“We wanted more peaceful pedaling through gorgeous landscapes, more sleeping in open fields under clear skies, more quiet sunsets, and more friendly people….” Those words introduce Simply Cycling, a blog written by Lauren Munoz and Jay Austin, the two American cyclists who were tragically attacked and killed on Sunday while riding through Danghara, a mountainous district in Tajikistan, 60 miles northeast of the capital city of Dushanbe. They were with five other cyclists they had met on their journey along the Pamir Highway, a bucket-list bike touring road that threads through the Pamir mountains of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
In a blurry and graphic video, a Daewoo sedan swerved from the opposite side of the road to hit the cyclists, one of whom is seen being catapulted off the road by the force of the impact. Witnesses say the assailants then jumped out of the car and stabbed the two Americans, as well as Markus Hummel, a cyclist from Switzerland, and Rene Wokke, a cyclist from the Netherlands, with knives. The three other cyclists survived the attack, at least one with injuries. The U.S. embassy reported that the ministry of internal affairs has detained one suspect and killed at least three others.
According to NPR, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack. On Monday, the Islamic State issued a bulletin through its news agency describing the attackers as “soldiers of the Islamic State.” According to the BBC, it also released a video with Tajik and Arabic subtitles of five young militant men, purportedly the attackers, sitting under a tree, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Nothing was said in the video, however, of the specific attack on the cyclists.
Austin was featured in a 2015 Washington Post article for his innovative problem-solving approach as the chief idea administrator at the Office of Strategic Management and Planning at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He left his the sustainable tiny house he built in Washington, D.C., and quit his job to pursue his round-the-world cycling dream.
According to her blog bio, Munoz grew up in California “occasionally cycling around the Rose Bowl” with her family, but didn’t become a serious cyclist until she moved to D.C. and became an avid bike commuter, “falling in love with the efficiency, accessibility, wellness, open air, vulnerability, community, intimacy, and joy of bicycle riding.”
Munoz and Austin started their journey in South Africa in July 2017, winding their way up to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then flying to Morocco to pedal through eastern Europe before cycling through Central Asia. They planned to dip down to Australia and fly to South America where they would cycle back toward the United States.
Most of the couple’s blog posts express the joys of living simply from the seat of a bike. The final post, however, written by Austin from Kyrgyzstan on July 11, reads ominously:
“We don’t make it very far. A gold sedan skirts by us once more. It parks up ahead. This time, two men exit the vehicle. They stand in the middle of the road blocking our path. Pozhaluysta! the first man says, and I can't tell if it’s an earnest plea or a cruel sneer. In Russian, a lot of things can sound like a cruel sneer.
Nyet! we shout. Leave us alone!
Lauren’s in front and she threads her way in between the two men. She keeps going. I make to follow. I gnash on my pedals, lean to the left, and get in between them.
And then the man on the right pushes me off my bike.”