Over the past two years, the names of many Ukrainian towns have been nothing more than bywords for military conflict; terra incognita swallowed up by disorder.
Kiev-based photography collective UUA (Urban Underground Athletes) are intent on proving that the country is about much more than strife — that it is also a place of rivers, mountains, forests and breathtaking landscapes full of the potential for adventure.
Cycling in Ukraine is far from popular as a way of getting around or commuting. Its rarity makes for a close-knit community of enthusiasts. UUA was originally founded in Kiev in 2011 as a cycle courier company, but the collective’s pursuits have expanded in line with the interests of its members — Lesha Berezovskiy, Vladislav Andrievsky and Anatolii Todorov — who share a passion for photography as well as cycling. By 2014, says Andrievsky, “UUA had became something bigger. We started hanging out, doing graffiti and printing T-shirts.” With Ukraine riven by civil unrest, cycling also became a way for the group to see the country on their own terms. “In July 2014 I had to move to Kiev because of military unrest in eastern Ukraine. I met Anatolii and Vladislav and we started going on cycling trips together. We travelled to the Carpathian mountains and started photographing everything together.”
The collective now functions as a cross between a cycling crew and a visual arts group, as well a perfect way for its participants to explore the natural surroundings. “When I’m on the bike I feel like a carefree child,” reflects Todorov. “The main thing for me used to be riding fast for long distances, whether the scenery was beautiful or not. With time we started riding slower and slower and stopping to take more photos.”
“In the past year we’ve been trying to cycle in the countryside, as far from the city as possible”
The images featured here were taken in the countryside around Odessa and Kiev and in the Carpathian mountains. Despite the questionable quality of Ukraine infrastructure, long rides from one city to another are still enjoyable, says Berezovskiy. “In the city you often come across rude drivers who don’t follow the rules, don’t notice you or are just disrespectful. Roads in Ukraine are very bad, everybody knows that. But in the past year we’ve been trying to cycle in the countryside, through paths in the forest and by rivers and lakes, as far from the city as possible.”
Taken by all three photographers, the shots here capture not just the diverse landscapes of rural Ukraine, but also the liberation of the open road and the collective’s passion for cycling as a perfect escape — from the city, daily routine and politics. “My favourite thing about cycling is the feeling of freedom, from thoughts, from daily fuss and problems,” says Berezovskiy. “You just push the pedals and forget everything.”
“I can’t really express the feeling I get while cycling,” adds Andrievsky. “For me it’s closest to the feeling of love.”