When asked why we ride our bikes, ‘freedom’ is usually one of the first words to bounce off our lips. But cycling doesn’t just enrich our lives with a sense of liberty, it also connects us to the people we ride with, to our own bodies and our wellbeing, as well as to the landscapes and cultures we cycle through. This pursuit of freedom is confirmed with every single ride we make, regardless of distance, route, or method. We spoke to ‘The Roosters’ after their most recent journey took them from Krakow to Kiev via the Carpathian Mountains. Hard by any standards, even harder on a fixed gear.

Who are The Roosters?

A quartet from Madrid, increasingly known as border-crossing, boundary-pushing lunatics whose adventures involve a shared passion for riding long distances, unsupported, on their fixed gear bikes. Madrid to Bordeaux, Porto to Valencia, and even deep into the wilds of Japan.

Unabashed rule-breakers, their only stipulation for each ride is it has to be completed on a fixed gear bike on which they have to carry everything they need for survival. These are the sorts of journeys that are draining, exhausting and testing on their friendship.

Long Days in the Ukraine

“After crossing the Polish border into the Ukraine which wasn’t exactly the friendliest experience in the world, the Carpathians welcomed us with torrential rain, freezing nights and a few other misfortunes just to add the icing onto an already shitty cake.” It sounds miserable in the way that The Roosters recount this stage of their journey, but they shrug it off. But their motto is simple – smile, grit your teeth and ride through it. They told themselves it would be one of those moments to look back on and laugh about together – and, now that it’s in the past, they’re almost able to do that. As their route took them onto the Great Ukrainian Plains, the landscape unfolded into long, straight roads, drawing their gaze directly onto the horizon. Mesmerizing, they said.

At first glance, certain roads appear to be friendly, but there’s no guarantee they won’t unleash a Machiavellian nature. This happened here, over and over again. The Roosters were met with continual ups and downs and leg-burningly steep gradients. So harsh in fact, that you might be led to believe these ribbons of tarmac were built by someone harbouring bad intentions for any humans with the misfortune to travel along them.

On trips like these, breakfast takes on a hallowed role for The Roosters; it’s a time for chatting and joking about what the day has in store. It has a routine – morning coffees, bike checks, route planning, all accompanied with a smile: “It’s always worth savouring those tranquil moments because so often they can switch and change in a second,” they remark.

  Your entire body feels like it is going through hell. On one occasion our bodies were destroyed by 80 km of these pothole-littered roads.

The Potholes That Try To Disconnect Us

Ukraine is still divided by reformists and conservatives and certain areas along the Russian border are still ravaged by a war that most of the world has forgotten exists. A country that is notably affected by a lack of wealth and corruption. So if roads are a reflection of the state of a country then the potholed-scarred asphalt of Ukraine gives away a lot.

Potholes, unsurprisingly, became the enemy to The Roosters, laden down with their bikepacking bags. “Your entire body feels like it is going through hell. On one occasion our bodies were destroyed by 80 km of these pothole-littered roads. Our knees were constantly battling with the strains of the fixed gearing and, at times, it became unbearable,” they recall the unpleasantness of the memory.

Ukraine is also accustomed to heavy rainfall, turning each pothole into a muddy paddling pool. Gauging the depths is a finely honed skill, and for those that lack the finesse, it sometimes results in a mud bath with water exceeding the height of the bottom bracket and wheels thudding into hidden rocks. On one descent, Rooster member Aukerman, suffered a pothole-induced puncture, causing him to veer towards the precarious road edge whilst on a corner. After this close call, Aukerman was convinced he was going to abandon the bike and walk to the next stopover. “Those dark moments are when we realise how important we are in supporting each other. Life is better when you’re battling together,” he commented.

The Campsite Of Intercultural Exchange

Finding somewhere to camp is never normally an issue, The Roosters explain. Quite often, the local people are so enthusiastic to engage with world wanderers that they invite you to camp on their land and ply you with questions about your journey. On one particular night there were children fishing by a marshy lake: “We were taking showers from bags and joking about how different these experiences are from our everyday lives,” recalls one. The kids, who appeared no more than 12 years old, came over and joined The Roosters, who were casually sharing beers and smoking together. It was one of those serendipitous occasions when different lifestyles collide, and language barriers are fought to be overcome. An almost life-affirming conversation with these young kids, you could say.

But moments later this scene of cultural learning was interrupted by the approach of two guys who gave the impression they were not really the talking-and-getting-to-know-you types. As the newcomers eyed up the filming equipment, they realised it was time to disconnect from the current situation and move on from this lakeside spot.

Bikes, equipment, and riders are thrown into the back of the van and they made hasty getaway. Despite realising that they’d vastly outnumbered the perceived threat (8 to 2), they reasoned that it’s worth putting the ego to one side in an unfamiliar territory.

“We want to be able to say ‘I told you one day we would laugh about that.’ And of course, wherever possible we want to leave a country with positive experiences.” For The Roosters, these encounters with locals are part of the adventure, but they’d prefer not to seek out trouble. The view they get from their bikes is a privileged one, a fleeting impression of lives being lived in the towns and villages that they pass through. Travelling facilitates understanding of different people’s needs and how happiness isn’t defined by one specific formula. And there is no greater human need than that of connectivity – one of life’s great enrichers.

This article is from GRAN FONDO issue #008

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Words: Hannah Troop Photos: Lino Escurís