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Pedaling Change: The Panjshir Tour by Mountain2Mountain

March 31st, 2011

Welcome to Pedaling Change! There’s a lot of good work being done in the world of bikes, from alternative transportation advocacy to international development. To highlight some of the great action that’s going on out there, once a month we’ll be profiling a non-profit in the bike world to look at just how they’re working to make positive change.

Being inspired to act can take many forms. For some it’s taking a weekend to volunteer. For others it’s writing a letter. For Shannon Galpin, it meant leaving her career, selling her house, launching a nonprofit and committing her life to advancing education and opportunity for women and girls. Focusing on the war-torn country of Afghanistan, Galpin and her organization, Mountain2Mountain, have touched the lives of hundreds of men, women and children.

As if launching a nonprofit wasn’t enough, in 2009 Galpin became the first woman to ride a mountain bike in Afghanistan.

Panjshir Tour 2010 – clips reel from Shannon Galpin on Vimeo.

Now she’s using that initial bike ride to gain awareness around the country, encouraging people to use their bikes to “as a vehicle for social change and justice to support a country where women don’t have the right to ride a bike.” It’s called the Panjshir Tour and it’s being organized to take place in cities across the US on October 8, 2011.

We caught up with Galpin to learn more about the tour and why she thinks bikes are such a great vehicle for social change.

Tell us about Panjshir Tour.

Panjshir Tour was created out of my own desire to mountain bike in Afghanistan. I rode in 2009 and 2010 in the Panjshir Valley amongst my multiple trips to the region with my non profit, Mountain2Mountain. I found that I could do a lot of things, like ride a bike, as a foreign woman with the encouragement of Afghans that Afghan women were still forbidden to do. It’s an interesting phenomenon that me, with my blonde hair, can push on some cultural barriers in a unique way without offending the locals simply BECAUSE I have blonde hair. So after the success and the positive reaction by the local men in Panjshir in 2009, I decided to plot a series of grassroots rides in the US exactly one year from the first day I mountainbiked (October 3, 2009) to create a fundraising event on bikes while I was attempting to ride the entire Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan – linking our project communities and our donor communities through a bicycle for the first time.

Why launch the tour now?

Last year was the first incarnation as a series of very grassroots rides in various communities that took place during the same time that I was riding across the Panjshir Valley. The thought had been to make that connection, create a story to build off of and launch a Panjshir Tour 2.0 this year. Then we got the support of Matthew Modine and David Holbrooke in NYC and we thought, okay, let’s really build this up. So right now we are at 9 rides, three of them grassroots community rides, and the other 6 are more formally run events that can attract bigger crowds. Minneapolis, Portland, NYC, Los Angeles, Denver, and Washington DC – each ride having its own unique personality. Road rides, mountain bike, kids rides, cruiser bike rides, even a cyclo-cross event. It’s really cool to see a biking event that can spread across the US that isn’t just a road or just a mountainbike event, its much more inclusive.

What was bicycling across Afghanistan like? What was your best moment? The worst?

The best was the interactions of the men I would encounter. Many rode along beside me, teachers commuting home, and young boys. Some construction workers in an area where I had to walk across a bridge that was being repaired, asked to ride my bike and the others stopped working to watch and joke. There were moments that certainly tested my patience and resolve, like when I realized that my driver had left our water behind, and that we were too remote to find anyone that would sell bottled water. The family I was staying at ran a small food stall and had boxes of apple juice – just like the ones my 6 year old drinks and then parboiled some of their water for us to take. Between that, and some liters of warm sprite we had leftover from the drive in from Kabul, we had enough liquids to be safe, albeit, not very refreshing.

The worst was when we realized that I couldn’t attempt to ride up the Anjuman Pass, a 14,000 foot pass that marks the border into the other provinces. I wanted to ride or walk if need be, up the pass. But it required an additional day of riding, and we were warned as we got nearer that Nooristani gun runners were in the hills and that it wasn’t safe to go further, especially if we had to ‘camp’ overnight. It was a real disappointment as I viewed the ascent of the pass as the real challenge in terms of the metaphorical “climb the mountain,” but was thrilled that we had safely crossed the Valley and had such amazing responses and interactions with the local men and boys along the way.

The tagline for the tour is “Using the bike as a vehicle for social change.” Thinking about the efforts of M2M, how do you see this being especially true for women and children?

Definitely. Afghanistan one of the few countries where women and girls are no longer allowed to ride bikes. But women’s sports are gaining popularity, and women are playing in public in urban areas, and behind school walls in rural ones. Women and girls that play sports of some type typically do better in school and that is true in Afghanistan. The girls that play soccer in the Afghanistan National League, do so at the same stadium where women were beheaded just ten years ago for such crimes as walking without a male escort. These girls have stated publicly, as has their coach, that the confidence that is built by playing soccer has improved their school results and is developing the inner strength to do more with their opportunities.

How can people take part?

People can join a ride in their community, create their own, or help spread the word to the biking community at large. Specifically we are looking for a ride logistics point man/woman in NYC where we have a lot of support from our Honorary Co-Chairs, actor and bike advocate Matthew Modine and David Holbrooke, the festival director of Telluride’s Mountainfilm who is an avid mountain biker, but still need to develop a strong committee to pull off a ride in NYC which is a new venue for us.

Do you think bikes can change the world?

I think that bikes are a vehicle for social change in a couple of ways. In the developing world, where my work is focused, bikes literally can transform lives. Bikes can shorten the distance kids have to walk to school, often making the commute possible to schools that weren’t accessible in remote villages before. Bikes with small trailers and racks can provide transportation to rural doctors and midwives. Bikes are even capable as acting as ambulances. They also are great load carries for agricultural and vocational projects to lessen the load that villagers, and often children, have to carry. In the Western world, it’s more of a lifestyle and environmental focus by being a very green alternative to transportation, and increasing our health in an increasingly sedentary culture. Both of which have a positive ripple effect to transportation infrastructure and increasing health care costs due to obesity and other health related issues.

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