A Noted Moto-Journalist Rides Into War-Torn Ukraine
Ed. note: We’ve followed the travels and writings of motorcycle rider and internationally known writer Neale Bayly for years. The Englishman now residing in America has seen much of the world from the saddle of a motorbike, and has shared the best of humanity in the wonderful people he has met the world over. In this travelogue series from his recent motorcycle trip into war-torn Ukraine, Neale gives us a glimpse from the ground of life under fire in the eastern European nation. With acclaimed photographer Kiran Ridley, Neale pulls back the veil to show the world what a regional superpower is doing to this beautiful nation and its resilient, big-hearted people.
It started with a phone call from award-winning photographer Kiran Ridley who was working in Lviv at the start of the war. Covering the refugee crisis from the saddle of an old, Chinese motorcycle, he just needed to talk. It was cold, dangerous, and the whole city was on a knife-edge of uncertainty as they prepared for the possibility of a Russian attack.
Thousands of miles away in my soft, comfortable life, images of destroyed buildings, dead and injured civilians and outnumbered soldiers fighting for their country filled internet news feeds and TV screens. It didn’t seem possible that in plain view of the world, Russia was targeting women and children with their bombs and missiles, seemingly intent on destroying every facet of Ukrainian life with this unprovoked attack.
Award-winning photog Kiran Ridley, and his Chinese steed in Ukraine.
I called Kiran back a couple of days later and asked how I could help. How could I come to Ukraine to tell stories and raise money, when he asked if it was possible to find a couple of motorcycles? Well, thanks to more than twenty years of working with BMW Motorrad, it only took a phone call and we had two BMW F850GS Adventures with full luggage and Navigation in Munich when we were ready.
Next, Arai Helmets jumped in and REV’IT! offered to provide us with adventure riding outfits before everything started to grind to a crawl. My paperwork went in for my international press credentials and the wait was on. Kiran, who is based in France, had to renew his motorcycle license in the UK, and my press jacket and armor plates were ordered with no delivery date due to excess demand. We held our collective breath, as each day seemed to bring some new challenge.
Thanks to BMW Motorrad for a pair of BMW F850GS Adventures.
I decided to get a shot in my dodgy knee before the trip, only to find the doctor and his PA both motorcyclists, and both military combat veterans who knew me from my motorcycle work. Two weeks later I became the first civilian to go through a week of Combat Life Saver Training in Macon, Georgia with Charlie Company, 148th Brigade Support Battalion. The idea being if “the shit hits the fan”, I hopefully have the skills and the equipment, thanks to Sergeant Garcia, to deal with the types of injuries we could be facing. It began to feel real.
Once back home, the shit storm continued for me with a nasty respiratory infection. Kiran caught Covid back in Ukraine, and a host of other personal issues he had traveling between Paris and England for work threatened to overwhelm him. He recovered, I recovered, and he had to return to Ukraine suddenly on a new assignment. Our departure got pushed back again. It was a crazy period of sketchy phone calls as he did the mad dash across Ukraine and Poland to get home to Paris, filing paperwork with the Ukrainian military to allow me access, and apologizing to BMW for delaying our pickup date. Kiran had to make yet another trip to England to pick up my vest and helmet so our stress meter was still on high.
The devastation is shocking to behold, up close and personal.
Finally, I booked a one-way ticket, Kiran got his schedule cleared, then I caught Covid. It really did seem as if we were not destined to ride into Ukraine. A long, slow week of sickness passed, I changed my ticket, got my negative test and finally landed in Paris. I will save the details of our trip through Germany, Czech Republic, Poland and into Ukraine for a later date, but thankfully it was as smooth as any motorcycle journey could be, and we made it to Lviv in western Ukraine without any issues after some high stress on the border.
We have currently been in Ukraine for five days (as of this writing) and been on a number of assignments working with the most brilliant “fixers”. From 1500 feet below the surface of the earth in an old ‘70s Soviet era coal mine, to spending the day with young amputees who just weeks ago where on the front line, it’s been intense. We have visited a famous speedway stadium to spend time with some racers, visited a 16th century monastery that is housing fifty refugees from Kharkiv, and been hammering away on social media soliciting donations that we will give to the project that most needs our support.
A young Ukrainian woman and relative searching through the remains of her home. The human toll is heart-rending.
Most days people are messaging us to stay safe, some are donating, and for the most part here in the western part of Ukraine we are okay. There are moments though, like when world famous photographer Brent Stirton, ex-South African Special Forces, messages me from Sri Lanka to say “It’s no joke, I’ve lost two friends and two others wounded,” that the gnawing in my gut begins. It’s the same feeling that happens when the air raid sirens wail, or we approach a military checkpoint out in the country.
The reason we’re here: to tell their stories, and bring what relief we can.
Interestingly, there is another stronger feeling that sweeps over me, when I’m at the rehab center seeing so many young men with missing limbs or spending time with refugees listening to their horrific stories, that threatens to overwhelm my emotions. Then we get busy, it passes, and I find myself riding a silky smooth BMW motorcycle on a piece of twisting asphalt, carving through a beautiful country landscape, marveling at the stunning architecture in the villages, the onion domed churches and the quiet rural life we are passing through. It would be an idyllic country to make a motorcycle trip, an adventure ride or holiday. As peaceful and beautiful as it appears though, reality comes rushing back in the knowledge that these beautiful people, the stunning architecture and this peaceful lifestyle can be destroyed in an instant from Russian bombs or missiles and the gnawing in my gut returns.
Tomorrow we go east. The stories are going to get harder and the fight in my head will return, as the search for the words and images to communicate the need for us all to help continues.
Want to help? Here’s the foundation being used to provide support in Ukraine and other places around the globe-
*All photos by Kiran Ridley and Neale Bayly.