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Farid Noori, an economics major from Afghanistan, is working to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in cross-country mountain biking.

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Student Hopes to Represent Afghanistan at 2020 Olympics

May 15, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Farid Noori ’18.5 first grasped the power of sports to inspire a nation when he was a 14-year-old in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“The war destroyed everything. So in 2008, we didn’t even have electricity yet. But my family had its own generator, and we would turn it on for four hours at night so my mom could cook and we could eat and study for a couple of hours and go to bed. I remember, we had just turned on the generator, and the TV was running, and there was the news person saying that somebody had gone to the Olympics from Afghanistan and won a bronze medal. And I was like, ‘What?!’ It was just incredible seeing that.”

Rohulla Nikpai’s bronze in taekwondo was Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal—in any event, ever.

“Everybody was so excited. Everybody! For 30 years we didn’t even send anybody, during the wars. Sports in general has always been a unifying moment for Afghanistan. Whenever there is a big achievement in the international arena, everybody just celebrates and forgets about the war and comes together, and they set their ethnic identities aside and just unify as one Afghan.”

Noori’s goal is to become the first Afghan to enter the Olympics in cross-country mountain biking—a goal not for himself alone, but for his country.

“Afghanistan,” said Noori, “is at the center of everything I do.”

At the same time as the economics major studies and writes papers and prepares for exams, at the same time as he pushes toward his Olympic goals, training long hours each week, Noori has also founded Mountain Bike Afghanistan, a nonprofit whose mission is to “empower Afghan youth with the joy of riding and competing on mountain bikes, as well as to connect people across borders and cultures through their shared love of the outdoors and the sport of biking.”

Through mountain biking, Noori wants the international community to see Afghanistan through his eyes—as a place of dramatic peaks, pristine lakes, pastoral villages, and fruit-bearing orchards; a place with a rich culture and history; a place with a forward-thinking young generation ready to rebuild a nation and connect with the world.

Noori also wants to inspire his own generation of citizens and leaders, many now part of a diaspora.

“Mountain biking can help us find or reestablish our deep connection with a place we call home. A lot of Afghans—despite knowing, despite loving this country as much as I do—are hopeless. We saw in 2015 two million fled to Europe leaving behind loved ones. How do you tie them back to the place? Mountain biking will help people see their place with refreshed eyes.”

And what better way to advance these goals than by competing in the Olympics? Noori reasons.

“You can go home and build trails and try to force kids to ride the bikes that you’re gonna provide for them, but it’s not going to be as effective as them seeing a young Afghan representing the country in mountain biking. If they haven’t heard about it, they will hear about it. You won’t need to tell them.”

“He is so disciplined,” said Heather Neuwirth, programs director for the Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship. Neuwirth described how from his earliest days on campus, Noori sought out the center and its resources and began developing projects to transform Afghanistan.

“He has this amazing vision for his community and how to really scale change,” said Neuwirth. “He’s always been really motivated to give back to his community. There are some students that have this light, you know?”

Love at first sight

Noori was drawn to bikes from an early age.

“Bikes are one of the most amusing things for children,” he said. “No matter where you are in the world, if you see one you want to hop on, and you want to try it. It’s a magnetic thing. But my parents, for some reason, were always against it. They thought it was unsafe. We also moved around a lot [Noori’s family fled the Taliban as refugees when he was two]. We went to Pakistan, we went to Iran, we went back to Pakistan, back to Afghanistan, so there was really no opportunity.”

Nevertheless, he created one. Noori rode his first bike at age six, when the family was living in Pakistan. Waiting in the bakery line to buy the day’s naan, he would borrow his friend’s bike and take a short spin. When the family returned to Afghanistan and he was given the classroom responsibility of taking enrollment, he’d sometimes barter a mark of “present” for a ride on a bike. And when his grandfather bought a bike for one of his older brothers, Noori tried to pedal the giant frame by leaning out sideways from underneath the top bar.

Only when he came to the United States to complete high school at United World College-USA in Montezuma, New Mexico, could he grab a bike and just ride and ride and ride.

The summer after high school graduation, he saw his first mountain bike race, rode his first mountain bike, and was hooked.

“It was literally just flying, flying on a bike, flying with feelings, flying with adrenaline. And the thing that kept coming to mind as I was descending was like, ‘Okay, this is mountain biking. But why don’t we have it? We should do this in Afghanistan.’”

He’s been working toward this goal ever since.

Blazing a trail

 “Farid, in so many ways, is creating his own path,” said Middlebury Director of Athletics Erin Quinn. An athlete from the United States who wanted to compete in the Olympics, Quinn explained, would have a difficult but very clear path to follow. Coming from a country without that infrastructure, “there’s no trail from where he is to get there. He’s blazing that trail.”

Lacking funds, Noori started racing and training on bikes borrowed from friend and fellow Middlebury Cycling Club member Kai Wiggins ’16. Just this month he successfully completed a $5,000 MiddSTART campaign and purchased his own race-worthy wheels. Serious sports competition is a pricey business, and Noori laughs as he describes the close bond he has developed with his 17-year-old Subaru Forester. He bought the car for $800 in Colorado and, despite dubious predictions from mechanics, it has delivered him to many races. He calls it his “Olympic MVP.”

Noori’s junior year, Quinn connected him with Middlebury Nordic coach and former Olympic skier Andrew Johnson ’01, and Johnson laid out key training techniques and strategies for endurance sports. Meanwhile, Noori also pored over resources like the Mountain Biker’s Training Bible, and Quinn connected Noori with other athletes in the Middlebury network. He met cyclist Lea Davison ’05, who competed in the 2012 and 2016 summer games (39 alums—to date—have been in the Olympics). He met grand tour racer Ted King ’05, who shares Noori’s passion to connect people through cycling. This winter, King offered to coach Noori as he works toward his Olympic aspirations.

 “Bike racing is hard to do alone,” said Wiggins, himself an aspiring racer who noted that as important as a cyclist’s own “discipline, effort, enthusiasm, perseverance” is, all cyclists also rely on the “kindness” of those who offer “their time, their gear, their insight, their friendship, and, as they say in cycling, their ‘wheel.’”

Noori began racing in earnest in 2016, and within a year moved from the beginner to the semi-pro category. He earned semi-pro “Cat1” qualification last October, when he became the first Afghan to race in the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Biking National Championship in Missoula, Montana.

Noori plans to take on 20 races this season and move up to pro status. After he completes his final classes in December, he plans to continue training in Arizona (his sport needs sunshine, not snow).

Ultimately, Noori’s Olympic aspirations come down to one race: the Asian Continental Mountain Bike Championship, to be held May 2019 for the 2020 Olympics. Of Tokyo’s 38 spots for men’s mountain biking, just one is reserved for the winner of that race. Athletes compete from across the region, which Noori describes as running roughly from Turkey to Korea.

Noori, who is 23, has asked himself whether there isn’t some better way to accomplish his dream for Afghanistan or some younger athlete with deeper roots in training and competition to carry this particular standard.

But then, he says, “I think about my journey that has led me to this point. I think about how much I love cycling and what I want to do with it. I think about the unique opportunity that I have in front of me.” And, he reasons, with so few Afghan students in the United States, who else is there to take this on?

“And so for me, it is a moral duty to take it upon myself. I know this is a very tough journey. But I want to give it a shot.”

By Gaen Murphree; Photo by Todd Balfour


Farid, you inspire me! Keep on!

by Linda Rentschler (not verified)

With apologies to Robert Frost, you have taken the mountain bike trail less travelled and it WILL make all the difference!

by Larry Eighmy ‘86 (not verified)