Bikes Over Bombs: Ukraine

Firsthand accounts of the Russian Invasion from Ukrainian natives Volodymyr Tarasov and Sem Nerush, two riders caught center stage in the global conflict.

It begins unsuspectingly, in a place you may have visited before.

When the tiny island territory of Puerto Rico had drafted their team for the 2018 Motocross of Nations, an event that was already considered to be all-time had been fanatically heightened. America’s soon-to-be-minted everyman Ryan Sipes would be flanked by two of the sports all-time legends in Kevin Windham and Travis Pastrana, competing under the recognition of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory. The occasion would be documented by Pastrana’s camera crew and leveraged into support for the island that had been decimated by hurricane Maria the year previous. As if it couldn’t get any more wholesome than that, Pastrana was set to compete on a Suzuki RM250 2-stroke.

Though their star-power drew fans far and wide to the Puerto Rican pits at RedBud, the raw talent that garnered their praise had been lost to the sands of time. Altogether, Pastrana and Windham had been absent from the professional circuit for almost 14 years, and while Sipes had been sharpening his teeth in various two-wheeled disciplines, one man alone couldn’t guide the team through qualification. It would take a small miracle to claim victory in the B-Final, which would secure them the last spot on the gate for the coveted A-Final, where the world’s top countries would compete for the Chamberlain Trophy.

While Pastrana floundered on the outdated 2-stroke, Sipes and Windham took command up front. Neither claimed victory, but they collectively scored enough points to secure a spot in the final with 2nd and 4th place finishes, respectively.

As is customary of competition found in the B-final, it is littered with countries that are not often associated with other well-established, world motocross super powers. You’ll come across places such as Portugal, Argentina, Iceland, and Guatemala, with the corresponding faceless names to match: Diogo Graca, Juan Pablo Luzzardi, Andri Gudmundsson, and Jose Fernandez…

While the Michigan faithful poured into the Puerto Rican camp to embrace under Buchanan’s dark skies, another name had quietly crossed the finish line not far behind. Ukraine’s Volodymyr Tarasov.

“Motocross of Nations has always been a special event for me,” Tarasov began. “In 2018, that was the closest Ukraine had been to the A final in a long time. In the entire history of motocross, we have never been to the A final.” In fact, the eastern European nation has only been competing in the international team race since 1993, shortly after the country gained an early taste of independence following the events of the Revolution on Granite, a successful student-led protest to Soviet occupation. Ukraine wouldn’t properly stabilize until the late 90’s however, evidenced by their spotty presence at the MXoN. The history books are riddled with gaps where the team never showed, blemishes that Tarasov would explain as opportunities lost.

“There are talents in Ukraine, but there are few of them and they do not have the chance to go to international competitions. As a motocross community, we are not unified in our goals of global success, and because of this we do not understand what we need to do to improve our results. Everyone moves randomly, including me.”

Tarasov (centered left, 84 right) at RedBud in 2018.

He continued, “I have already come a long way though, and now I understand how many mistakes I made that slowed me down. Since my retirement in 2020, I would like to continue guiding upcoming riders on the right path and hope they make fewer mistakes, but they will need more resources for this.”

Resources. It was clear he meant money, but in the moment it felt more like time. As it stood, the date read Thursday, February 24th, a day we know now as the beginning of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. As the Soviet Army planted its first sinister steps on Ukrainian soil, with it came the dissipation of innocence and hope for the prosperous nation. “Today, I understand nothing,” Tarasov admitted. “Tension had been building at the border, yes, but no one from the civilian population could believe that war would really begin. We are not evacuating, because evacuation near Zaporizhzhia is not possible. We are already surrounded.”

Somewhere between the dust and debris trailing behind the advancing forces, the fate of the Ukrainian motocross community hung in the balance. While Tarasov’s ultimate hopes were to guide his country towards success on the global motocross stage, his focus instead turns towards a new, imperative goal: making sure there is a country left for him to compete with.

Beyond the banks northeast of the Dnieper River in Tarasov’s Zaporizhzhia lies Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth largest city and administrative centre of the Dnipropetrovshchyna province. Visually, the architectural makeup of the city boasts a varied mix of historical Socialist Realism contrasted by the more adventurous post-modern works of Dnipro’s arts and entertainment sectors, a contrast that is thoroughly defined by the Dnipro Arena, host to the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification match between Ukraine and England. It’s coliseum-pillared ticket centers, surrounding the familiar marvel of modern stadium construction, reflect the city’s transition from its Soviet-controlled past into an independent future.

In contemporary media, footage circulates rapidly as Dnipro’s cityscape becomes violently disfigured at the helm of Putin’s army. Constant shelling and strategic ground warfare paving a bloody path of regression into Soviet rule, where craters more closely resemble the imprints of a nation grasping to its identity by their fingertips. The portrait of this conflict is more nuanced than that, though. Resistance to the Russian Invasion has been widespread, even in a city as heavily targeted as Dnipro.

Sem Nerush, a citizen of Dnipro and former teammate to Tarasov, is also staking claim to his homeland. Holding steady just outside the metropolitan area, Nerush recounts his experience in the early days of the invasion, shining a brighter light on the innocence of the Ukrainian people and their unwillingness to let independence go quietly.

Nerush competes in the Polish Championships at right. P: Maciej Wierzbicki

“I just don’t understand how this could happen in the 21st century. Absolutely no one in our country thought it would come to war. Conflict has always been present on the eastern Ukrainian border, but if any problems were to develop, it would develop only there. As a result of our incredulity, Russia was able to attack us from all sides and, in a few cases, from within.” When offered the idea of escape, Nerush deflected. “The city is closed. Departure is not possible. Weapons are being distributed to all interested men 18 years or older. If they come to our city, I will have to fight.”

“People are suffering.” Nerush solemnly spoke, joining the masses in condemning the actions of those responsible.

For Ukrainians, there is an almost instinctual anxiety towards their eastern neighbors, a feeling that has slowly been assimilated into the culture from decades spent hidden in the shadows of Communist influence. As Nerush pulls from his own story, “In 2017 I rode in the European Championships in the 85 class, which at the time had races in both Russia and Ukraine. Everyone was afraid to go on both sides. The Ukrainians to Russia, and the Russians to Ukraine. In the end, everything was fine, but the uncertainty of it all was ever present.”

Even considering all those years where generations spent eons walking on eggshells, the most egregious of acts committed against “the breadbasket of Europe” could easily be cited as the violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by Ukraine in 1994 as a sort of peace-keeping initiative, which saw the disarmament of the world’s 3rd largest nuclear arsenal in return for assured sovereignty. With this came an assumed recognition as an independent state by its neighbors, a qualification that Russia most recently took back with haste. “Previously, many Russians did not understand that Putin was an invader,” Nerush said, “but at the same time, our sport was out of politics. Now I hear a lot of words of support from Russian racers.”

Nerush (right) in 2017.

Despite pleas for ceasefire from Russia’s collective populous, alongside voices from around the globe, the invasion continues by orders of the Kremlin. Heavy sanctioning aimed to cripple the economic infrastructure of Russia deters the advancements only microscopically. Talking heads gather on screens narrow and wide to pontificate the idea that the defense is up against a nation (read: a man) with nothing to lose. A man whose rational decision making seemingly decreases with every passing hour. While onlookers can only sit idle and hope for a resolution that comes sooner rather than later, people like Tarasov are relegated to their new home on the battlefield.

“We have been busy making flour every day and night,” says Tarasov, whose family owns and operates an industrial farm. His father, a former racer in his own right, brought him into the business full-time after Tarasov’s retirement in 2020. “My father was the one who introduced me to motocross, and he always supported my career, even after investing heavily into the farm in 1999,” and when asked if he adapted quickly to his new occupation, he responded, “I took part for many years, but it was not permanent. I would work around my racing schedule. I know enough now to help out and make sure our neighbors do not go hungry. It is difficult though,” his tone becoming sour, “because it becomes harder to move around each day. The roads are very dangerous and opposing soldiers have occupied our village, terrorizing the minds of our locals.”

Softly, he continues, “Two days ago, there were battles at a nuclear power plant 30 kilometers (18 miles) from my house. There were casualties, amongst them some of my friends.” When asked how they handle the occupation of their village in light of such devastating news, Tarasov grasps to a fading optimism. “The soldiers who monitor our village are calm, they do not destroy anything or take away property as in other communities. But,” he pauses, “everything can change. Every day becomes more difficult for us.”

Fixated on the minds of the Ukrainian motocross community is the safety of their own people, first and foremost. However, the sport they love that has brought them an immense sense of fulfillment and belonging lingers not far behind. Their enthusiasm exudes from their words, as they navigate now-trivial questions while sitting center stage in the world’s unraveling play.

“My father loved motorcycles,” begins Nerush, who stays with his folks, “and when I was born, he bought me an affordable, small motorcycle that would frequently break down.” Nerush would go on to explain that the engine installed in the frame originally belonged to a chainsaw, but was soon replaced altogether by a proper KTM 50cc machine. “One day, we went out for a picnic with some friends and we took my bike with, because there was a motocross track nearby. After the locals showed me the direction of the course, I took off. A riding coach who had brought his own son to practice that day asked my father why they had not seen me at competitions. My father replied, ‘We ride for fun!’ The coach assured him I could have a bright future in the sport.” An appearance at the 2021 MXoN and multiple Ukrainian championships later, an unsuspecting hunch from an anonymous coach was validated.

It’s a story that Volodymyr Tarasov and his wife Alina hope to tell of their young son, who they seek to protect from a world they’ve unjustly inherited. “It is my dream [to see him race], but it all depends on his true desire. He is only 1 year and 5 months old, but already he shows an interest in motocross. While that doesn’t mean much at such a young age, I am excited. He loves the bikes.”

Volodymyr with his wife and son.

As a community, that love is a feeling that can be easily translated across all languages. An innate passion for two wheels. A stoke sparked early and often. Even in the face of the abstract, grim possibility of having your independence and heritage stripped away at the hands of a hostile force, there lies a place inside the mind where hope springs eternal. A vision unblemished from the cold realities of war, where the way things were reflect the way they might soon be again. Some see themselves on a quiet walk through Shevchenko Park. Others in a humble apartment preparing meals with their grandparents. For Tarasov, he spin laps with his pupils in the warmth of an Eastern European summer, elevating the future of Ukrainian motocross to heights its never reached.

Sem Nerush, however, has already begun manifesting this hope. Between the warning sirens and intermittent enemy fire, he stages a one-man protest broadcast for all to see. Dancing defiant on the sands of a nation destined to be free, his battle cry rings loud and true: “FUCK PUTIN!”

Special thanks to Volodymyr Tarasov and Sem Nerush for their openness in such trying times. Roman Morozov was also contacted for this story, but could not be reached.