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Asma Jan and Kanza Malik made history at the world championships.
The two riders became the first women from Pakistan to compete at an international cycling event when they took on the women’s individual time trial Monday.
They are part of a four-rider team, along with two men, that is competing in Belgium this week. With no UCI points, the nation did not qualify for a spot in the event but was invited to take part by the governing body.
“I’m very grateful and this has been the most incredible experience of my life. I’m really happy I completed the race. I don’t have words to explain how happy I am right now,” a delighted Jan said after completing her ride in 51:49.31 – a personal best for her.
“The crowds were incredible. I really wanted to do my best because of the crowd with all of the cheering, the atmosphere. I really felt welcome here, so thank you so much for hosting us.”
The Pakistan team currently has some private funding to help them race in Belgium and is supported by their manager Shoaib Nizami. However, their finances don’t extend to a mechanic and the riders have had to rely on one of their own and the support of Shimano to get them ready for the worlds.
“One of our teammates knows how to fix bikes. He’s not a mechanic but he’s very good at doing this. We’ve also got a lot of help from Shimano. They helped to fix this bike and bring it up to specification. We’ve had a lot of help,” Jan said.
Jan, 45, is the second oldest woman at the world championships after the American Amber Neben and only took up cycling last year. Like many around the world, she began riding her bike as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
She was soon signed up to the Bikestan Cycling Academy in Karachi and hasn’t looked back.
“The cycling culture has really developed a lot in Pakistan because of COVID. It has picked up in a big way because everything was shut so everyone took their bikes and came onto the street. I’m a part of the COVID culture, that’s how I started cycling,” she said.
Her teammate, the 34-year-old Malik, a mechanical engineer, was another late-comer to the sport and only took it up a few years ago for health reasons. She is now the national road race champion and is working remotely with UK-based coach Jody Warrington — who is also guiding the male national champion — to improve.
Malik rode the 30.3km course in Bruges almost a minute quicker than Jan.
“At the start, I was about to have a heart attack but in end it was magnificent. I’m just so happy. It was the experience of a lifetime,” Malik said.
Malik has relished her opportunity to compete among the world’s best, many of whom she looks up to. Though she has shied away from trying to glean advice from her fellow competitors, she did manage to get a picture with one of them.
“I have not spoken to many opponents, but I got a picture with Remco, so I’m very happy with that,” she said with a grin.
Jan, too, was keen to mark the momentous occasion with a selfie with one of the event’s big names. Despite being one of the early starters in the TT, she patiently waited around to catch a moment with Olympic champion Anna Kiesenhofer.
Aspiring for more
Though the riders have been awestruck at times by some of their better-known counterparts, they were in Bruges with a serious goal of putting Pakistani cycling on the map and building the foundations for its growth on the international stage.
“We’re looking at the Australian world championships next year and we’re looking at some Asian championships,” Malik said. “We’re also looking at some internal mountain ranges. We’re asking the UCI to look into it because it’s absolutely beautiful. The roads and the infrastructure, everything is there.”
Jan may be a newcomer to cycling herself, her family has a rich history in the sport. Her grandfather Mehta Abdul Khaliq was a highly decorated rider in India, prior to partition, and had been selected to ride at Olympic Games before the outbreak of World War Two.
She now hopes to do what her grandfather was unable to do almost a century ago. For that to happen, the nation needs to accumulate UCI points to earn a place on the start line.
“We would like now to participate in some road races so that we can get more points and that we have enough points to compete at the Olympics in Paris,” Jan said. “That is our goal and inshallah we will be there. You will see Pakistan at the Olympics.”
Having had her first taste of international competition, Jan is excited to see what she and her compatriots can do next. Meanwhile, she hopes that their rides in Bruges have broken down barriers for the next generation of riders.
“This is a great experience for us to cycle here and it will pave the way for future generations of cyclists to get international exposure. We are the first women to participate in a world championships of this level,” Jan said. “The idea is that for other women, who will maybe be following us and looking up to us it will become easier for them to get to the world championships. That’s the idea.
“We have great cyclists in Pakistan, and I think that there is so much potential for cycling in Pakistan. If our sport is supported by our government then we can go places.”