Padun, Morton head to Poland to assist displaced Ukrainian junior riders
For Padun, the moment is both personal and too familiar, as he fled his home in Ukraine at the age of 17.
In the faces of these young Ukranian junior riders far from home, Mark Padun can see himself.
When Mark was 17, he fled his hometown of Donetsk, in the southeast of Ukraine, to escape a Russian invasion. He was taken in by a cycling academy near Kyiv, which gave him a place to stay and the support to follow his dreams. Now, Mark can do his part for kids who had to leave their homes as he did.
Since the 2022 season ended, Mark has collected cycling gear to give to Ukrainian refugees, and this Saturday, he will join Lachlan Morton in Poland to distribute Cannondale bikes to 13 Ukrainian kids who had to flee from their home country when Russian bombs began to fall on their cities. And they’ll go for a ride together.
For Padun, the effort is a continuation of one that began when he was 17, running from a home country under attack. He began racing at 11, and without that cycling academy in Kyiv who knows how this story ends.
“I just always had the dream to be a pro cyclist,” he says. “I would be at training camps back in Ukraine and would just know that I wanted to be a pro cyclist, that I was working for that.”
Mark’s dream kept him going. Cycling gave structure to his days. Before long, his mum and dad had to flee Donetsk, too. They are now safe in America. Mark has lived apart from them ever since that day when they had to decide to send him to the sports school near Kyiv. On his journey to the pros, Mark has been blessed with support from some wonderful people in cycling.
After making his name in the juniors in Ukraine, Mark moved to Italy, where he was taken in by a U23 team near Bergamo that launched his career. They lent him an apartment, helped him with his documents, and paid him enough to live well. That team was like family to Mark.
“There were a lot of people there who really liked to help me,” Mark says. “I am very thankful to them. In the two years I was there, I always felt comfortable, and I didn’t lack anything. Everything was in place. I had a salary, which for that period was a really good salary. I had my tickets to fly to Ukraine two or three times per year when I wanted to, and I always had help with documents. This is just the basic stuff, but I always had support. Even now when I do a good result, I will get a call from them or a message, and this is five years later. It felt like more than just a team. It was a step to the World Tour, but it was a really nice time. I remember my time spent with them really well.”
Now, with EF Education-EasyPost, Mark has found that kind of backing in the professional ranks. He hasn’t had an easy year. After a powerful start to the season, where he won the time trial at Gran Camiño in Spain and finished third overall, Mark got sick. That was the week that Russia attacked Ukraine. The war has weighed on his mind ever since.
“It has been a factor, but I cannot say a percentage or a number,” Mark says. “The war started with my first race of the season and it was pure shock to me. But this is my job. I am doing this as best as I can. I always had these thoughts about what was happening, always checking the news, always asking the relatives how they are doing and hoping it is going to end soon.”
It was months before Mark was back to himself. He struggled to get back in form after missing race kilometres and training. By the start of the Vuelta, he’d managed to get in pretty good shape, and he got through the Spanish grand tour well, attacking several days in the mountains, and showing glimpses of the Mark Padun who has blasted away from the best climbers in the world at races like the Dauphiné. He then did several strong rides at the Italian autumn classics. Next year, he is determined to hold his best form for the duration of a three-week tour. He doesn’t yet know his limits, but has faith that he is on the right road with our team.
“I am still seeing different parts of cycling,” he says. “Before it was like pure work, pure job, just the performance. Now it is still that—because I cannot work halfway, but have to give 100 percent—but the team just adds more enjoyment. It is more of a journey in between the races. In the bus half an hour before the race, it is 100% performance and in the race we are only focused on cycling. After the race, we recover and get our massage. Everything else is relaxed. You can enjoy the company of the guys, all of the conversations.”
At times, Mark is amazed that he has gotten to where he is. He trains very, very hard and has suffered through some great challenges, but he has also been fortunate that the right people have come into his life at the right moments and helped him nurture the talent he believes is God-given.
For Mark, it all started when his first coach gave him his first bike. Now, thanks to Cannondale, he has the chance to give 13 Ukrainian kids bikes of their own. They will follow their own destinies. He hopes for continued support for them throughout their lives' journeys.
You can still donate to Lachlan Morton’s One Ride Away fundraiser for Global Giving.