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As cycling’s opening weekend coursed through Belgium, Andrei Tchmil called his old friend and racing rival Johan Museeuw. He had just sent his wife and one-year-old child to Romania, Tchmil said. He would stay behind in Moldova, near the border with Ukraine, less than 100 kilometers from active fighting.
The contrast between real battles and those we invent for our entertainment could be no starker than captured in that phone call.
Museeuw relayed the contents of the call in an emotional video posted to social media. “Johan, I wanted to hear you again,” Tchmil said. “I don’t know if I’ll be there tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”
The two riders, one Belgian and one born in the Soviet Union, later naturalized Belgian, traded wins in the late ’90s and early 2000s, both of them piling up monuments. Tchmil won the Tour of Flanders in 2000, Milan-San Remo in ’99, and Paris-Roubaix in ’94. He retired in 2002 and has lived in Ukraine in recent years.
“Chisinau is 185 kilometres from Odessa,” Tchmil told Het Laatste Nieuws on Monday. “We are 75 kilometres from Transnistria, where Ukraine has an important military airport. The Russians will be there on Monday. For me the situation is very complicated. The border is close. What happened in Ukraine is happening almost here, in Moldova. Moldova cannot go to war. We don’t have an army. Moldova is neutral. It could just happen that someone decides to take Transnistria which is three-quarters of an hour from here.”
Museeuw has stayed in touch with his old rival, and took a call over the weekend. “After two great racing days, I received a call from Andrei Tchmil this afternoon,” he said. “We had a lot of battles on the bike in our days. He asked me how I was. I asked him how he was and he said: ‘It could be better. We fought wars on the bikes but now I am in the middle of a war. I live on the border with Ukraine and am 100km from where there is fighting. This morning I sent my wife and one-year-old son to Romania to keep them safe. I will fight and defend.’
“I wanted to hear because I don’t know if I will be around tomorrow or the day after,” Tchmil said. “I give you three kisses.”
Museeuw was lost for words, he said. “It hits you right in the face. I hope the bullshit ends there and that we can keep calling each other.”
Tchmil is not the only rider willing to arm himself and fight. Yaroslav Popovych, the Ukrainian former pro and current director sportif for Trek-Segafredo, told l’Equipe that he too is ready to return to Ukraine from Italy, where he currently lives.
“All I think about is going to my country and taking up arms,” he said, speaking at the UAE Tour. “I hesitated a lot in 2014 [when Russia invaded Crimea], when I was still a rider. I told my wife Friday night and she is very upset. Yet I feel it inside of me, I can’t do nothing. Yeah, I’m scared of course, but in 2014 people were under bombs every day, even though a lot less people were talking about it, and I didn’t go there. Today, I don’t want to hide anymore.”