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Midd student from Afghanistan following dream of pro cycling

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Posted on August 6, 2018 |
By Rachel Cohen



Biker7840.jpg
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SENIOR Farid Noori, who has created the non-profit group Mountain Bike Afghanistan, is seen above competing for Afghanistan in a July 28 race at Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston. Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur. Below, Noori at the college. Photo by Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Forty-five minutes before his race at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center on the last Saturday in July, Farid Noori, 24, of Ghazni, Afghanistan, pedaled up to a viewpoint beside the Williston race course. Taking a quick break from his warm-up, Noori, a Middlebury College student, sat and took a deep breath.

“It’s going to be fine,” he thought.

Then as the clock approached 3:40 p.m., he lined up against some of the best mountain bikers in the world — U.S. Cyclo-cross National Champion Stephen Hyde and the Canadian and the Japanese national champions — to represent Afghanistan as a professional rider in an international mountain bike race for the first time.

Noori earned a Category-1 certification at the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Biking National Championship in Missoula, Mont., in 2017, which has allowed him to race as a semi-pro in the U.S., only one level below professional. He is working toward achieving professional status. In the meantime the Afghanistan Cycling Federation recognized him as an elite racer, giving him the license to race as a professional for Afghanistan.

Needless to say, he was nervous.

The night before the race, he lay awake thinking about how he was going to bike alongside the hardest competition he had ever faced in his three years of racing. But another thought helped him push through.

“The other part of me was like, ‘You know, that’s not the only reason you’re doing this,’” Noori said.

For as long as Noori has known about the sport of mountain biking, he has dreamed of racing professionally for his nation. Racing professionally would not only propel his own racing career, but also, and perhaps more importantly to him, it would allow him to help his country.

Noori wants to bring the sport of mountain biking to Afghanistan for the people of the mountainous country to enjoy, which is why he founded the non-profit Mountain Bike Afghanistan, known as MTBA. He also hopes that through representing Afghanistan in international events, he will be able to shift the western media narrative that often portrays the South Asian country as merely a war-torn land.

Remembering his primary motive put Noori at ease.

“Just peddle your bike; that’s what you love,” he told himself.

At the starting line, he calmed himself down, reminding himself that no matter the results, it would be a valuable experience.

“Farid Noori from Mountain Bike Afghanistan,” the announcer spoke into the microphone.

“That just felt so good,” Noori said of hearing his name and his organization over the loudspeaker. “The fact that people heard that — the audience, the racers — that kind of reminded me of what it was all about: trying to represent (Afghanistan) and get us out there.”

Noori sported a homemade jersey, which his brother helped him design. On the white shirt, they stenciled the MTBA logo with green, red and black fabric markers ordered online just that week.

When he heard the starter’s whistle, Noori peddled as hard as he could.

“The pace was so fricken fast, and I was hanging on for dear life behind these guys,” he said. It was very tough. I couldn’t hang onto their wheels for too long. Within five minutes, I stopped seeing them. But then it was like a one man show for me, and I just tried to do my absolute best.”

His goal was to hang in the race for as long as possible.

According to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the international governing body for cycling, riders in cross-country races are pulled out of the race when their times are 80 percent slower than the time of the race leader’s first lap.

This July 28 race, the men’s professional cross-country Olympic race at the Julbo Eastern Grind MTB Race, consisted of five laps around a 4-mile twisty, rocky course.

“My goal was to just keep on going as long as possible before they caught me,” Noori said. “I gave it my all, and I hung in there for three laps before I was pulled out.”

“Even though the results weren’t glamorous — they were pretty bad — it was one of the best races I’ve ever done,” Noori said.

He said he had never been more focused in a race.

“I felt a pressure I had never felt before in races,” Noori said. “I had one goal, and I was giving it 100 percent all the time.”

In the days following the race, Noori had ample time to reflect.

“I’m still getting over it. I have moments where I’m like ‘Whoa I just raced against these guys.’ I’m really grateful I had that opportunity and it’s still sinking in,” Noori said.

MT BIKE AFGHANISTAN

A GROUP OF riders from Mountain Bike Afghanistan (MTBA), a non-profit created by Middlebury College student Farid Noori, pedals though the Bamiyan province in central Afghanistan as part of MTBA’s first training ride in July.

Courtesy photo

In addition to marking a personal achievement, Noori’s first professional race signified a gain in momentum for Mountain Bike Afghanistan.

Stephen Hyde approached him after the race to acknowledge his mission to bring mountain biking to Afghanistan.

“It’s all about that — going to meet these incredible riders who I admire so much, who care about what I’m doing, and having an opportunity to learn from them,” Noori said.

Racing in increasingly high-profile competitions is Noori’s way of bringing awareness to his organization, which is making headway in the mountains of Afghanistan.

MTBA just started weekly trainings in the province of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, which Noori noted is a relatively safe area. The training group consists of eight young men, led by Noori’s friend Sajjad Husaini, a skier. Four of the eight men do not have mountain bikes, and instead rode cruisers in Bamiyan’s Dragon Valley on the first full-day training ride.

Through fundraising, Noori hopes that MTBA can provide the training group with improved equipment. Last summer, he sent over helmets, which he said is the most important thing for a cyclist to have.

“Going into my final semester and then out of college, I’m going to be focused more full-time on raising funds and finding support,” Noori said.

Another one of Noori’s goals is for women riders to attend the trainings.

“Cycling is a vehicle for change and a tool for freedom, independence,” he said.

Noori acknowledged that women riding bikes is controversial in Afghanistan, but a club for female cyclists does exist in Bamiyan.

Although Noori would like to go to Afghanistan and ride with the training group that he created from afar, he hasn’t been home in three years and can’t go back now, as it would be difficult to get a visa back to the U.S.

Thus, he supports MTBA in every way he can from his home base in Vermont. This often means spreading the word online and on social media.

Most recently, Noori has started a newsletter through which he shares news about MTBA’s trainings in Bamiyan and news about his own racing career. He calls it the “Hindukush Herald,” named after the mountain range that extends from the Himalayas into northeast Afghanistan. A “special feature” that Noori includes in the newsletter is a “Hindukush Hotspot,” a destination in the mountain range that has potential for mountain biking or skiing, or one that shows an especially beautiful landscape.

“The idea is to introduce Afghanistan’s alpine mountains to the rest of the world,” Noori said. “Not a lot of people know Afghanistan is a crazy mountainous country.”

Not only does he use his platform to share news about MTBA with his audience in the U.S., but Noori also directs his outreach toward Afghans in hopes of increasing interest in the sport of mountain biking.

He writes blog posts in the Afghan language of Farsi, which he said is tough for him because he has been out of practice for a while. On these posts, Noori shares the maps of rides that he has done, nutrition tips and information about the training group.

After representing Afghanistan in an international race for the first time at Catamount, Naab Radio, an online radio station in Afghanistan, shared Noori’s Facebook post about his race results, along with the photograph of him in his makeshift MTBA jersey.

“So many people probably heard of mountain biking for the first time this weekend,” Noori said about Naab Radio’s sharing of his post.

LOOKING AHEAD

With one more semester at Middlebury College before he graduates, Noori is looking ahead to the future of MTBA.

While he wants to go to Afghanistan to support MTBA in person, he also sees the value in staying the U.S., continuing his racing career, and building a solid foundation for his organization.

For now, he thinks he may stay in Vermont after graduation and find a part-time job while he dedicates more of his energy to growing MTBA.

One of the perks of living in Vermont, Noori said, is being able to take advantage of the Wednesday night weekly practice rides in Williston that occur throughout the summer.

“The Green Mountains are beautiful, too. I’ve slowly begun to think of them as mountains,” Noori joked, comparing Vermont’s peaks to the Himalayan-sized mountains in Afghanistan.

After Noori’s six collegiate races this fall, he will look ahead to additional competitive races. The Asian Continental Mountain Bike Championships, which he hopes to enter in 2020, would put him on the path to representing Afghanistan in the Olympics, one of his ultimate goals.

Noori’s dream of making it big is anything but self-centered, though. All along, his underlying missions have been to improve opportunities for young people to get active in Afghanistan, and for the world to see his country in a more positive light.

Plus, he would love for more Afghans to join him on the trails.

“And who knows, somewhere in Afghanistan somebody there has a bigger engine than me,” Noori said.

Keep up with Farid Noori on Facebook and sign up for his newsletter at mtbafghanistan.com.

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