A remote town in the outback. One petrol station, one hotel, one grocery store and a hospital. Houses floating on a sea of deep, bleeding red; specks of sand glittering like stars in an echoey night sky. The earth luminous under the winter sun. Everything coated in the tones of the desert-like rust, seeping across a piece of old metal leant against a weary fencepost. Buildings left shrunken by the vastness of the place. And a bunch of local kids, incongruously wheelieing down the middle of the street on odd bikes of varied shapes and sizes.
This is what I imagine as I relive a conversation with my coach and team manager, Brad Hall. I’m riding, myself, as my mind drifts into this distant world, absently churning out the kilometres on my training program. I’ve been hearing stories from Brad and my teammate, Sabine Bird, about their experiences in the town of Laverton, WA. They’re currently there working on a cycling program for the local community. As part of Veris Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan, their goal is to facilitate the running of a cycling group to improve fitness, health, and sporting opportunities within the town. The more stories they tell, though, the more I can see it goes deeper than just physical wellbeing.
I relive Brad’s stories about how the local kids’ knowledge and connection with the land permeates their riding. They’ve stopped mid-ride to dig out goanna holes, come across ‘lore lands,’ where traditional customs didn’t permit them to go, and passed a building the kids called ‘the big battery’ where the town generator was once located. It seems riding can act as a vehicle for capturing the culture and traditional knowledge of the place.
The inherent freedom of riding bikes seems fitting against the backdrop of endless, stirring landscapes. It’s easy to imagine that familiar ecstasy of riding – where you can’t help but smile as you glide across the skin of the earth, feeling its sun, wind and grit wrap around you – applied to the infinite horizons of the outback. The earth splotched with shrubs that look like luminous fungi, feeding off the red surface. Boundless and open.
The landscape of Laverton is rugged and harsh, but beautiful. Powerful – in the burning colours strung to the horizon in all directions, and the sun which charges across it, swirling and pooling. I imagine life there to be similar. Laverton not always being an easy place to live, but being full of strength, beauty and culture which strike through. It seems the program provides an opportunity to escape those harder aspects for a little while, to deal with the challenges faced by the town. A kind of freedom. Especially for the kids.
Brad says cycling offers something unique, in that it’s accessible to everyone, of all abilities and fitness levels. This is emphasised in the aims of the program – the town has a strong indigenous population, but the activities should be applicable to everyone, regardless of age, race or gender. Everyone can ride together. I relive descriptions of people of all levels laughing in an interval session, encouraging and supporting each other.
My mind is absorbed in this world for the last half hour of my ride. Imagining the outback as the kilometres tick away. Distracting me from my tired legs on the slog back up to my house.
I remember my own experiences of the Western Australian outback when we raced into the nearby town of Leonora last year. We walked the dusty streets, waiting for presentations, hearing country music playing from behind people’s corrugated iron fences. We took off for Perth in an aeroplane at dusk, the embers of the red earth fizzing and popping below us. That wide-open outback seems a world away now.
My daydream is suddenly burst as I reach my front door. The real world comes rushing in, my imagination shattered by the bleak coldness of my room in Melbourne. I’ve finished another hard session in the sloppy rain and grit. My eyes sting, full of road grime, as my white hands fumble desperately at my shoes. I finally break free and rip them off, soaking socks squelching out wet footprints as I tiptoe across the floor.
I don’t have time for the exhaustion which falls into the background as cold franticness takes over. Blue lips quiver as my wide, blood-shot eyes search desperately to gather my things and race for the shower. ‘Please be hot water, please be hot water,’ I will impatiently, hoping the pilot light hasn’t blown out again. The flimsy wooden house is surrounded by fog, high in the hills. I’ve never been here in the depths of winter, but I’ve heard it can sometimes snow. Wouldn’t surprise me.
I stop to turn on the tap in the kitchen sink, desperate to know about the hot water situation. I wait, almost dancing on my toes, watching it gush down the plug hole. I can’t tell at first, even the cold feels warm to my numb, pallid hands. Eventually, steam starts to rise. ‘We’re good!’ Relief as I head for the shower and the inevitable, painful burning as the blood vessels in my feet pop back to size.
Wrapped in bulging layers of warm clothes, I drop my wet kit in the basket and hear it splat, water-logged and heavy. A puddle starts to form around it. Still shivering, I leave my shoes where I dropped them when I stumbled inside – I can’t be bothered stuffing them with paper towel to soak up the water anymore. It’s a futile endeavour, trying to get equipment dry in time to start again tomorrow. As soon as I get warm, I’m staring down the barrel of doing it all again. I dread the uncomfortable sensation of sliding dry socks into wet shoes, easing myself into the discomfort which will grip me for the following five hours. Endless circles of suffering.
The cold, white light of my phone diffuses in a blaze around me as I curl my aching legs under a pile of blankets, blue lips still shivering. Outside, everything is dim and foggy. Huge droplets of water bud off leaves and patter on the mushy ground. I look over the power data from my ride. The numbers I put out aren’t inspiring. Racing and good form seem so far away.
As I flick grimly to social media apps, the messages are even less optimistic – coronavirus, protests, politics… it’s easy to feel like the world is never going to be in a state for us to race again. You have to wonder what the point of racing even is, in the context of all these bigger, real life issues. And if there’s no racing, what’s the point in all this training? Why am I shivering through icy, gritty rides, day after day? It feels almost selfish to be worrying about something as trivial as riding bikes.
The thoughts sap my motivation – the uncertainty of it all, having nothing to aim for. I wonder how I’m going to get myself out to ride in that bitter spray again tomorrow. I look at the puddle around my shoes on the floor. They’re never going to get dry. My phone clicks as I lock it and stare into the bleakness outside. At least it’s over for today, I guess. My phone lights up. Brad, my coach, has commented on my ride. A message from Laverton.
For a moment, I’m just jealous of the sunny weather. But then I think of the relevance of it. I remember what Sabine told me about the kid who loved riding bikes but didn’t own one herself, and how she smiled every day when she got to borrow one as part of the program. I recall descriptions of how everyone grew attached to the bikes they borrowed and loved coming to use them – from riding on roads to doing tricks on the BMX track and skids in the dirt. I think of how that sense of freedom came through in response to riding. And how the locals were all so supportive of each other, the faster kids being given the option to ride ahead, but choosing to wait for those who weren’t as strong.
I look at the photos Brad and Sabine have sent me – kids with wide eyes beaming up from beneath the ledge of a faded helmet, crooked, pure smiles as they grip their handlebars. And of adults laughing and happy to be exercising together. All because of bikes. All of that, that freedom, happiness, and potential for positive social change, coming from one little set of wheels.
Past programs in Laverton saw measures of subjective mood states improve by 40%. Health risk profiles decreased by the same amount within one month. They didn’t need good form or racing, they didn’t need new roads or trips to the other side of the world to compete. They didn’t need ideal conditions for it to be worthwhile, they just needed bikes. Just to ride.
Of course, it’s never perfect. Riding is far from an entire solution to the complex issues which fill the social media apps glowing in my face in the darkness. But when it seems the world is falling to pieces, and cycling could shrink into insignificance, the Laverton Cycling Project is reassurance that there is always value in riding bikes. Because riding brings freedom, autonomy, empowerment, and social and life lessons. Bikes have an important place, in making a small but meaningful difference among the madness.
I get up and put my lights on charge for tomorrow’s ride. Preparing myself to creep through that fog and slosh for another four hours. There is a lot of suffering, but I suppose there’s also some exhilaration, a sense of freedom in the icy air tingling against my skin as I dive through the clouds, with the road sparkling silver where it winds into the distance.
It would be better riding in a bunch of friends with no social distancing restrictions, but it’s also liberating to ride alone. It would be better if there was racing, but just riding is worthwhile. So maybe cycling has a place among all this chaos after all. Maybe it is worth getting out everyday, just to ride.
On the 6th September, coronavirus permitting, I’ll join the group that rides from Perth to Laverton to raise money for the program. But, if borders are closed, I won’t get over there. And that’s alright. Because wherever I am, I’ll still be riding bikes, with everything that that brings.
You can read more and donate to the Perth-Laverton ride and the local cycling program here .
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