The Incredible Backstory of How Women Cyclists Were Evacuated Out of Afghanistan
Israel Start-Up Nation owner Sylvan Adams and UCI played key roles in helping young Afghan women cyclists escape the clutches of the Taliban
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
A frantic SMS with an urgent plea for help triggered a series of events that led to a daring rescue and evacuation of 165 people—among them dozens of young women cyclists—out of Afghanistan.
Just weeks ago, as the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan was collapsing under Taliban pressure, a journalist sent urgent SMS messages to contacts at WorldTour team Israel Start-Up Nation.
The message was succinct and urgent: “Help them get out.”
From there, the wheels of international solidarity began to spin.
On Monday, October 11, the UCI sent out a press release confirming the successful evacuation of 165 Afghans who, with the help of many within the international cycling community, were able to escape the clutches of the Taliban.
“[Some] 125 Afghan citizens, including female cyclists and members of cycling management, artists, a judge, a number of journalists and human rights campaigners, all of whom have been able to reach Europe via Tirana in Albania,” a press release stated. “Thirty-eight are being settled in Switzerland with the others going to Canada, France, Israel and the USA.”
The press release, however, did not tell the complete story how Israel Start-Up Nation owner Sylvan Adams, along with dozens of officials from the UCI, Afghan cycling officials, an Israeli NGO, and the governments of Canada and Switzerland, among many others, helped to pull together the rescue operation.
Speaking to VeloNews on background, sources close to the evacuation and rescue efforts helped filled in some of the blanks of how and what happened in the daring project.
SMS: ‘I urgently need your help’
A journalist working closely with the Afghan women’s cycling team noticed how the Israel Start-Up Nation team was promoting cycling in Rwanda, and wondered if the team could help in an even more desperate and urgent situation.
The SMS message was quickly relayed to Adams, the billionaire owner of the WorldTour cycling team as well as a leading philanthropist in Israel and Canada. Adams was quick to respond to the appeal.
Adams vowed to do what he could to help, and reached out to officials from IsraAID, a non-profit NGO that was already working on other evacuation plans in Afghanistan.
Adams also contacted other governments, NGO’s, and governing bodies, including the UCI, and all quickly stepped up to help.
It was a desperate race against time, and almost a Catch-22-like scenario.
In order to get out, the Afghans would need sponsors and asylum countries. And without a way out, the Afghans couldn’t ask for refugee status or jump through the bureaucratic loops in time before the Taliban took full control.
And time was running out as the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban took control of Kabul and cut off access to its international airport.
In the closing chaotic days of the U.S.-led evacuation, a charter plane paid for by Adams flew to Kabul to help evacuate as many as possible, including dozens of women Afghan cyclists who realized their days as promising athletes would soon be over under Taliban rule.
The cyclists and some of their family members had to evade the chaos of Kabul and try to get past Taliban checkpoints to reach the airport. Sometimes people traveling across Kabul were turned back by the Taliban, and were denied access to the airport, only heightening fears and uncertainty.
Others could not make it past Taliban checkpoints and arrive to the airport, forcing them to try to escape via land borders with neighboring countries to Afghanistan.
A source described the efforts as “incredibly risky” and one filled with “huge risk.”
‘Not everyone out yet’
In what was described by the UCI as a “vast operation,” evacuations were carried out for several weeks, including even after the hasty American exit of U.S. military forces, and it’s not yet confirmed exactly how many cyclists were able to leave Afghanistan.
Sources also say there are still young cyclists and their families trapped inside Afghanistan who were unable to get out.
Everyone vows to keep working to get as many out as possible, sources said.
After decades of war, cycling was starting to take foothold in Afghanistan, and women organized their first race in 2017. Women cyclists are especially vulnerable under the Taliban, which is imposing a radical interpretation of Sharia law in its return to power.
In its press release Monday, UCI president David Lappartient said that Switzerland agreed to accept 38 Afghans among those who were evacuated, and that the UCI said it would help house them at the UCI’s World Cycling Center as they become resettled.
In a press note, Lappartient thanked the many actors involved in the daring escape.
“I would like to express my sincere thanks to the governments of Switzerland, France, Canada, Albania, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, and other countries which have worked on this project,” Lappartient said. “I would also like to thank Mr. Philippe Leuba, Head of the Department of the Economy, Innovation and Sport of the Canton of Vaud, who has been involved in the operation since the fall of Kabul and spent the whole of last week in Tirana in order to facilitate the practical and administrative procedures for their entry into Switzerland. I would also like to thank Mr Osama Ahmed Abdullah Al Shafar, UCI Vice-President and President of the Asian Cycling Confederation, for his decisive commitment to the operations that are currently under way, and of course, IsraAID and its CEO Yotam Politzer, and Sylvan Adams who presented the project to IsraAID and financed the evacuation.
“I would also like to acknowledge and pay tribute to the Afghan cycling community, who worked under the aegis of our National Federation and of their President Fazli Ahmad Fazli to provide crucial help with the evacuations.”
The above statement revealed the scope and complexity of the operation to try to help young Afghan cyclists escape the clutches of the Taliban.
The human story remains to be told.