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Former world under-23 road race champion and Tour de France stage winner Yaroslav Popovych said he is considering going back to his home country of Ukraine to join the ranks of those who are trying to repel the current Russian invasion.
Speaking this week to L’Équipe, he said that he considered fighting eight years ago when Crimea was annexed by the Russians, but suggested that he might follow through on such an action this time.
“All I think about is going to my country and taking up arms. I hesitated a lot in 2014 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,” he told the French sports daily.
“I’m scared, of course, but in 2014 people were under bombs every day, even though many fewer people were talking about it, and I didn’t go there,” Popovych said. “Today, I don’t want to hide anymore.”
Popovych was born in 1980 in Drohóbych in western Ukraine, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. He now lives in Italy. He won his world title in 2001 and turned professional with Landbouwkrediet-Colnago the following year.
He competed for the Discovery Channel team between 2005 and 2007 and spent one year with Silence-Lotto before returning to race alongside old teammate Lance Armstrong at Astana and Team RadioShack. He retired in 2016, and is a sport director at Trek-Segafredo.
Whether or not Popovych ultimately travels to Ukraine, he is already working hard to relieve the situation there. He has been trying to coordinate transport for refugees who have crossed the border into other countries, and has also been a conduit for the donation and transport of food and other supplies.
He posted an emotional video to his Instagram account Sunday after returning from the UAE Tour, and said that he initially found it hard to fully accept and comprehend what was happening.
“Three days ago I knew what started the war in Ukraine, the Russian attack, full gas. It was unbelievable. For two days I didn’t believe this, I was always in the news, to read, to read, to read. You figure out what happened, how many people die, how many people are suffering.
“Our soldiers defend not only Ukraine but also Europe,” he added.
Popovych was clearly very emotional in the video, hyperventilating at one point to try to calm his nerves and also trying to suppress tears.
“In my life, I’ve always never asked [for] help,” he said. “I help a lot but I don’t ask for help. But now I’ll do some lists of things now [of what] we need for the Ukrainian people. If you can help us, it’ll be really nice.”
He appealed for food, clothing, and medical items and said that the first consignment would be sent out the following day, with more to follow every three days after that.
He also said there are other ways people can be of assistance. He related a story about a message he got from one of his friends asking for help for his family.
“It was two women with two kids, seven years and one year old. They crossed the border from Ukraine to Poland. They need to go to Milan and they don’t know how to arrive at Milan – the buses were full, the train was full, everything was full.”
He said that he reached out to a bike shop owner he knows in Poland, someone he met eight years ago after the conclusion of the Tour of Poland and with whom he had kept in contact since then. “
“He had sent me a message already three days ago, [saying] ‘if you need some help, something…’
“I called this guy. He was immediately ready. Yesterday afternoon he picked up this family, he brought them to his home, they slept in his house and now they are traveling to Milan. It is like 1,500 kilometers,” he said.
“They are already in Italy. So one person, like nothing [clicks fingers], helps another person, bringing them to Milan. This guy will now come back to Poland. He said, ‘guys, if you need something to bring to Poland from Milan, he will take it.”
If Popovych does take up arms, he will be joining other well-known athletes. Former heavyweight champions Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, sons of a Soviet major general, have already declared they will fight the Russian forces. Vitali Klitschko is the current mayor of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
They have been joined by two other boxers, namely double Olympic gold medalist Vasiliy Lomachenko and the current heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk.
Andrei Tchmil clarifies comments about his view of the war
However, another famous athlete has contradicted earlier suggestions that he too will fight. Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, and Milano-Sanremo champion Andrei Tchmil was reported to have told another past classics champion Johan Museeuw that he had decided to take up arms.
In a video on his Instagram page, Museeuw had explained the conversation, saying that Russian-born, Ukrainian-raised Tchmil had vowed to go into battle to help Ukraine. However, the latter said this was not the case.
“Johan misunderstood what I told him in Italian,” Tchmil told L’Équipe. “I am a peaceful person and still believe in a peaceful resolution of this conflict. It touches me personally because I have family and friends in Ukraine and Russia.
“It puts me in a delicate situation. I don’t want to be a target, as I never took a position or announced that I would go to war. I made the decision to stay in Moldova to support my bicycle factory, not to go to war.”
He added that his factory only sold four bicycles last month but that he was determined to keep the factory going and to pay his employee’s wages.