ABR Diaries: The Charge Of The Light Brigade, biking through Ukraine

James Owens

ABR James Owens – aka James 691 – is taking on Ukraine with just 10 days to spare and a total lack of local knowledge. Foolish and ill-fated, maybe, but what an adventure!

This ride was born of the same blind heroic optimism as the actual charge, and much like the Light Brigade, I too was cut down in my prime, albeit minus the drama of cannon ­fire. With nothing more than a will to go and ride my bike in some place new, I opened a thread on the ABR forum asking for suggestions. One that struck me as an excellent adventure was to ride to Crimea and visit the area famed for the demise of the ill-fated Light Brigade.

The now-infamous charge is best summed up in the poem by the late Alfred Lord Tennyson. Written during the Crimean War, it tells the tale of the Light Brigade’s advance into battle on a mishmash of poor instructions which saw it career straight into the Russians’ cannons,­ flanked on all sides by the enemy.

It seemed a rather apt tribute given that I’d be doing this ride with 10 days’ notice and no knowledge of the Ukraine. I knew the history of the Crimean war, though, and about Florence Nightingale. I even knew about the less-famed Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole and her daring bravery caring for the sick; the fact that most of the men in that war died of disease rather than from injury was something that had stuck in my mind. So there I was with a suggestion and no plan other than to charge my Varadero off towards the Ukraine. I suppose in hindsight a map would have been useful. Instead I had with me two pairs of socks and a t-shirt that would have to last me for the duration of the ride; yes, I’m single.

My very loose plan of attack was to cut over across Belgium and Germany and down to the south of Poland to end up in L’viv. I have friends in both Belgium and in Germany who I knew I could rely on to put me up for the night, saving me from an Iron Butt-style blast and instead allowing me a more acceptable riding pace of just 500 miles per day.

Meeting up with my mate Buggles in Belgium and telling him what I wanted to do drew a raised eyebrow from the laidback Dutchman. I should have guessed then it was a bad idea. Even if I had it still wouldn’t have deterred me. I love a bad idea; it makes life more interesting.

The road down across to Germany was sweet and nurtured tarmac of the highest order. Free reign on speed with the autobahn system and the sun shining high in the sky saw the miles skip by. Before very long at all I was at fellow ABR forum member SnapHappy’s place in the heart of Germany. Rolling hills, sweeping bends and the bright-green farmland were in stark contrast to the stunning blue skies that shone over the Deutschlander’s territory.

The idea was to get a good night’s sleep and catch up with a good ABR bro before the main thrust across Poland and on to my destination. Snaps has two rather large Great Danes which he’d neglected to mention in previous meetings. And so it was that I was greeted with a snout in my crotch by a horse-sized dog, which hadn’t failed to notice I’d been traveling sans shower for three days straight; I was his best friend. The strength of these animals is not be underestimated and while doing my best to refuse its amorous advances and greet Snaps I was out flanked by a second Great Dane which came around the back of me, slamming its snout into my arse crack! I was being molested, and for the first time in my life, not enjoying it. I can only thank the good people at Spada for making Great Dane-proof pants.

Shortly after I discovered not only did I not have a map but my satnav would not cover the Ukraine. Pulling Google maps up on Snap’s computer, the route seemed straight forward enough: ride to L’viv and then turn right. How hard could it be? Well, that’s the thing about winging an adventure, you just never know. Nothing compares to that feeling of haven bitten off more than you can chew before riding on to find out exactly how much of a mouthful you’ve let yourself in for.

Snaps also brought up a weather chart for the area, which I’d not even considered doing before. I’ve done subzero rides, but when the chart showed temperatures of -5 and dropping I was curious if I’d make it. We would find out in the next few days regardless. Did I mention that my mobile phone was bust, meaning I had no way of contacting anyone once I’d begun my charge?

Powering up the bike the next morning, I shot off across Poland with a huge grin on my face and no clue in my head. This was turning into a Light Brigade tribute, with several potential snag factors on the horizon which were soon to converge for one major cock-up. ‘Bring it on,’ thought I.

The weather was now getting rather nasty. I’ve never done a ride through 400 miles of mist; either I was keeping pace with the weather or this low pressure cloud was huge. To quote Tennyson: Boldly [I] rode and well / Into the jaws of Death / Into the mouth of Hell. A tad dramatic, I know, but that’s poets for you.

The Ukraine was held by a checkpoint, the first that I had come across other than the UK into France. The line was long and the vehicles in poor condition, a far cry from the Audis and Mercs that I’d been playing with in Germany. As you approach the Ukraine from Poland, it’s possible to clock by degrees the steady drop in affluence all around you. The guy I was behind in the queue was pushing his car to the passport control, jumping in and out as the line moved along. Out of empathy, I pushed my bike towards the stone-faced official. No one spoke English. ‘Wonderful,’ I thought. ‘If you can’t speak English you can’t ask me too many awkward questions.’ And sure enough I was waved on.

The wind was now howling. The open farmland of the Ukraine is very different to that of mainland Europe.

Deep dark browns of open­ flatland run for miles in every direction. There was nothing to slow or even channel this Arctic wind that whipped across the fields and pushed me and the bike about like a schoolyard bully.

But it wasn’t raining, and more importantly, it was not snowing! My concentration was now focused on the road to L’viv which would disintegrate before my eyes each time it passed through a village from open highway tarmac to nothing more than a collection of potholes four feet wide and up to a foot deep. One wrong move and I could have lost my front end in an instant. It was some interesting riding to say the least, dodging and weaving past 18-wheel trucks coming in the opposite direction. My vision ­flicked franticly from immediate to middle ground, to dodge the holes and miss the trucks. I was in heaven when, added to that, the odd gust of wind would push me a few feet to the left or right of the road. My god, I was in it now and loving every second of it!

Eating in the Ukraine is a fun affair if you don’t speak Ukrainian, which I don’t. Stopping briefly at a little shop, I dinned on borsht and goulash and a few other bits of ‘food’ I was able to point to in the store; I plumped for stuff which had pictures on it and I figured wouldn’t take off three layers of intestinal lining. Yum.

I was loving this adventure, but it was slow and hard going  flicking the Varadero around while trying to save both my spine and the bike from destruction. If you enjoy green laining then get yourself to the Ukraine. The whole of the N02 past L’viv is nothing more than a mess of mud and chunks of tarmac the full 70 miles to Ternopil.

It was while riding this vast road which stretched out into nothingness that I spotted a man in the middle of it, waving his arms at me. I had seen no vehicles now for about an hour and it was fast approaching dusk. Worried that the guy was hurt or in trouble, I pulled over, but kept the bike in first gear.

Lifting my visor to ask what the problem was he waddled closer and answered me in Ukrainian, of course. The smell of stale alcohol and fish filled my lid. It was unpleasant and I realised that I’d stopped for a pissed-up Ukrainian who wanted a go on the back of my bike. I said ‘no’ in a loud but friendly voice and pointed to my helmet, gesturing that he hadn’t got one. He gripped my throttle firmly. He was not a small guy, and this changed the tone of the exchange completely. I pulled at his arm to let go. He wouldn’t and instead tried to mount my bike. I still had hold of his wrists, but with no free hand to ward him off any further and unsure how else to get the message across, I had no other choice but to give him a quick crack with my lid. He staggered back a few feet, unharmed but off-balance, and I seized the opportunity to get the hell out of Dodge.

This whole episode was my own fault really for not paying attention and shouldn’t put you off travelling this part of the world. The guy didn’t mean me any harm and there was no malice in what he did. He was just drunk and figured a ride on my bike would be better than waiting for the next bus. I’d met some great characters already in Ukraine. Each time I’d stopped for petrol there was always a small crowd; the more remote the village the more attention the bike would attract. They were all good-natured people who greeted me with huge smiles and nods as they pointed at various parts of the bike. I’m not sure what dental care is like in Ukraine but more often than not the smiles were full of gold teeth; it looked rather cool to be honest.

I really loved riding through the small villages and although the roads virtually disappeared to just mud in places I loved watching the village life of the former USSR, a place I would have never been allowed to go at one time and now nothing more than a ride out for pleasure. Land does not recognize borders and nor does the sky, it’s just people who need them. For what I have no idea. Ideology, money, fear, religion? It’s anyone’s guess.

Sat at the side of the muddy street having a smoke, I watched a little kid set off for school. I could have been just about anywhere really. People-watching is fantastic and I let myself wonder about this boy’s life, his hopes, dreams and ambitions. What would his life hold for him and would this be tempered by imposed governmental laws and regulations? He looked over and smiled with a wave; I smiled and waved back and he went on his way. Human connection and in­fluence is something that I feel strongly about, and I always try to make mine positive. In hindsight perhaps being head butted with a motorcycle helmet will not leave a positive impression upon my last human connection, but who can say. Life is a funny thing and you just never can tell.

I’d made it to Ternopil, but it was now dark and the 300-plus mile ride had taken me 10 hours and eaten my daylight. Riding at night was not really an option with the road conditions even with the Varadero’s twin lights. I found a small hotel in Ternopil for about 15 Euro a night. In the morning, disaster stuck in the form of heavy snowfall – @£%&*?!

I went back inside the hotel with a heavy heart and thought about my route, how long it had taken so far in clear conditions and how long it would take to do the remaining 1,000 miles to Balaklava in snow. It was impossible, I decided.

Potholes to the right of me, potholes to the left of me, potholes in front and now all covered with a thick, slick coating of snow and ice. The one-man Light Brigade had run out of time. I had to make the choice to head out of the weather while I still could, which still meant a 130-mile ride back across the shabby roads toward Poland in the hopes that it was warmer to the north. I knew that the temperature was dropping to the south, but could I beat this cold front to get north?

‘I’ll have to find out the hard way,’ I thought to myself as I smashed the ice from my seat with my top box to the amusement and bemusement of a small crowd and started up the bike. There were mutterings and whisperings as I moved off out the car park towards the exit ramp. I’m sure they’d all taken bets that I wouldn’t make it up the ramp, but in high gear and low revs I kept the traction down and trundled off in the snow at a regal 12mph.

Riding a road that was fraught with dangerous pot holes and ruts, covered in ice and snow and with visibility down to about 100m due to the fog was like riding blindfold from London to Birmingham on an ice rink rigged with bear traps. Ten hours to do 125 miles must be a new Iron-Butt record for the slowest ever coverage of a distance by solo rider!

My charge of the Light Brigade was about as successful as the original; luckily I escaped with only my pride wounded. Unlike the Crimean War, I wouldn’t be facing death from my wounds, and although Peter Pan reckoned to die would be an awfully big adventure, I figured Prague would be a better one. So off I set, and that’s where the fun really began…


  • The Light Brigade consisted of five units: the 8th and 11th Hussars, the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons and the 17th Lancers
  • The original charge took place on 25 October 1854 and comprised 673 cavalry lead by James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan. Lord Cardigan was first into battle and first out, escaping unharmed
  • The charge was the result of a misconstrued order and so utterly damned from the outset it’s said the Russian commanders first thought the British must be drunk to attempt it!
  • The’ Valley of Death’ as dubbed in Tennyson’s poem lies between the Fedyukhin Heights and the Causeway Heights in Balaclava, Ukraine. Today it’s mostly vineyards, but the town of Balaklava has several monuments to the battle
  • The brigade suffered huge casualties. A total of 118 men were killed; 127 wounded and roughly 60 were taken prisoner. More than half the horses used in the charge were killed or had to be destroyed
  • It took three weeks for news of the Light Brigade’s fate to reach Britain
  • Tennyson was Poet Laureate at the time of the battle; his tribute in verse proved so popular that it was distributed as a pamphlet to troops in Crimea
  • The last remaining survivor of the charge, Sergeant Major Edwin Hughes (aka Balaklava Ned), died on 14 May 1927, aged 96. Good innings, eh?


  • Ukraine is a unitary state comprising 24 provinces called oblasts. Crimea is an autonomous republic and part of Ukraine, which has two main cities: the capital Kiev and Sevastopol where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based.
  • Ukraine is the largest contiguous country on the European continent with an area of 603,700km(233,100 sq miles), and the 44th largest country in the world
  • Kiev is one of the oldest cities of Eastern Europe
  • The official language is Ukrainian, though most natives also speak Russian as a second language
  • Ukraine is the eight most popular tourist destinations in the world, according to World Tourism Organisation rankings
  • The national currency is the Ukranian Hryvna; £1 is worth roughly 13 UAH at the current rate of exchange
  • The Carpathian Mountains are popular among skiing, hiking, fishing and hunting enthusiasts
  • ‘Balaclavas’ are so called because during the Crimean War, British troops based in Balaklava were sent all-in-one woolly helmets to keep out the Ukrainian cold
  • The Easter egg also originated in Ukraine. Known as pysanky, eggs were drawn on with wax and then dyed. The wax was then removed, leaving patterns in the dye. The traditions is thousands of years old and predates the arrival of Christianity to Ukraine
  • www.ukraine.com is a wealth of info is regularly updated with events taking place all over the country

Photos: James Owens