Six months on, Ukraine’s cyclists ride on in the dark

We catch up with the riders of Ukraine nearly 200 days after war broke out.

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Half a year ago, when war broke out in Ukraine, the world’s focus descended on Eastern Europe. Rolling news coverage, wall-to-wall showings of solidarity on social media, and for the people of Ukraine, lives turned upside down in an instant.

It is a European war being broadcast directly onto the phones of people around the world. Ukrainian soldiers are encouraged to post photos and videos online, to tell the story live from the battlefield in order to help people comprehend what’s going on.

Soldiers aside, civilians also maintained their internet access, meaning many of the 44 million population could similarly share their stories of a country at war. On Instagram, in those early days, horrific images of destruction were interspersed with messages of defiance from the population, all of them only a message away.

As a cycling publication, we found common ground with the cyclists who carried on riding as the bombs fell. Some, such as Andrew Privalov, told us how he cycled through the streets of Ukraine, the scenery changing each day depending on the destruction left behind by the previous night’s shelling, fellow citizens bemused as he rode by in lycra.

Others, like Vladimir Ivankovskyi, who live further south near Kherson, which has become a central point of the conflict, turned to their bikes out of necessity as roads became un-navigable by car and public bus services ground to a halt.

Then there’s Kirill Volkovskiy from Kyiv. Out of the three men we spoke to in March, Volkovskiy was the only one who hadn’t ridden outside since the war started, sticking to Zwift but already planning his return to training in peacetime. 

Without meaning to unnecessarily insert oneself into the story, Kirill and I started following each other on Strava after we had spoken. His training load has returned to around 2,000km a month, taking in four-hour long laps of the capital city, uploading his rides alongside videos of smiling friends throwing up peace signs to the camera as they free-wheel down empty roads. I don’t think there is a ride I’ve logged on Strava since ‘meeting’ Kirill that he hasn’t given kudos to, and every time I return home after getting ‘tired’ around the 40km mark his virtual pat on the back serves as a reminder of how easy the rest of us have it.

I drop Kirill a message on Instagram asking how he is. “Hello,” comes the reply. “Everything is ok.”

I don’t press the issue. The follow-up message to Andrew Privalov, who previously explained how his work as a TV operator had dried up but he was prepared to pick up a gun and fight for Ukraine, is marked as delivered but the two grey ticks remain beside his name and empty icon on WhatsApp. He never responds, likely having far more important things to be doing. Hopefully he, like Kirill Volkovskiy, is doing ok.

Even after Vladimir Ivankovskyi had finished telling me about how he used to ride the 120km from Nikolaev to Odessa, accompanied by videos of explosions lighting up the night’s sky in the pitch black outside his home near Kherson, he continues to send messages – one was a video documenting the aftermath of a rocket that had hit his friend’s house.

“There are fewer rockets, but explosions sometimes sound. It’s more or less calm,” Ivankovskyi messages at the end of August.

“Now I’m on vacation outside the city,” he continues. “According to the news, they are being scared by radiation from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.”

Six days later: “We had loud explosions.” 

How different are things to when we spoke in March?

“Little has changed,” Vladimir admits. “There are fewer checkpoints, it has become calmer, we all ride around the city with friends as before, it is not possible to ride everywhere, because parks and forests are mined.”

But nights interrupted by constant explosions are a rarity now. “Compared to what it was, now there is no shelling, silence. It happens sometimes,” but pitch black nights persist so as to not aid any aerial assault.

“The city is also not illuminated at night because of the blackout,” Vladimir explains, dropping a video in the chat. “Therefore it is very unusual to ride on the road at night. I can’t see anything but what the light shows in front of me.”

via GIPHY

A video that aptly represents the journey into a future unknown, speckled with the hope of light.

“I guess everything is gradually returning to normal life,” he concludes. “Despite the fact that the front is 40 km from my city.”

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