Riding through the chaos

Kirsty Deacon of Veris Racing has some serious ability on the bike, and is a very talented when writing about it as well. She takes us through the ups and downs of what has been a tumultuous first half to 2020.

We sit on the roof of someone’s car, in the hills looking down over the city. It’s midnight, New Year’s Eve, 2019. A group of friends, all with every bit of energy inside us channelled towards the National Championships in a week’s time. Purpose. All the hard work is just about done now. It’s nearly time to race.

We’ll ride up here tomorrow, suffering, heads bowed as we jam our legs over, mouths strained wide and gasping for air. We’ll claw our way upwards, saliva building at the edges of our mouths, eyes wide. Muscles desperately digging deeper until the efforts end – the fiery, driving explosions, the burning, converting and releasing of energy collapsing. Suddenly. Like the death of a star when its reactions are no longer enough to hold it out. For now though, peace, as we gaze into distant, tiny explosions below. Fireworks.

‘All the people down there think that little mushroom above them is spectacularly huge; that it fills the whole sky,’ I say in wonder. The pops and bangs are dim beneath us, like a campfire whistling and crackling in the quiet of night. Up here, the entire city is our little campfire. The world at our feet. On a little backroad in the hills, a place we only know, with friends we only met thanks to cycling.

We eat salads as everyone parties and drinks among the specks of light. We’ve each put so much work into our preparation for this race. I think of everything I’ve done this year as my skin tingles in the cool air. Everything that cycling’s given me and everything that’s yet to come. All the suffering, all the hard times I’ve survived, and the incredibly good times that were at the end of them. The crashes, tiredness, frustration, the wild situations, adventures, and the results I never expected. And here we all are, on top of this hill now, with the world at our feet.

A few days later we sit on a workshop floor as our bikes get tuned up for the race. We’re in the back of a bike shop wearing green gas masks, their filters bulging, wide eyes popping over indented borders. Our straining, irritated eyeballs are the insight to our thoughts beneath. Between squints of laughter, they fall into wide, distant stares.

Uncertainty.

Outside, shoppers scurry through sickly smoke, the air is the colour of rust. Pollution levels advise that exercise is hazardous. Bushfires rage on. What if the race gets cancelled? What if it goes ahead and we get asthma and can’t finish? What if we lose everything we’ve worked so hard on? Tiredness and tension. Bodies stretched to their limits. I’m frustrated at the world for interfering with my hard work. Stern expressions grasp our popping eyes. 2020 has hit us already.

***  12th of January ***

My teammates and friends surround me. Everything’s a haze but it’s not because of smoke. In fact, the air is clear. The haze is also, for once, not because I’ve crashed and knocked myself out or because I’m slumping with dizzying exhaustion against the wheel of a team car. It’s a good haze. My bike hangs from one cleat, forgotten. Adrenalin is shaken inside me like an autumn tree scattering its leaves in the wind. A smile so big it almost doesn’t fit on my gaunt, hollow face. I was there. I was in it. I was one of the strong ones. My weak, bony body, in the centre of my friends and teammates, seems too flimsy and breakable to have done what it just did.

On the surface, finishing twelfth at Nationals doesn’t sound that overwhelming. A few years ago, I saw a teammate finish in the top ten. She was crying behind the tent and I thought she was disappointed not to have made the most of the opportunity from the bunch she was with. But after five years of watching the finish from the sidelines, having been lapped and pulled from the race, dreaming of being part of that tingling excitement as riders storm down the channel of cheering spectators to the finish, I realise just being part of it can be everything.

Later, my friend finishes the men’s race and tells me that when he heard the bell and realised he was going to be part of that finish, he felt the emotion of it too. We go out and eat pizza until our unaccustomed bodies feel sick and we lie on the floor in blissful discomfort. It’s going to be a good year. So much exciting racing lies ahead.

*** 15th of March ***

I sit under a rickety tin shelter as rain is hurled sideways and I try to keep my sleeping bag dry. Bike packing. I stare vacantly at the sodden, brown paddocks. My body is empty from riding all day on little food and sleeping on hard ground. Everything has been cancelled. The borders are closed. The races have fallen, one by one, off the calendar. Coronavirus has stopped the world in its tracks. Such a contrast from the exciting year I thought lay ahead.

My legs ache, bones jarring against the cold, hard wood of the picnic table I’m lying on. Two days ago, I attached a sleeping bag to my handlebars, using the brown packaging tape that was meant to go on my bike box when flying to races. I planned the trip the morning before I left. I’ve hardly brought any supplies, let alone given any consideration to the weather. I rode for ten hours today to reach this dilapidated piece of metal, propped above a picnic table. I gaze into the fog I breathe, shovelling the cold rations of canned spaghetti into my mouth.

I needed to salvage some sort of adventure. If I wasn’t going overseas and everything was getting cancelled, I had to do something. I suppose this bike pack does feel a bit like racing in America last year. It’s uncertain and isolating at first; a case of trying to survive. But that feeling is intermitted by incredible moments, amplified by the tiredness and suffering – riding along a bike path, completely alone, as a sunset seeps out before me, or through a forest filled with hidden, scurrying life. Freedom. Just me and the beauty and uncertainty of the world at my feet. At times, completely isolated, but then bumping into some overwhelmingly kind people and making it through alright in the end. It’s not America. It’s not any of the places I thought I would be. But it’s something.

*** Sometime in April or May ***

A month later I lie on my bed, staring at the ceiling of flimsy rented room. My friends call it a cupboard. I watch the stripy green walls bend as the wind howls through them. My bed is not an air mattress in a stranger’s basement in a foreign country. It’s not a quirky room in a strangely set-up house, surrounded by sleeping teammates at an NRS race. It’s not a hotel whose corridors are filled with pro cyclists or an empty nursing home or dilapidated boarding school who’ve given us a bed or piece of floor to sleep on. It’s not even a youth hostel or a tin shelter or a forest canopy while bike packing through the middle of nowhere. There’s no anticipation for a race tomorrow, no uncertainty about where I’ll sleep or how I’ll get to where I need to be.

My body feels uncomfortably normal – not stretched to its limits of being lean and fast. The scars and tan lines fade away and the once-broken bones, the shapes of knobbly moonlit tree branches protruding beneath pale skin are slightly more sunken beneath the weight I’ve put on. I don’t trace the foreign lines of the ceiling with exhaustion, emptiness or uncertainty. The ceiling is just my ceiling. My plain, boring ceiling in the cold, foggy hills where I was never meant to be in winter.

I get up and drag myself out to the garage. No motivation, but a will in the depths of my mind that somehow makes me do it. It’s dark outside. I set up my bike under a cone of light, fog wafting off my back into the bitter air as I start to turn the cranks. I’m going to get this session done, even if I finish it at midnight. I’ve been putting it off all day. I didn’t think I could bring myself to do it. Unmotivated, disinterested, frustrated at the lack of racing. A rising whir cuts the still air as I wind the turbo up to speed. One crank over the other. Eventually, it levels at a constant hum. I wrestle with my bike and my mind as the clock winds on into the night. As 2020 winds on with its rollercoaster. Suffering, alone, under a cone of white light, evolving a cloud of fog.

*** 14th of June ***

A bonfire crackles and pops, hurling its confetti of sparks toward the distant stars. It’s the middle of winter and I’m back home on my parents’ farm, staring into the blaze. I never thought I’d want to smell smoke again after January, but a lot has happened since then. The racing seems on schedule to return in a few months. It’s time to get serious and start building again. Someone throws a log at the fire and I watch the sparks splay upwards like a disgruntled swarm of bees. Buzzing specks. It’s just like New Year’s Eve on a friend’s car roof on top of the hill, when the entire city was our little campfire. The world at our feet. 2020 certainly has certainly thrown some explosions at us!

Credit: Kirsty Deacon

I think back to Nationals. How, even among the craziness, there can be unexpected, impossibly good times. And that rollercoaster of good and bad is what we do it for. Those ups and downs are at the heart of what it is to be a cyclist. Last year was no different, and next year won’t be either. From podiuming overseas, then crashing and knocking myself out a few days later; to having mechanicals, chasing back, getting dropped again and then suffering alone to the finish of a race; to chasing through howling winds and hail to re-join a bunch I never thought I’d see again.

The bonfire slowly fades to a radiant mound of ash, sinking into the coldness of the night. I look back at it as I ride away on a trashy old bike from the shed, so far removed from racing. All the hinderances of the year, the precariousness of bike racing which we took for granted, the bigger problems of the world, just make me more hungry. More desperate to get back to it. I’m lucky that the events of 2020 have impacted me only in their interference with cycling. It seems silly to even worry about bike racing in these broader contexts. But in a situation so big, that you’re often helpless to change, just getting back to that can be a little triumph. A little act of defiance that we can achieve.

Maybe we’ve even gained something. These uncertain times have reinforced that nothing is assured. That you never know what could happen to the next race – whether it’s through crashes, mechanicals, or through bigger things like bushfires or coronavirus. It’s a reminder that you need to go full gas in every race, in every opportunity you have. So, if people are unsure of the quality of racing post-coronavirus, I think it’s going to be as intense and full-gas as ever. And that’s something to be excited about.

By Kirsty Deacon

Kirsty Deacon rides for Veris Racing and has competed in the National Road Series and on the American criterium scene. You can follow Kirsty on Instagram: @kirsty.deacon