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We live by examples of other people, our heroes and idols. Sometimes, when no path has been paved before us, we must decide to be our own example and we don't realize it until we have paved the path.

On the 25th of September 2023, I was the only female cyclist from Iran to compete in the Asian Games (aka Asian Olympics, the most important event in Asia). No country likes to miss their chance for a medal, the athletes have had many training camps and competitions before they get to the Games.

After a sleepless week with a badly bruised knee and wrist, and a severe sinus infection, I lined up at the start of the race. With all the sacrifice and preparations, I didn’t imagine coming to this very important day in such a condition! And on top of that, I was overwhelmed with this amount of pressure, but I knew I couldn’t show or express it to anyone so they wouldn’t lose their faith in me. The commissar announced the 1 min countdown to the start. There was no time for doubts. I had a bigger reason than just winning a podium, so I tried to empty my head.

The whistle went off...


I was 6th in the first corner; I pushed harder and felt the burn in my lungs already. Moved up to 4th by another corner while my legs were burning even more. My hope grew for a better position, but as we entered the singletrack climb, I dropped back to 5th. The gap to the front riders was growing.

From the moment years ago when I realized no woman had ever competed at this event, let alone medaled, I had been dreaming of standing on the podium of this race! Honestly, my dream and journey of taking part in a race like this started long before. I grew up in a country with a strong cultural aspect to life where many things weren’t socially or legally acceptable for women and were considered taboo. From how we dress, to our opinions or rights in every condition, to riding a bike on the street.

Cycling was a sport that we could do only as kids. As we grew up, we learned how to abide by these unwritten rules. During my teenage years, I dreamed of riding a bike... but I didn’t dare to try it until I was 21 years old. It was exactly on July 31st, 2010, in the evening when everyone was in the house. I went to a room in our backyard, which was for the unused stuff, and my older brother’s bike was also there, getting layers of dust from the years he didn't want to ride. You can guess it was too big and hardly working. All I wanted at that moment was to see if I could ride the bike without falling on the ground.

… And I made it!

Faranak MTB

That moment was full of curiosity, excitement, joy... but also guilt. It was a dark night, but I recall it as one of my brightest memories. I had a dream that made my heart come alive! Of course, everyone was against my wish. No one was happy to see me breaking the taboos; that I, as a woman, wanted to ride a bike on the streets. They were afraid of how it would negatively impact my future. All I wanted was to experience that unique pleasure again. I felt free on the bike. I had an argument almost every night with my family to get their permission to ride on the empty streets only after dawn.

On my very first ride, a motorcycle hit my handlebars hard enough to make me crash. On other days, I was harassed many times by people's looks and harsh words. I even had stones thrown at me. They were breaking my heart because I didn't expect those reactions for only riding a bike. I didn’t share this pain with anyone so I could keep riding. All I could see was that cycling didn’t harm anyone and maybe, just maybe, one day others would change their mind because the world on the bike looked wonderful to me.

Sometimes, when there's no path paved before us, we have to decide to be our own example and we don't realize it until we have paved the path.

After a month, I met a group of male cyclists and one of them invited me to a local race for women out of the city on that weekend. I immediately accepted. On race day, I was the only girl not from a cycling family. I had a super cheap, old bike and didn't even know how to change the gear or to brake. All I knew was how to pedal with my heart. I didn’t match that group. I started that race feeling embarrassed, but I finished it with a winning emotion and 3rd place (to everyone's surprise). It was a sign for me that my persistence could lead to good outcomes.

I finished studying civil engineering, but instead of continuing, I planned to ride more seriously. I was pushing myself every day physically and technically. I had many small crashes, but I was enjoying and improving my riding a lot as well. Until I decided to challenge myself on the hardest technical section we had. Only the two most experienced riders could ride it with their good bikes. It was super rough and rocky, as steep as a wall, with lots of loose stones. On the first attempt I rode it successfully, but with some mistakes. I went to the top of the section to do it again. When I paused there for a minute to catch my breath, I felt the fear growing inside of me. As I started off the section, I suddenly saw my whole life, up to the moment I was at the top of that section, flash before my eyes.

And, I opened my eyes.

Faranak MTB

I saw a group of people standing around me, all looking very concerned. Then I saw both of my hands were bandaged with some wooden sticks. I saw my broken helmet and saw blood. I realized I had a hard crash that left me unconscious for a while, and so my family and an ambulance were coming to the bottom of the hill for me. I broke both of my hands, sustained a deep cut on my chin, sprained my ankle, and suffered a concussion. However, the only medical care I asked for was to bandage my broken hands and my chin.

I remained silent about the rest to hide the severity of my crash and because I felt like I failed at something I was so invested in. Now not only my family, but the whole cycling community and friends expected me to stop cycling. There was a new reason why I should stop and forget it.

For the first two weeks, every time I was alone in my room, I was crying. My heart was deeply in pain, and I couldn't understand the reason. I started to search online. At that time, we only had access to very low-speed and limited internet, so it took me one month to find out why I was suffering so much. I was going through a trauma that pro athletes may experience through their careers. Since their identities are tied to being an athlete, when they can't do their sport anymore, they feel like they’ve lost their identities and who they are. And this always needs special care from professional people.

Faranak MTB

I was never a racer nor earning a living from cycling, but I had defined myself as a cyclist all those years without even knowing it. I started to do more research about how to be a better mountain biker. I was determined to go back on bike and prove to myself and everyone that even if you fail at something in the beginning, you can still succeed. No one has the right to stop me from my dream.

I got back on my bike after two months of discussions and later, I could convince my family with my wins at the national level. However, at the time, no one believed women could compete at the highest level in Asia. We weren’t being taken seriously at all. I missed races because they said we weren’t good enough. So, I had an even bigger reason to leave a mark in cycling history for women.

The Asian Games were happening on one of the hottest days of the month, over 35º Celsius (95º Fahrenheit), and super humid from the last day's rain. It was so hot that a rider from Japan blew out in the first lap and left by ambulance. As per the official dress code of my country, I needed to cover from head to toe. I have experienced this situation in many other races. The only solution was to slow down, but I had come a very long way from having a rebellious dream, not daring to tell anyone until I was able to fight and represent the dream of many women in my country. It wasn’t about me anymore, and I could not give up on what I believed would change the history of our sport and beyond.

…I continued

There was no time for doubts. I had a bigger reason than just winning a podium, so I tried to empty my head.

Almost every rider had to slow down because of the heat, but not me! I kept on going until I could get to the third position. Until the last lap…

You might wonder if winning a medal could make you happy? The answer is no. The process of giving my absolute everything, no matter the outcome, was a win itself. I crossed the finish line third, knowing I went through very dark moments, paving a path that many girls before me started but could never finished. I fought for a dream that made no sense for many years. A dream that I wasn't allowed to have.

Faranak MTB

Standing on that podium on behalf of many Iranian women felt so different and sweet. Knowing that historical moment could create new paths for us women cycling in Iran. Coming all the way from the time when we were told we're not good enough to win a medal, or as good as men, to this moment when I became the only cycling medalist of my country. I learned challenges in life can be like obstacles on a bike. They might look too hard to overcome, but they are possible if you are persistent and learn how to encounter them. And the scarier the obstacle, the sweeter it is to overcome it!

As good as it ended, I have yet to recover from all the pressure. Maybe one day, I can talk about it.

Faranak Partoazar can be found on Instagram @faranakpartoazar

Photographer: Ali Taheri @alitaheripic

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