyes full of excitement and triumph, as you would expect to see on a kid successfully riding his bike for the first time.
They could hardly believe it. Riding again? Is it really happening?
Over the last 15 months, they all went on a roller coaster journey between extremes of misery and hope, from fear to sudden relief, from loneliness to human warmth. Defeat and triumph. A journey that started when the Taliban marched through the streets of their villages in August 2021 with a regime of terror that put an abrupt end to all they thrived for: to be treated equally, to study and prosper, and yeah, to ride their bikes. “A bicycle is not a vehicle for us”, explained Mahnez, only 17 but matured by the ordeal. “It became the whole world. It gave us a reason to fight.”
So, here came the day that they all longed for, the day they could get on the bikes again and express the most basic freedom that for so long seemed almost unreachable.
As an eyewitness to the scene of joy that morning in L’Aquila, it was almost a surreal. After all, for most of us, the weekend ride, the coffee stop – it’s all taken for granted. And for a period of time, it was their story too. Those Afghan women were able to ride and even race almost freely. Arifa (20) recalls her first victory and the hope of becoming a successful rider – until it all came crashing down. “People always told us how bad is it for us to ride a bike… it’s only for boys, they use to say. But then came the new regime and they started threatening to kill us if we dare ride again.” Even studying was no longer an option.
The realization that they got to escape was not easy. For Mahnez, 16 at the time, it meant leaving behind her whole family. “I will always remember that day when we escaped, September 12, 2021” she recalls, staring at the pictures of her parents, sisters, and brother, who she has not seen since. There are sad stories of relatives who were arrested and beaten. “I miss them so much,” says Mahnez.
She was part of a group of Afghan cyclists that endured the toughest ordeal. They escaped by land to Pakistan and had to wait 10 long months before Italy opened its arms and granted them refugee status. With the support of the Italian Government, Israel – Premier Tech and its owner Sylvan Adams, and Italian journalist Francesca Monzone, they finally arrived and settled in L’Aquila. Here they live together in a few apartment buildings, study the language and even get university scholarships.
Sylvan Adams: “Seeing our Afghans’ gratitude for having been brought to freedom is truly uplifting, and gives me the energy to continue. This is tempered by the concerns and fears that our saved Afghans feel for their relatives and friends left behind. We were only able to save a few – totaling more than 400 – but the Talmud tells us that even a single life saved uplifts our world.”
Nothing gave that brave group of women more pleasure than the chance to ride again. “I feel peaceful and free,” said Zarifa. They are hopeful they will be able to take part in the special women’s Afghanistan world championship the UCI is holding in Switzerland on October 23rd. “We want to show the world that Afghan women can be successful cyclists,” says Mahnaz.
Watch the short documentary we produced, capturing their story: