Most incredible journeys begin with an innocent question.
For Sabia Abbat, the first woman from Hazara division to win the national cycling championship earlier this year, the road to success began when she asked, “Why can’t women ride a bicycle?”
Her interest in cycling was piqued two years ago when she was participating in another sporting event for her college. Sabia hails from a small village in Haripur, where women are not allowed to openly participate in sports and usually learn to be content with a domestic life.
As a sports enthusiast, Sabia represented her college in regional events. She realised that she wanted to become a professional cyclist after witnessing an event in 2011.
“It all began when I was in Pania. I saw a women’s cycling event and none of the participants could ride properly,” Sabia told The Express Tribune. “Most of them kept falling, others couldn’t sit on the cycle properly, and I thought ‘how difficult could it be to ride a cycle’?”
Sabia said that she came back home to Haripur, and started practicing on her maternal uncle’s bicycle at her nani’s home which was big enough to ride a bike.
“I couldn’t practice outside, since people talk about it, so my training field was my nani’s house on my uncle’s bike,” said Sabia. “Every time I’d fall from the bicycle, I’d tell myself that I need to master the technique. I just wanted to learn the skill. I fell a lot. I got injured and I realised that cycling is not an easy sport.”
This was just a beginning. Within two years, Sabia became the national champion in Lahore. She outpedalled Wapda’s Raheela Bano, who held the national title for more than a decade till this year.
Sabia was discovered by Azhar Ali Shah, a cycling federation official, who encouraged her to train in Lahore with coach Sardar Nazakat Ali.
However, breaking away from the tradition was not easy for Sabia and her family, as she is the oldest of the five siblings, while her father works as a driver in the village. She holds a bachelor’s degree in physical education and hopes to use it to build a career for herself.
“My parents support got me through everything,” said Sabia. “Letting your daughter travel so much is not easy. People would say a lot of unpleasant things, but they kept supporting me. So far, there hasn’t been a single woman athlete from Haripur who made a name in any sport, so I’m grateful to my family for helping me throughout my career.”
Sabia is also an army athlete. She represents the department in the local events. But she said that her problems do not end just by winning a title.
“Cycling is an expensive sport. Especially track cycling which takes place on a Velodrom,” said Sabia. “An average professional bicycle costs at least Rs150,000 and a Velodrom bike is even more expensive. And I have none. I don’t have any gear of my own. “
She has fought against the odds, and prevailed. “I remember when I won the national championship title, my coach and I were pleasantly shocked. I never thought I could win on Velodrom. I was always more of an individual pursuit road race cyclist.”
She said that so far she has been dependent on the bicycles and gear provided to her by the federation.
She also said that no matter how much an athlete achieves on an individual level, the monetary issues are hardly resolved for them.
“You don’t get much money. I have travel to Lahore even for practice. There is nothing in Haripur to support my training. I just do it on my old bike at home. But I’m not giving up; hopefully I’ll be able to retain my title next year as well,” said Sabia.
Cycling has nine events out of which six are held on the Velodrom and three are competed on the road.
Sabia said that she will also want to represent the country in the South Asian games next year, which will be the first international competition for her.
Coach Ali sees Sabia as something of a gift for the Pakistan Cycling Federation (PCF). He said that since 1996, when the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Cycling Association (KPCA) was formed officially, it is the first time that any woman from the region has come forward in the sport. “It’s an honour for us that we have finally produced a good quality woman cyclist,” he said. “We’ve never had any women cyclist from this region who could seriously compete.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2013.