On troubled road, Iraqi cyclists get a little help

An American spearheads effort to help Iraq's junior team recover from thefts of bikes and equipment.

Potholes and heavy traffic can make cycling in the United States seem like a war zone at times. But it sure beats biking in Baghdad, says Matthew Werner of Santa Cruz, Calif.

Last summer, Mr. Werner saw images in a popular biking magazine that astonished him. A pictorial essay depicted young men riding through the war-torn streets of the Iraqi capital. Amid a backdrop of barbed wire fences, a chaotic snarl of vehicles, and groups of US soldiers, the 10 members of the Iraqi Junior Cycling Team pursued their passion for road cycling.

"They are riding the city streets of a war zone because they are so dedicated to this sport," says Werner. "They were using ancient equipment - really old and decrepit bikes and clothing."

Werner, who bikes for fun and fitness, decided to help. He got in touch with the writer of the story, Max Whittaker, and eventually e-mailed the team. "I have been communicating with the coach, whose English is fairly limited," says Werner. "I have had a lot of help from a translator, a woman located in Jordan."

One e-mail reply contained a team photo and a statement from each rider.

"I chose this particular kind of sport after my father gave me a bicycle as a gift," wrote team member Ahmed Raed. "Then I participated with it in school races and I loved this sport more and more.... I am the youth champion in Iraq in 2000 and 2001. My dream is that I will be a special rider that everybody respects."

"My uncle was a world champion in boxing who encouraged me to be like him, but I don't like violence," wrote 18-year-old cyclist Moataz Sabah. "I hope to be a real good [cyclist] that achieves things at the international level."

In addition to the testimonies, the team sent an equipment wish list. Under the former Iraqi government, the group had not been allowed to race outside the country for fear they would seek asylum and never return, according to Mr. Whittaker, who spent three months in Baghdad.

"A year before the current war in Iraq, President Saddam Hussein had purchased 40 Bianchi racing bikes for the national team, but out of paranoia, the team was not allowed to use the bikes," Whittaker says. "Later, they were stolen when looters swept the city."

"They also need real cycling shoes, instead of sneakers, and helmets," adds Werner. "Our goal is to send 10 new bicycles, maybe print up some jerseys, and include the shoes and helmets."

Werner also serves on the board for Cyclists for Cultural Exchange, a nonprofit group founded in 1988 that promotes diplomacy among international bicyclists through exchange programs and cycling events (www.strawberryfields.org). The group is now searching for a bike company that will either donate bikes or sell them at cost. They also are seeking cash donations.

"The ideal scenario is that we can send 10 bikes and gear and get it to them," Werner says. "Then, after a year or two, we will be able to invite those riders to come visit us. We will host them here and get them involved in local cycling events."

In addition to the junior team (an all-male group under age 23), Iraq also sports men's and women's cycling teams, which are also struggling to succeed despite the nation's current turmoil.

"Our next goal is to help the women's team," Werner says. "For now, with an eye to the future, we are helping build the young riders."

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