On a windy September afternoon in Frisco, Colorado, Shannon Galpin searches her closet for her Afghanistan-appropriate clothing: the calf-length tunic dresses and flared jeans she wears beneath them; the headscarves she ties do-rag style around her shoulder-length blond hair; the long-sleeved cycling jersey in black, red, and green, the colors of the Afghan flag. As the wind whips the first leaves off the aspen trees outside the window, she feels a pang of apprehension. She hasn’t been back to Afghanistan since 2016, since the country’s first women’s cycling team fell apart. Galpin wonders how the women feel about her now. If they blame her for how things turned out. She’s going back to Afghanistan for the 10-year anniversary of her first bike ride in the country—the starting point for her career-defining work with the women’s team—because after everything that’s happened, she needs to close this chapter of her life.
Galpin first traveled to Afghanistan in the fall of 2008, as the founder of Colorado-based Mountain2Mountain, a non-profit that aspired to support women in countries lacking modern-day women’s rights. Galpin hoped to make personal connections with communities to better understand their needs, from computer labs to women’s literacy to midwife training (Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world). On her third trip, in the fall of 2009, Galpin started bringing her single-speed mountain bike. “Locals were curious about a foreign woman on a bike,” says Galpin. “It was a good conversation starter. Plus, I got to ride.”
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Galpin had believed only foreign women rode bikes in post-Taliban Afghanistan until 2013, when she met the members of the country’s fledgling women’s cycling team. The team was formed in Kabul in 2011 by Haji Abdul Sediq Seddiqi as an offshoot of the Afghan National Cycling Federation, a longstanding men’s team also run by Seddiqi. The members of the women’s team mostly came from families who had fled to Pakistan and Iran during the Taliban occupation from 1996 to 2001. They’d returned to Afghanistan in the early aughts, after the U.S. and its allies had ousted the jihadists and restored order.
Most of the women—about a dozen in total—were high school students who had no first-hand experience of life under the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam. Many were already active in other sports in school. Seddiqi, as founder and President of the Afghan National Cycling Federation, served as the young women’s mentor and manager. He required an aspiring cyclist to first arrange a meeting between him and her family to ensure she had permission, and so he could address her family’s questions and concerns. “It’s not like women riding bikes was illegal in Afghanistan after the Taliban,” says Galpin, “but it was taboo.”
At the time Galpin met the women’s team, its members were cycling novices. “Some of the girls didn’t know how to shift,” Galpin says. Others were afraid to shift because their bikes were in such disrepair that they no longer functioned properly. But Galpin saw potential, and it went beyond just winning races. She knew the impact bikes had in the U.S. during the women’s suffrage movement at the turn of the century, giving women the freedom to travel under their own power. “We now know—and the UN now acknowledges—that the bike can be a powerful tool for social justice,” Galpin says.
Back home in Colorado, Galpin rallied Mountain2Mountain’s support base to donate used shoes, pedals, helmets, and clothing. She secured a bike sponsor, Liv, to provide the Afghan women with carbon-fiber race bikes and other gear like pumps and gloves. She contacted the foreign news correspondents she’d met working in Afghanistan to spread the word. And she drew on her prior career as a sports trainer to create training camps and cycling skills clinics, which she held for the women on subsequent trips.
Within a year, Mountain2Mountain began funding the strongest women to race. There were no women’s races in Afghanistan, so Galpin’s non-profit paid for Seddiqi to escort the women to places like Pakistan, Kazakhstan, India, and South Korea. Galpin herself travelled back to Afghanistan seven times between 2013 and 2016, maxing out her credit cards and borrowing $12,000 from her sister, to help train Afghanistan’s first women’s bike race team and to navigate logistics that are tricky in Afghanistan, like securing passports and travel visas.
Shannon Galpin’s last trip to Afghanistan, in May 2016, should have been one of celebration. A second women’s team had formed, in the Bamiyan province. The women of the original team in Kabul were preparing for their first race in Europe, a Gran Fondo in France, in June. In November 2015, National Geographic had announced the women as 2016 Adventurers of the Year (an honor Galpin herself had received in 2013 for her work in Afghanistan), and a group in Italy had nominated them for the Nobel Peace Prize. “I was like, holy shit, it’s finally coming together,” says Galpin. “The pieces were now in place to secure sustainable sponsorship for the Afghan women’s team.”
But what Galpin found on the ground quickly quashed her enthusiasm. She couldn’t meet with the Bamiyan team because violence from the Taliban insurgency was so intense that flights to the province were canceled and the roads were too dangerous to travel so Galpin couldn’t even go by car. Meanwhile, in Kabul, the Afghan National Cycling Federation had split in two. Seddiqi had been accused of corruption by the men’s team and hadn’t been re-elected President, but he refused to step down. The women’s team remained loyal to him, while the men went with the newly elected president Hussain Hamidi. A similar situation was happening within the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee; there were two acting presidents, and the country’s national sports teams were having to choose where to put their allegiance. “It was crazy,” says Galpin. “It was a mirror of what was happening in Afghan politics. Like elections didn’t really mean anything—you could just claim the election was corrupt and not step down. Like a dictatorship.”
The visit also ended her relationship with Seddiqi, which was already strained. Galpin knew the women hadn’t attended a race in India three months prior that Mountain2Mountain had funded. Instead, Seddiqi had reportedly taken the women sight-seeing in New Delhi, and his new wife to get IVF treatments. (Galpin knew this because she’d hired a cameraman to get race footage of the women.) Seddiqi’s excuses were said to have ranged from saying that the women weren’t properly prepared to race, to accusing Galpin of not providing enough money to get them to the race. Galpin had wanted to dismiss the incident as a misunderstanding, but at the same time, members of the men’s team had begun sending Galpin photos of random men in Kabul riding new women’s bikes—the same ones Liv had donated through Mountain2Mountain.
When Galpin confronted Seddiqi in May, through a translator, about New Delhi, he repeated his reasons, and blamed Galpin. When she accused him of selling donated bikes for personal profit, he denied it. When she showed him the Facebook photos, he looked annoyed, not apologetic. “His position was basically that he founded the Afghan National Cycling Federation, therefore it was his,” Galpin says, “any funds, any bikes, any equipment that came in for it, all that belongs to him and he can use it any way he sees fit.”
They argued, through the translator. “Have dare you sell those bikes,” Gapin said, raising her voice. “Who do you think you are?” She managed to hold back what she was really thinking: an arrogant narcissistic asshole who was wasting all this opportunity.
After her encounter with Seddiqi, Galpin tried to find a way to continue to support the women without him. She set up a meeting at a café with a translator and five of the top cyclists—the ones who raced internationally. The women came, but they weren’t receptive. “They just sat there super quiet, like they were just waiting for it all to be done,” Galpin says. One of the women, Zhala Sarmast, spoke English. “They’re just scared,” Sarmast had said, speaking directly to Galpin. “They don’t want to rock the boat.”
Galpin was heartbroken. And deeply disappointed. “I realized that despite everything I’d done, despite the time we’d spent together bonding and laughing, they didn’t trust me. Or couldn’t trust me with coach [Seddiqi] in the picture. And I wasn’t going to put them in the middle.”
She left Afghanistan feeling hollow.
A couple weeks later, after the Afghan women returned from the Gran Fondo in France, Galpin learned that two of the women she’d met with at the café had run away, choosing to become refugees rather than go back to Afghanistan. Another two from the cafe, who were sisters, sought asylum as athletes, and moved legally to France with their family. By the end of the summer, there was no longer a professional women’s cycling team in Afghanistan.
On August 27, 2016, while mountain biking in Breckenridge with her boyfriend, Shannon Galpin felt tired. The alpine trail was bone dry in the late summer heat, but it may as well have been mud. Galpin pedaled as if in slow motion. She stopped to catch her breath and pulled out an energy snack. She chewed mindfully, returned her breathing to a normal rate, and resumed riding.
Within the next 50 feet of trail Galpin heard it—a deep whirring, like a freight train, coming from inside her head. She’d heard the sound once before, while in Intensive Care in Boulder, Colorado, the prior summer, when she was waiting for a blood clot in her brain to release and reabsorb. Galpin grabbed her brakes. “Don’t freak out,” she called up to her boyfriend, “but something’s wrong. I’m going back.”
At the Emergency Room in Frisco, doctors confirmed a clot—her second in 13 months—in the exact same location as the first. They pumped Galpin with blood thinners and sent her by ambulance to Denver, the closest major city. She wondered if this was the end.
In the Intensive Care Unit at Centura Health Hospital in Denver, doctors worked for ten days to stabilize Galpin’s brain. They kept her at the hospital another four to be sure she wouldn’t hemorrhage. She was left with a permanent blockage: a concrete-like plug of scar tissue and blood in the main vein on the back, left side of her head. She was released with a prescription for painkillers and blood thinners, both of which she would need to take for the rest of her life, and advice to give up mountain biking because even a small cut could result in heavy, unstoppable bleeding. Galpin was told she had a 70 percent chance of developing a third clot, which was likely to hemorrhage if not caught in time. Travel to Afghanistan—or anyplace without brain-trauma equipment, like MRI scanners, or a reliable supply of donor blood—was off the table.
She sank into depression, exacerbated by symptoms of brain damage. Galpin would say “chair” when she meant “table,” or forget a word in the middle of speaking a sentence. She struggled to write emails. Her ability to speak foreign languages—French, German, and basic Farsi—was completely gone. She had trouble concentrating. Months later, Galpin would discover she had gaps in her memory, from the time in between aneurysms and in the time following.
“There was this huge sense of loss for me,” says Galpin. “A loss of identity, of purpose.”
The silver ring on Shannon Galpin’s pointer finger bears an etching: “The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.” She’s worn it every day since her father and sister gifted it to her in 2006, right after she’d founded Mountain2Mountain. Galpin was in a dark place back then. She’d recently given birth to her first and only child, a daughter, and was going through a divorce with the girl’s father. Galpin’s sister Larissa, then a university student, had been raped on campus in Colorado, which both enraged Galpin and re-triggered her own trauma over having been raped at knifepoint while walking home from her job at the mall in Minneapolis at age 18.
The ebb coincided with the first time Galpin tried mountain biking. “I had trouble with the cleat and kept falling over,” Galpin recalls of that ride, at Hall Ranch in Lyons, Colorado. It left her bruised and bloody, yet completely captivated. “I couldn’t zone out,” she says. “Unlike trail running, I had to really concentrate, to be completely present.” Galpin found that the practice of staying present while in pain served her off the trail too. She felt better equipped to process emotions and trauma. While she doesn’t go so far as to say mountain biking healed her, she credits it with “teaching me to suffer well.”
After her brain injury Galpin took a little time off the bike but found she couldn’t bear to follow her doctors’ advice to stop altogether. Instead, she looked for alternative ways to ride. She reached out to Garmin for an inReach device, which allows her to send an SOS via satellite if she has an accident on the trails. Galpin experimented with changing her riding style, from fast and aggressive to flow. She found she could still ride most of the same Colorado trails she did before, in a way that’s safer—relatively speaking—for her condition. “I walk jumps and rock gardens much more frequently now,” she says. “My ego had to go.”
In the spring of 2017, seven months after the second blood clot—what she now thinks of as the bomb in her brain—Galpin shuttered Mountain2Mountain. There was no more professional women’s team to support in Afghanistan, and Galpin didn’t feel like she was physically able to take it any further. “I actually closed the bank account, so I couldn’t backtrack,” says Galpin. As part of her healing, she began reconstructing her missing memories using journals, emails, and social media posts. The practice reminded her of who she was. “I’m an activist, I’m an artist, I’m a storyteller,” she says.
She looked for other ways to utilize those talents that didn’t involve Afghanistan. That summer Galpin broke her lease, sold her belongings, and moved her essentials into storage. She took off with her daughter Devon (who is now a teenager) to spend a year abroad to study Devon’s lifelong activism interest: saving endangered species. As Galpin worked from the road, writing and consulting, she and Devon learned about sun bears in Borneo, rhinos and elephants in Namibia, and jaguars and blue whales in Argentina. The mother-daughter team also attended a street-art workshop, eventually collaborating with Mexican artist Diana Garcia to make life-sized illustrations of rare species. They pasted them up on public walls in Paris, Oxford, and back home in Denver. Their project, dubbed Endangered Activism, is ongoing, their most recent paste-up occurring in Breckenridge, Colorado, in October.
“Having a new project to sink her teeth into and figure out how to make it work was really good for Shannon,” says Galpin’s sister Larissa Fritts. “It allowed her to start actively working on her brain recovery—concentration, focus, improvisational skills for when travel plans don’t go as you expected—as opposed to if she’d just stayed home.”
In 2018, Galpin began creating her own street art around issues of gender violence toward women, specifically stalking and rape. She’s since exhibited in Colorado, Utah, and New York. And she continues to speak publicly—an endeavor that began with a TEDx Talk in Denver in 2011—about the bike as a tool for social justice, and how to create disruptive products, services, and organizations that have the potential to change the world. Professional speaking is more difficult for Galpin now. She has to work harder at it, to organize her thoughts much more precisely. But she’s realized that the extra effort ultimately makes her a better, or at least better prepared, public speaker.
Galpin’s longtime friend and colleague, the photographer Tony Di Zinno, who accompanied her on her very first trip to Afghanistan, takes it a step further. “I told her straight up that in the roulette wheel that is brain injuries, she ended up a winner in that she might actually be a better person after the injury,” he says.
Di Zinno cites more thoughtful reflection and intellectual self-honesty as two points in Galpin’s favor these days. “Perhaps most importantly, her integrity is not tainted by incivility,” he says. “Pre-brain injury, she may have been less concerned about civility. I think one of her favorite quotes was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who said well-behaved women seldom make history.”
On September 28, 2018, in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, on the last grass field before the landscape gives way to the dusty dirt that blankets the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains, 20 women stood astride bikes, one pedal raised, one foot poised to start. Each wore a headscarf beneath her helmet, and a white logoed t-shirt by the telecommunications company Etisalat, the race’s corporate sponsor. The women, along with 50 men who would race later in the day, were participating in Afghanistan’s first cross-country mountain biking race: the 1st Annual Hindukush MTB Challenge.
Several months later, the race’s creator, Farid Noori, a young man from Afghanistan now living in Boulder, invited Galpin to become a founding board member for his non-profit, Mountain Bike Afghanistan. His organization’s mission is to empower Afghan youth with the joy of riding and competing on mountain bikes, and to connect people across borders and cultures through a shared love of the outdoors and the sport of cycling. He was already planning the 2019 iteration of the race, and hoping to start a weekly training ride in Bamiyan open to all experience levels and genders.
Noori had first met Galpin in 2016. “She’s an incredible resource, from everything to the logistics of shipping 60 bikes to Afghanistan to how the country’s cycling federation works,” says Noori. “Shannon’s experience with cycling in Afghanistan runs deep. Even as an Afghan, I don’t know about the Afghan cycling scene as much as she does.”
Galpin accepted his invitation. She had never really let go of Afghanistan. She was still in contact with the men, and the new president, of the Afghan National Cycling Federation, urging the UCI to recognize them even though Seddiqi would not. She’d also filed testimony to the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee for corruption charges against Seddiqi.
She is hopeful that Noori’s organization and others, like Drop and Ride, a co-ed BMX and freestyle cycling club in Kabul, are signs of what she calls “the second wave”—the movement that picks up where the women of the Afghan National Cycling Federation left off. “This is Afghan youth creating the future of Afghan cycling,” she says. “This is where the second wave goes forward.”
She’s thought a lot about the first wave, the original female cyclists, as well as her own role. “My heartbreak was slightly selfish,” Galpin says. “The ideas for the women’s team—to race at an elite level, to get sustainable sponsorship, to go to the Olympics—those were my dreams, on my timeline.”
Afghan women’s right-to-ride movement has taken a different path on a different timetable. And Galpin has come to see that’s okay. “Seeing Afghan girls on social media on BMX bikes wearing sideways baseball caps, that’s just badass,” Galpin says. “I could never have imagined that.”
The second wave is what’s drawing Galpin back to Afghanistan “one last time,” despite the bomb in her brain. “I want to bear witness to the fact that women are still riding,” Galpin says. “That there is now a legit mountain biking culture in Afghanistan, 10 years after my first ride.”
The closure she’s seeking, in fact, may be validation that yes, Afghan women’s cycling almost died, and yes, it’s different now. But different isn’t necessarily bad. It might even be better. Kind of like Galpin herself.
On a cold November morning in Frisco, Shannon Galpin is rethinking her big return trip to Afghanistan. She’s already pushed it back twice. First from September to October, after President Trump canceled negotiations with the Taliban and violence surged. Then again, from October to November, after the 2nd Annual Hindukush MTB Challenge was moved back due to instability from the Afghan presidential election. Now, the third strike: an American film company she was consulting with canceled its November production trip to Afghanistan over safety concerns.
Galpin settles into the armchair by the window with her laptop. She journals about her frustrations: That the U.S. no longer has diplomacy in Afghanistan, that the world has given up on Afghanistan, that safety in Afghanistan is only going to get worse. That if she doesn’t go now, she’ll never go back again. Outside, the aspens stand bare, their leaves on the ground. Galpin sighs. She decides to wait and see how things look in the spring.