It is shortly before noon and the sun is blazing as I reach the center of Chernivtsi after 35 kilometers. I pass the venerable railway station and walk over cobblestones to the large monument to the important Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. What I need now is a nice café to kill two birds with one stone: sit out the midday heat – and write this article in peace.
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Note: „Charity Bike Tour“
I find a little oasis right next to the white and blue town hall. A sign in German and Ukrainian says that Chernivtsi was „the secret capital of Europe“, „where the pavements were swept with bouquets of roses and there were more bookshops than bakeries“. Right next door is the Literaturbank, an old building with a bookshop on the ground floor and a chic café with a spiral staircase leading up to it.
This is where I’m going to stay, so I lock up my bike. But just at that moment, a deafening siren sounds: air alert! I watch the locals, but they remain unimpressed and go about their business. So I don’t go to the next shelter either, as the app advises me, but to the café.
During my first air alert in the winter of 2022, I was still running to the Kiev metro. Now this abstract threat has become normal for me, and that is as understandable as it is frightening.
What has also changed: I have achieved a certain notoriety – if not throughout Ukraine, then regionally. I became aware of this on Friday, on the way from Vynnyky near Lviv to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk at the foot of the Carpathians. I have to cover almost 130 kilometers that day. In the morning I brave heavy rain and many hills and have to be careful, especially on the descents, not to slide, which could be a once-in-a-lifetime fun with the closely overtaking trucks. Once I have to brake sharply because of a large pothole in front of me;if I had swerved to the left, the fast truck next to me would almost certainly have run me over.
Shortly before Ivano-Frankivsk, a racing cyclist finally overtakes me. He looks back, then waits for me and is happy to have met me. The man takes a selfie with me and then rides on. „I’m sure he saw my post on Instagram,“ says Max, whose house I’m staying with today. He’s an old buddy of Volodymyr’s whom I met in Krakow and who has been supporting me ever since. Max and his girlfriend Liana give me a warm welcome, they are very happy about my charity campaign and make it their business to support it.
The next morning, Max and I cycle to the city centre, where I am to meet a few journalists. This was organized by Volodymyr, Iryna and Yura, a friend of Max and Volodymyr. We are heading for Urban Space 100, a social restaurant format funded by 100 local patrons. 80 percent of the restaurant’s annual profit goes to social projects in the city.
I’m amazed when several camera teams from regional media and a national broadcaster are already waiting outside the restaurant. So I ride a few laps for the cameras and tell them about my tour. Afterwards, we hoist the bike onto the stage of the café and I can spread out my new Luxembourgish and German flag that Iryna sent me. Until now I had only ever ridden with the Ukrainian flag. In the meantime, I also have the city flag of Wynnyky with me and could soon open a flag shop…
In front of the guests at the café I tell them about my tour and show them photos. The fact that even the country’s foreign minister came to the start with his bike makes a big impression here as well as on the journalists. The fact that the man is already 74 and still pedaling up Tour de France mountains also amazes the cycling community. People here are not used to that.
In the meantime, noon is already over and my goal of cycling to Yaremche today proves to be hardly feasible. So Max makes me a proposal, which I gladly accept: I stay another night and the next morning we go on a weekend trip by car into the mountains. The highlight of this tour is the hike up the 1453-metre Hora Yavir-Horhany. Before reaching the summit, one has to climb over a sea of boulders. However, the peace and quiet as well as the view here, in one of the most beautiful corners of the Ukrainian Carpathians, are worth all the effort.
At the summit, there is a sip of Jägermeister – an old tradition with Max, who does this every year with his father when they scramble up Ukraine’s highest mountain, Hoverla. That’s at the end of August, but the son is already training to keep up with his sporty father. The descent is strenuous, but Max puts us off, saying that there are only three kilometers to the beer garden. He repeats this announcement so often that we laugh about it at some point. The next morning, it’s mainly us two men around 40 who feel our legs. I give Max the horse ointment. What is it for? I can’t translate it exactly, so I stay metaphorical: „For old battlehorses like us“. We both laugh and play the song „We are young“.
On Monday, it’s time to say goodbye. On the way to Chernivtsi, my app takes me off the main road at some point. First I drive on a road with potholes, then it becomes a muddy dirt road with puddles as wide as the whole road. Everything is filthy. I manage to clean the bike at a watering hole, but then I get into the worst mud again. This wears on my nerves and I decide to stop relying on navigation apps and look at the good old map again. Just like in the old days. Old battlehorse. Old school… I let my mobile phone play „We are young“.
What really motivated me on this exhausting 31st day of my tour was meeting an elderly woman. We chat at a bus stop in the midday heat. She wants to know if I’m not afraid because of the war. Not afraid, but respectful, I answer and tell her about my project. Finally, the woman opens her purse and gives me a donation of 100 hryvnias – a small fortune for the villager, considering her small pension. With this beautiful and encouraging experience, I start the final phase of my tour. July ends with 2008 kilometers and 15,084 meters of altitude.