Biking Afghanistan: Departure

I ran into my neighbor Cathy in the dairy isle of the Chatham Shop-Rite yesterday afternoon. She was arguing with her son, Nicholas, about which variety of Lunchables to buy for the upcoming school week. We exchanged pleasantries, caught up on news of our street, complained about the weather.

"So what's new with you?" she asked. "Traveling much these days?"

"Yeah," I said. "In fact, as soon as I put this food away I'm headed for the airport. I'm going to Afghanistan."

There's a conversation stopper.

There's not a lot of bike business to be done in Afghanistan. No industry, no racing, no cyclo-tourism. But there is an acute need for basic transportation, to say nothing of the need for some fun, and riding a bike, even if it is along a pock-marked road, can be fun.

So we're extending our BikeTown program to Afghanistan.

BikeTown is Bicycling's six-year-old program to provide bikes to those in need. From a small start in the summer of 2003 in Portland, Maine, we've given away almost 3,000 bikes in more than 20 American cities to help people reconnect with the pleasures and efficiencies of riding bikes. We've seen dramatic weight loss, families reconnected, people move off the welfare rolls and tales of health restored. This summer we'll give out bikes in six cities in North America.

In 2006, we expanded the program to Africa, where we provide bikes to home healthcare workers, primarily those working to fight HIV/AIDs. To date, we have programs in Senegal, Namibia and Botswana; this summer we'll give out 1,000 bikes throughout South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland.

But Afghanistan?

We ran a photo essay in our March issue that showed the renascent bike culture of Kabul coming back to life after the Taliban had headed for the hills. Colonel Derik Crotts, an American public affairs officer for the commander of NATO who subscribes to the magazine, contacted us and said, in effect, I know you do thes projects in Africa. Why not do one in Afghanistan?

Because there's a war going on there, I thought as I read his email. Still, I replied, saying I was intrigued.

Crotts called me about 90 seconds after I sent the email. His pitch was bourbon-smooth and effortless. Fifty bikes, he said. We'll give some to orphans, some to NGOs, some to the Afghan Cycling Federation.

But 50 bikes and the spare parts and tools needed to build them and keep them running weigh about two tons, I said. Kind of hard to get over the Khyber.

We'll fly them in on a transport plane, he said.

But Afghanistan is dangerous, I said.

It's not bad in Kabul, he said. You'll stay on a military compound, and we'll give you body armor and a helmet.

Great. Body armor. I feel safer already.

That was two months ago. Today, I'm sitting in the lobby of the Brussels Airport Sheraton, drinking coffee and waiting for our team to assemble, Ocean's Eleven-style. I have my mechanic, my fixer, my video guy. I have the mightiest army known to history protecting me.

I have misgivings.

But I'll be fine. After all, NATO asked for my blood type.

Tomorrow, we'll board a C-17 carrying 50 Globe bicycles donated by Specialized, the American bike company based in Morgan Hill, California. We'll fly to Kabul and start building bikes. We'll be there for about 42 hours, and imshallah, on Thursday night we'll be back in Brussels, pounding Duvels and toasting our good luck, scraping the bike grease from under our fingernails.