Farid Noori may live and race in Vermont, but his heart and soul are dedicated to seeing mountain biking grow in his home country, Afghanistan. By Rachel Dana Cohen
Forty-five minutes before his race at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center, Farid Noori, 24, of Ghazni, Afghanistan, pedaled up to a viewpoint on 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. Cyclocross National Champion Stephen Hyde and the Canadian and the Japanese national champions—all there for the Julbo Eastern Grind, held the last weekend in July, and the only stop in the East for the 2018 Pro Mountain Bike Tour. Noori was there to represent Afghanistan as a pro in an international race for the first time.
Noori, 24, earned a Category-1 certification at the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Biking National Championship in Missoula, Mont., in 2017, which 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.
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.
A Dream of Going Pro
For as long as Noori has known about mountain biking, he has dreamed of racing professionally for his nation. Growing up in Kabul, he never had a bike. For a long time, his family had no electricity and ran a generator for four hours a day.
Noori’s father was a doctor and the family moved to Pakistan for a while to escape the Taliban. “It was getting too dangerous to live there for a while,” he says. Noori came to New Mexico for high school and finally his senior year, he rode a mountain bike and was hooked.
At Middlebury, Noori started a fundraising campaign through the college’s MiddStart program and was able to raise $5,000, enough to buy himself two bikes. He approached cross country coach Andrew Johnson and asked for his help in fitness and training as the college doesn’t have a cycling team. Last spring, Noori went on his own to a collegiate race in Massachusetts and placed second.
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 his mountainous country, 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 media narrative that often portrays the country as merely a war-torn land.
At the Julbo Eastern Grind simply 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 frickin 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.”
The July 28 race, the men’s professional cross-country division at the Julbo Eastern Grind, consisted of five laps around a four-mile twisty, rocky course.
“My goal was to just keep on going as long as possible. Even though the results weren’t glamorous—they were pretty bad—it was one of the best races I’ve ever done,” Noori said.
Stephen Hyde approached him after the race to say hello. “It’s all about that—meeting these incredible riders I admire so much, who care about what I’m doing, and having an opportunity to learn from them,” Noori said.
Growing the Sport
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 started weekly trainings in the province of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, which Noori noted is a relatively safe area. They have just built their first singletrack trails though, as Noori says, “the country has thousands of footpaths that people and animals have laid down.” 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 ride cruisers in Bamiyan’s Dragon Valley.
Through fundraising, Noori hopes that MTBA can provide the training group with improved equipment. Last summer, he sent over helmets.
“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 home and ride with the training group that he created from afar, he hasn’t been back in three years and can’t return now, as it would be difficult to get a visa back to the U.S.
So 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.
Recently, Noori started a newsletter to share news about MTBA’s training in Bamiyan and updates on 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 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.
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 maps of the rides that he has done, nutrition tips and information about the training group.
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 after Naab Radio’s shared his post.
With one more semester at Middlebury College before he graduates in February, 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 here, 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 and the Asian Continental Mountain Bike Championships, which he hopes to enter in 2020. The winner of that automatically gets a spot in the Olympics.
In 2008, during one of the nights the generator was running at his home in Kabul, Noori had watched as an Afghan won the country’s first Olympic medal, a bronze in taekwondo. Now, Noori has his sites set on representing his country as an Olympic mountain biker, in either 2020 or beyond.
Noori’s dream of making it big is anything but self-centered, though. All along, his underlying mission has 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, maybe somewhere in Afghanistan somebody has a bigger engine than me,” Noori said
Part of Noori’s dream recently came true: On the weekend of September 28, Noori’s organization hosted its first race—the first cross-country mountain biking competition to ever take place in Afghanistan. About 50 people entered.
To keep up with Farid Noori sign up for his newsletter at mtbafghanistan.com.
Featured Photo Caption: Afghanistan hosted its first mountain bike event in September. Photo courtesy Farid Noori