Faranak Partoazar: Cycling is passion and school of life
In sports, the focus is on the best, athletes from the back rows are rarely noticed. Yet they are an indispensable part of the overall picture of a World Cup or World Championship. Faranak Partoazar finished 66th in the 2019 Albstadt World Cup, but the story of the Iranian champion impressively tells of an almost magical effect of (cycling) sport as a school for life, of a self-confident fight for women’s rights and of an athlete who, with her passion and dedication, is a role model.
Making an appointment for a phone call via a messenger service is uncomplicated. Faranak Partoazar lives with her parents in the house, we talk for an hour and a half. She has a lot to tell and she talks a lot. A few times she interrupts herself and says, “I know I talk too much.” No, it remains interesting at every point. What virtually bubbles out of this lively and intelligent woman is reflected and highlights her perspective on the world in general and on mountain biking in particular.
Faranak Partoazar, the corona virus also reached your home country Iran. What’s the current situation in Shiraz?
Faranak Partoazar: The schools are closed, as is the university. But apart from that, everything else is normal. (Meanwhile things went worser, gyms are closed, training in groups should be prevented) Those responsible are not speaking plainly, they are not honest. There is a lot of mistrust and so there are many rumors.
You study engineering. Does the closure of the university affect you too?
(Laughs). I should have graduated yesterday. I should have defended my thesis (she has graduated in the meantime). I studied structural engineering and got my master’s degree in civil engineering.
Do you want to work as a civil engineer then?
When I started, I really wanted to do this. I wanted to build bridges. But when I started cycling really seriously and got more and more into it, my wishes for the future changed. I am still interested in physics and mathematics. But sports science really appeals to me and I would like to study mechanics and design bikes. Working in the bike industry would be great. In any case, science suits me better than being a coach.
Although you could certainly use cycling coaches in Iran?
You need nerves for that (laughs). I try to help people. But coaching is different. What I have seen with my coaches is a lot of passion, a lot of commitment. No, that takes too much nerves (laughs).
Faranak Partoazar lives in the southwest of Iran, in Shiraz, the fifth largest city in Iran with 1.8 million inhabitants. According to her, Shiraz is not quite as conservative as other regions of the country. The city is located at 1600 meters above sea level and is surrounded by mountains, with peaks over 2700 meters. For mountain bikers this is quite spectacular terrain, as the documentation of the Gehrig twins Anita and Carolin also shows. In Shiraz there is a cycling community, although a small one – also with women.
You practice women’s cycling in Iran. How many hurdles did you have to overcome to get there?
I started in 2014 when I was invited to the national team for the first time. It was the first year they admitted women. Until then there was no such thing. Men have raced outside Iran as well, but women haven’t. They thought they couldn’t do it, they had no chance to get results. They (the Iranian Cycling Federation) did not want to invest. Of course, it also has to do with how society in Iran thinks about women and cycling.
And how did it come about that women were invited for the first time?
In 2014 we had a coach from the Netherlands, Harry Hendriks. He wanted women in the national team. He fought for us, insisted on it and was able to convince those responsible. I will never forget that. Thanks to him I was really able to train for races. Before, I just rode like that, without a plan and without knowledge, at a really low level.
So in 2014 you did races abroad for the first time?
Yes, I have been to two races in Turkey and the Asian Championships (in Indonesia). That was such a big difference. It was almost like World Championships, with opening and closing ceremonies. I was very surprised by the level. There were really good cyclists. The Chinese were so fast, the Japanese. It was a completely different level. From then on, I told myself I wanted to get to this level, I didn’t want to just be brutally cut off. I wanted a medal in the Asian Championships. I also wanted to go to the Asian Games (quasi continental Olympic Games), which are very important for us. But the entry deadline was already over. But the federation didn’t want to send women there either, because they thought they couldn’t win medals. But I had set myself the goal of participating in four years. That was a challenge, a goal. To be the first Iranian woman (in cycling) to participate in the Asian Games.
At these Asian Championships 2014 three Chinese women stood on the podium. In second place: Chengyuan Ren, four-time World Cup winner between 2007 and 2011. In 2016, the Slovenian Primoz Strancar took over as Iranian national coach. Strancar was an Olympic participant in Sydney 2000. He has since terminated this position, but still works with Faranak Partoazar.
Primoz Strancar, as national coach, has also pushed the riding technique.
It was a different level. I had never seen a European ride before and had never experienced the real races. We flew to Italy and rode one HC and one C1 race. There were so many top people there, it was like a small World Cup. I was so surprised to see them. I thought, how the hell do they race? How fast and smooth. I had problems with the course, the level was completely different. That was another turning point for me.
In what way?
It motivated me. At the Asian Championships I was always lapped until then. I said to Primoz, next time I don’t want to be lapped again. He told me, until now you were always two laps behind, if you are only one lap behind, I’m happy. But then it was the first year I finished the race (in the same lap). I was so happy. I had the feeling that something was set in motion. And then I wanted a medal. We have never won a medal. Then I started to invest more. I went to races on my own.
I had no idea. It was a great adventure being on my own. And I learned a lot organizing everything by myself. No mechanic, no coach. I tried to find people to help me in the feedzone, a mechanic and so on. Then in 2017 I won a medal in the team competition, but that doesn’t really count. In 2018 I won the first medal in the Philippines. That was the first medal for a woman in the history of Iranian cycling at the Asian Championships. That was a huge step for us. It was clear that (Iranian) women can win medals. That year I achieved more than our men, although the federation still didn’t really want to help us. I proved that we could do this. After that they wanted me to continue.
How did the resistance until then express itself?
You can ask Harry and Primoz. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to help us or didn’t want to be a part of it. They didn’t even think about women. We didn’t have the same rights as men. They always came first, even when I had the better results. In 2018 that changed, then no one could say it was a coincidence. I wanted to be the first woman to participate in the Asian Games. And then they said, okay, we’ll send you there. Because they saw that I had a chance to win a medal.
When you took part in the Asian Games in Jakarta, you came fourth and just missed a medal.
Yes, unfortunately my chain broke right at the beginning and I had to run three kilometres. I lost seven, eight minutes, was last and I fought my way up to fourth place. So I was pretty depressed. But then I was nominated for the World Championships in Lenzerheide.
Faranak Partoazar finished 49th at the World Championships in Switzerland, three laps behind, and the seven-time Iranian champion has set herself the goal of participating in the Olympic Games. But not until 2024, because the ship for Tokyo 2020 has already sailed. Apart from her, no other Iranian woman goes abroad to collect points. Thus, the Iranian women are only in 42nd place, far away from the ranks for which there are starting places. A victory at the Asian Championships in 2019 would have been a chance but that was not yet feasible.
You are 31 years old and have set Paris 2024 as your goal when you will be 35. On the other hand, you have a young training age. Do you think that you can improve further?
Absolutely, otherwise I wouldn’t plan on 2024 either. I am an idealist. I’m 31, but I don’t train with my age in mind, I train with my goals in mind.
In 2017 you have had your first World Cup race in Nove Mesto, followed by your second race in Albstadt. What was this experience like for you?
At first it was difficult to even be taken. It was a struggle to even be able to go there.
To be honest, I was more determined to go than the two men from my club. And we made it.
And what do you remember?
I could hardly believe how big the differences were. There were so many women and the organisation at a World Cup is very different from other races. I thought, hey, what’s going on? But I enjoyed the atmosphere so much, everything was about the athletes and the sport. I never had the feeling that people looked at me strangely as an Iranian, as a foreigner, as a terrorist, as dangerous. I never had this impression at any time at all. It was all about who was the best on the track. I also liked the fact that there were females to compete with, too. In the Asian Championships we are 15 or 20, in the World Cup it’s 60 or 70. That was a new experience.
Did you get in contact with other athletes and teams?
I mean, I’ve followed a lot of drivers on social media. Of course I would have liked to talk to them, but I was a bit self-conscious and shy. I didn’t know how they were behaving. It’s different now, they are friendly.
The bike community is considered to be very open. Have you had this experience too?
Two or three weeks after the disappointment at the Asian Games, I got my first invitation to the World Championships in Switzerland. Iranians have never been to this event. I had the chance to work with the two Swiss Enduro riders Caro and Anita Gehrig. They made a documentary film about freeriding in Iran and about women in mountain biking. They brought me a letter of invitation from the Swiss Federation. I had no money and the association didn’t want to pay. So it was a dream. I was so surprised by it. Every day something great happened for me there. I said to my coach: I am the happiest person. Many people saw the documentary and knew my situation. This mountain bike community is so nice and friendly.
Faranak Partoazar is currently riding her races on a bike that she bought from the Swiss Möbel Märki team. It is the bike that their former team member Corina Gantenbein used to ride.
The political situation, in particular the sanctions imposed by the USA in connection with the nuclear deal, has caused prices in Iran to skyrocket. It is difficult to get things like new brake pads at all. Partoazar has lost a sponsor who funded her a low-budget Europe trip in 2019 because of the developments. Getting visas is becoming increasingly difficult for Iranians. For the European Schengen area, 100 pages of documents have to be filled out and it is also expensive.
Faranak Partoazar does not want to complain about her situation. Nor does she want to complain about the fact that as a late entrant she did not learn many things at a young age. To feel sorry for herself would destroy her, she says.
It seems difficult for you to race outside the country?
Let me get this straight. Lenzerheide was a big step and has motivated me to invest further. But I do not want to see myself as a victim of the difficult situation in my country. Many things are not good, but I don’t want to take that as an excuse, I don’t like it. I don’t want to say, that’s why I can’t do it. I want to say: I can. I do not like to be pitied.
But it still must be difficult?
I tried to organize a training camp in Europe. My problem is that I can’t race enough in Iran and when I race I have no competition. I had money from an advertising company in Iran. I changed all my money into Euros and then I went to Europe in April and May. I also checked with the association. First they said they would help but eventually gave very little to me. It was hard for me to travel alone, from country to country and to do everything by myself. I was in Slovenia, in Switzerland, in Albstadt, in Nove Mesto and another race in Slovenia. The Swiss company DT Swiss helped me a lot. It was a hard experience, but a unique one and I learned a lot.
What are your plans for the World Championship in Albstadt?
For this year I have planned for Albstadt. The World Championships are my first priority, if I get a visa. I hope I can earn money to do other races as well. That is the goal. But I definitely want to race in Albstadt.
Don’t you have a chance to get some support here in Europe?
(Laughs). I got a lot of support in 2019. Nathalie Schneitter (former Swiss world class rider) helped me, DT Swiss helped a lot and so on. Of course I need support, like every athlete. But, to be honest, I don’t like it when people think she is poor, we want to help her. That’s nice, but that’s not how I see myself. I want to earn that support. I’m sure what I want and what my goal is. I believe that I’m capable of achieving it. For support there should be something in return.
You don’t want charity.
Yeah. Look, I don’t want to complain. This year I had a knee injury, then came the protests in Iran, the escalation with the USA, we had no support in Iran, there were so many obstacles and I just wanted to train. It was a very stressful situation, but I wanted to take my chance to win a medal again at the Asian Championships. And I was third in Thailand and I was the only medal winner in the Iranian team.
In Iran cycling is hardly visible. How did you become a mountain biker?
When I was a child, my twin sister and I had a bicycle. And I loved to ride a bike. But at the age of nine we had to stop because in our society they say: women should not ride a bike, it is not appropriate. But I always had the image of myself riding my bike down a slope one day – on pavement. My cousin did that and the image stayed with me. I saw things on TV about people who ride their bikes around the world and that idea fascinated me. Especially because I wanted to get to know other cultures. We are so protected, so closed, at least that was my feeling at that time. We didn’t have easy access to the internet and so on. But I really wanted to get to know other cultures and other ways of thinking.
So it was rather a tourist interest in cycling
Yeah, to see the world. That was my goal. For the first few days, I left at dawn, before people came on the road. I remember feeling so happy, so blessed. I don’t know, I felt like a child. Nothing that could have made me sad, I was just happy. It was the best feeling I ever had. I really got hooked on cycling. I did it every day and at some point even the male cyclists saw me. They then asked me to come to a race.
And you went there?
I went there. I remember I didn’t have a helmet, I didn’t have anything and I didn’t even know how to shift gears. I just knew how to pedal.
How old were you there?
(Laughs). This may be a bit funny. I was 21.
And where did you get that bike?
It was my brother’s bike. He rode it when he was a teenager. Then he quit because he didn’t care anymore. I just took it and rode it around a little street. 500 meters. Just to see if I could still do it. After so long. The bike was too big for me. I could hardly put my foot on the ground. The bike had to be fixed and I didn’t know anything, not even how to change the tube. So I took it to a mechanic to get it fixed.
Well, I rode the race and came in third. There were about ten women who rode, but I´ve never seen them before. I remember that the guy in charge of the club was impressed by how I was able to ride this bike so well.
Without being able to change gears…
..I remember before we took off I asked someone how I could change gears. (Laughs). He just told me that if you put it in a lower gear it would be harder, if you put it in a higher gear it would be easier. But I didn’t understand what he meant. I was too embarrassed to ask. I said okay, okay, I got it. I rode the whole race in one single gear.
What kind of bike was it?
A city bike. When I tell these stories, you probably think that´s a crazy one (laughs). One day I was riding down the street and a group of men passed me. One of them got off the saddle. I thought, what is he doing? I tried it, too, but after two turns of the pedal it was so hard that I sat down again. I took it as a challenge to do the same as the guy and I practiced. I just always looked at what others were doing.
But have you been able to shift gears?
I tried it after the race. The gears weren’t chainrings. They were different. But I did it.
So you became a racer unexpectedly?
As a teenager I was a bit involved in other endurance sports, but I never really liked competitions. But the first bike race, that fascinated me. A year later they took me to a national women’s race. But at that time I didn’t ride a bike at all, because I studied in another city. I hadn´t exercised regularly for nine months. They gave me a new bike, with new gears and different brakes than I was used to. I stood at the starting line, rode the race and finished second.
Was it a mountain bike race?
Yes, I remember I had many falls because I was not used to the brakes. Once I had a pretty bad fall and the commissioner wanted to take me out of the race. But I was much too passionate, so I jumped out of the dust and kept riding. For me cycling was completely different than any other sport, it was such a great passion. Cycling was a way of life entirely, before that I was what they call a couch potato.
Does that mean you weren’t athletic before?
I had no motivation for specific things. I fell in love with cycling. It changed my life. I changed from an unmotivated and lazy person to a motivated and active person. Before I had no discipline, basically I learned to live by cycling. As a mountain biker you have to dance with your bike. It is the same with life. If you want to enjoy life, you have to learn how to dance it. When it became so difficult here in Iran in autumn, I tried to prevent my life from turning negative.
Cycling, that sounds like a philosophy of life to you.
Exactly. I sometimes wonder who could have invented this thing? How did people think it was so good for me.
In Iranian society women’s cycling is not welcome. What did your friends and family say when you started it?
First, they didn’t support me. They were concerned about the reactions in society. A woman on a bicycle was considered rebellion. That was the label they put on us. But from the moment I started cycling, I didn’t care what others thought. I fought for my right and thought they could change their mind later. And that’s exactly what happened. I had to fight, we had discussions and they said I was risking my future. I had many ups and downs.
Is that still the case?
Now they’re proud that I’ve achieved so much. For you it’s normal, you don’t have to think about what other people think. But we live in a traditional society here.
Your choice of profession, civil engineer, is also a field that is more likely to be occupied by men. Is that difficult too?
To study? I’d say no. You just go to university. But in the workplace, it’s uncomfortable with men. I worked there from time to time, but I didn’t like it.
There’s also the dress code. At the World Cup in Albstadt you stood out because you don’t just wear cycling clothes.
Yes, we have to cover our bodies, there is an official Dress Code in our regulations. On top of our cycling shorts we also have to wear a skirt.
Albstadt will be your second World Championship. What are you most looking forward to?
Lenzerheide 2018 was a great experience. The fact that I’ve already been to Albstadt twice is a great plus because I assume that I’m on my own again. I can organize myself better. Last year I was in a room not far from the track and I felt very welcome there. This is what I am looking forward to the most. The family was so warm, I remember that very fondly. And the race was very well organised, I’m looking forward to that too.
Residence: Shiraz, Iran
Profession: Civil Engineer
Bronze at the Asia Championships 2018 and 2020, Bronze Team Relay Asia Championships 2017 and 2019, Seven-times Iranian champion
Further information on: www.wm2020albstadt.de