The Wall Street Journal

The Other Race For Ukraine

 

Kiev's annual cycling race, once a highlight of the Soviet calendar, offers fresh hope to a struggling nation.

 

Kiev's annual metropolitan cycling race, traditionally held during the final weekend in May, was a highlight of the Soviet Era calendar. Thousands lined the wide, neo-classical esplanade that stretches southwest along Khreshchatyk Street to watch riders cascade through the Ukrainian capital in a torrent of color, toward the finish line in Bessarabska Square.

Among the riders in the races of the 1960s was an ordinary young man named Boris Bashenko. Despite the Soviet Union's opposition to the international rise of its athletes, Bashenko frequently broke away from the peloton to compete in high-profile races, before turning his attention to nurturing the sport itself. He became the first international commissaire of the U.S.S.R. for the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and concluded his distinguished career as the first secretary general of the National Olympic Committee for his independent country: Ukraine.

In the turbulent years following the fall of Communism, Ukrainian's love affair with bicycles began to sour. Economic hardship and more pressing priorities forced the city to let its great race deteriorate. But seven years ago, the late Boris's son Alexander Bashenko made it his mission to revive Kiev's once-beloved competition. Pooling resources from his own development company, and hard-won support from local politicians, national sponsors and sportsmen from across Europe, Mr. Bashenko restarted the race again from scratch. Under the new name Race Horizon Park, the 160 kilometer, three-day, multi-stage event now boasts prestigious UCI accreditation, and this year expects athletes from 15 countries to compete at the end of May.

But despite all his hard work on the annual race to honor his father's memory, Mr. Bashenko now faces a thoroughly unexpected hurdle: "Furious Russian propaganda on the subject of inexistent civil unrest in Kiev," Mr. Bashenko tells me via email. Since Moscow annexed Crimea, and as pro-Russian forces continue to rock eastern Ukraine, Mr. Bashenko's Race Horizon staff have begun fielding phone calls from worried cycling teams about supposed trouble in the capital that few of its denizens have actually seen.

"The uniqueness of cycling is the fact that any person of any age can obtain access to the sport all year long," Mr. Bashenko tells me. Though Ukrainians are still poor by Western standards—ski vacations and sailing trips are out of the question for most—they can afford bicycles, and these days buy nearly a million of them annually. Mr. Bashenko's small crew of Ukrainian cycling enthusiasts isn't much of a match for the scores of press releases, regurgitated near-verbatim by Kremlin-controlled media outfits, portraying Ukraine as a broken, divided and lawless nation. The propaganda assault is intended to influence Ukraine's upcoming presidential election, along with international governments. Mr. Bashenko's race may wind up as collateral damage—precisely at the time when Ukrainians could stand to rally around a healthy, peaceful leisure activity.

"The people of Ukraine are doing everything possible to get themselves involved in sport and exercise," Mr. Bashenko adds. "In that regard, bikes are the most easily accessible and beloved. Cycling is the future of this country."

Yaroslav Popovych, currently Ukraine's most famous cyclist, agrees. Long before he competed in the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, Mr. Popovych recalls a childhood characterized by poverty and boundaries. In an email interview, he remembers "as though it were today" when "we started to become aware that apart from races in our backyards, there were wonderful competitions around the world."

He recalls watching the international events on videocassettes smuggled by a cycling team-mate's brother from Italy. "Not even in my most delicious dreams," Mr. Popovych writes, "could I believe that one day I might have the opportunity to live like 'those' men."

Like Mr. Bashenko, Mr. Popovych worries that threats to competitions such as Race Horizon Park could upset the hopes of young people. Neither harbors bitter feelings towards Russia, but both believe that any disruption or down-scaling of the competition would signal a return to how sport in Ukraine used to be: at Moscow's pleasure.

In 1986, for instance, as Soviet authorities struggled to control the Chernobyl disaster, Mikhail Gorbachev held Kiev's May Day cycling race as usual. The site of the explosion was only 90 miles away, but no one was told. In a 2011 National Review essay, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation co-founder Robert McConnell notes that though Communist Party elites were conspicuously absent from the viewing stands, the sportsmen and fans carried on: "Exercise and deep breathing—all the better to inhale radiation."

In 2014 of course, the Kremlin has every interest in disrupting Kiev's bicycle race. But to the delight of Kievites, Vladimir Putin's bad-news stories may only be raising international support for Race Horizon Park. Mr. Bashenko says he expects "a minimum of 150,000 people" to turn up and cheer the riders along the course.

Western governments continue to issue travel warnings for Ukraine. But international sportsmen, so far, are showing stronger mettle. "We want to show the people in Germany that Kiev and Ukraine are different from what appears in the news," says the spokesman of the German team, Bike Aid-Ride for Help. Similarly, Christoph Springer of Austria's Team Vorarlberg tells me: "I think the media which we see [on Ukraine] isn't always accurate, or as it looks."

The Ukrainian riders, for their part, are eager to welcome the foreign competitors. Yuriy Metlushenko, currently ranked number one in the Individual UCI Asia Tour and a previous winner of Race Horizon Park, says by email that "the Kiev race is a kind of 'dove of peace' in cycling. The Olympic Games occur regardless of wars stopping their motion—and this race, in a symbolic sense, testifies to a peaceful resolution of the situation in Ukraine."

If all goes according to plan, this year's race—like those Yaroslav Popovych watched as a schoolboy—will go ahead this month in all its glory, with the contemporary heirs to men like Boris Bashenko burning ahead like beacons, for a proud young country to see.

Mr. Nicoll is British writer and journalist, who has been short-listed twice for the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize.