Daredevil cyclist Samar Khan explains how she powered through gender barriers

Faizan Lakhani

It's rather unfortunate but riding a two-wheeler is pretty much a male-dominated activity in Pakistan. It is almost unheard of for women to hop on bicycles - be it for business or pleasure.

This is where Samar Khan emerges as a trailblazer, a breaker of barriers and most of all a daredevil like few others.

The 29-year-old, from a traditional Pashtun family out of Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, not only rides bikes, she does it on some of the highest peaks in the world. 

She is the first Pakistani to ride a bike on the roof of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, and holds the same honour on Biafo in Karakoram Range - the third-largest non-polar glacier.

In a chat with Geo Super, Samar narrated her journey that saw her battle as many terrain challenges as patriarchal. 

“Things are never easy for woman to come from a Pashtun family and be in a sport which is very different from usual sports. It was difficult to convince my mother on how this sport can help me make our country proud and how the sport can help me [grow too],” she recalled.

“You usually don’t see athletes other than cricketers make a decent living in Pakistan so it was a big challenge. I saved money to start my expeditions and I remained under debts. It was a difficult task for me to launch myself. I had to work really hard to prove myself,” Samar said of her initial days in adventure sports like mountain biking.

She explained that her primary motivation to opt for an adventure/action sport was to tell the world that Pakistani women are not different from women from any other part of the world.

The bicycling adventurer said that being in a difficult sport makes her confident, adding that her experienced have taught her how to face difficult and threatening situations.

Samar, who holds a degree in physics, further said that she has spotted other women in Pakistan with mountain biking talent, stressing the need to highlight and empower them.

“Sports is important for empowering women,” she said. “I chose adventure sport because whenever we talk about these sports, we only hear about foreign athletes. Despite having such diverse geographical conditions - from deep sea to high altitude rivers - these are the places were adventure sports can be promoted, we don't have any major athletes."

Recalling her expedition to Biafo Glacier, Samar said it was a challenging one and that people used to laugh at her when she was planning. However, she remained firmed.

“After trekking for four days, I spotted a flat patch and attempted cycling there. It was very difficult to cycle on glacier. It was a two to three weeks' expedition and another learning experience. It taught me how to face difficult situations. I am the first woman who cycled on the world's third-biggest glacier,” Samar said.

“Kilimanjaro, in 2017, was a life-changing expedition, I was supported by ISPR for that expedition. It was a very different and difficult task. It was very diverse as you face different terrains from tropical forest to alpine desert via rocky fields and then you enter snowy steep. It was challenging but it made me very courageous and energetic. I was the only Pakistani who reached there and from Kilimanjaro top, I returned on cycle. It was a great honour,” said the athlete.

According to Samar, after expeditions to Biafo and Klimanjaro, people started accepting her as an athlete. Her struggle for space though has not ended yet.

“It is a long way to go,” she said when asked if adventure sports can be taken up at a national level.

“The government must come forward and work with those who are experienced. We need a constant financial force to keep this sport going. It is an expensive sport and you need proper financial support to be successful. The media’s support is also very important,” she added.

Samar is also working to promote action and adventure sports under her initiative named “SamarCamp” where she provides training for sports such as snowboarding, mountain biking and rock climbing.

“I want this sport to grow in Pakistan and would love to see Pakistani athletes representing the country in various events. I want to formally launch this sport in Pakistan so that people could learn and bring laurels to country. But for that, along with the government's support, private sector should also step up,” Samar said.

For now, she has set her sights on her next target, which is to represent Pakistan internationally in mountain biking competitions, rather than making just record attempts.

Cyclist Samar Khan explains how she powered through gender barriers