• Amanda Spratt in 2020 and Luke Durbridge in 2021 experiencing very different Tours Down Under (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
It’s the image that floods social media every January... except this one. Kirsty Deacon of Veris Racing had an eventful race, and she takes us through a very different experience at the Festival of Cycling.
Kirsty Deacon

25 Jan 2021 - 9:20 PM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2021 - 10:23 PM

Carefully curated photos of riders cuddling baby kangaroos at the Tour Down Under. Glamorous scenes of professional cyclists living the high life, everything nicely in order as they get ferried to wherever they need to be. That's the Tour Down Under.

Three weeks ago, we didn’t even know if we were sending a team to the Santos Festival of Cycling. Now it's a bit of a rush and confusion as we try to organise ourselves in the absence of our normal Veris managers and support.

Most of our riders are stuck in New South Wales with COVID restrictions, and our manager and DS have had to stay in Perth to avoid getting locked out on return. We’re the lucky ones, some teams didn’t get here at all.

‘Where do we put our bikes? Where do we put our car?’ We just arrived at the team accommodation in Adelaide.  There’s certainly no glamorous kangaroo cuddling this year!

I carefully thread pins through my race numbers, attaching them to my kit in the dim light of my room. Support or no support, World Tour or National Road Series event, tomorrow we race.

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Riding around in a sprint jersey, somewhere in Tanunda

I feel like I’m going to melt into the road in defeat as I see the signs on the buildings. Give up and just wither to nothing in the sun. I’m back in Tanunda – I’ve gotten lost and ridden in a circle. The singeing glare burns down on me.

Half an hour ago I was standing on a podium, one hand holding flowers, the other raised in the air. Wearing the blue jersey I’d just been presented with. It was a level of ceremony we never usually get in domestic races.

Now I’m alone, with no phone, no spare tubes, no one to check up on me if I don’t make it back. Everyone else has long gone in their cars back to the accommodation. There was no space in ours, so someone had to ride back to the start line. Somehow, I drew the short straw.

Trying to ride the ten kilometres to the start line where my car is parked. Well, it would’ve been ten kilometres – if I knew where I was going. Now I’m alone with just the salty jersey on my back, the empty wrappers of race food in the pockets, stuck together with the remnants of melted sugar.

I turn onto the main road and see a man riding up ahead. I sink back onto the hoods of my bars, forcing my legs to pedal harder. They jam, muscle fibres shearing against each other, resisting. If I catch him, I can ask which way to go.

The man does me one better and generously rides with me to show me the way. I can feel dry salt collected in the material of my knicks as I scull some more water. We didn’t even have anyone in the feed zones or a team car in the convoy in that race.

My entire body is uncomfortable after time trialling by myself in the break all day. The man is riding fast. Too fast when the person on his wheel just emptied herself trying to hold off the bunch through the second sprint point. I ride harder to keep up. Suffering even now the stage is over.

It seems crazy to think that I was just in the breakaway in a stage of the Santos Festival of Cycling. That I just took the Ziptrak Points Jersey. That my friends saw it on TV. But now, smothered by heat and still riding, all I can think about is getting back to recover for tomorrow.

The opening stage of the women's Festival of Cycling, won by Peta Mullens, with Kirsty Deacon picking up the sprint jersey.

The time cut, Lobethal

Stage two. Riders slump at the finish. Some have their numbers cut off their backs. They tell me that’s what happens when you miss time cut. It was almost me – the group I was with only made it by about two minutes.

Yesterday I’d been flooded with kind messages of support and congratulations. Today I was getting battered and beaten, a barely conscious passenger on my bike which was throwing itself through corners, skipping over drain covers and fighting its way up hills to hang onto the back of the bunch. Until the elastic broke and I time trialled again – this time to make time cut.

Cars started driving towards us on the roads, thinking that no more riders would be coming this far back. I yelled at a spectator for a time gap, but all he said, quite unhelpfully, was ‘a long way.’

I look at the tattered corners of race numbers still pinned to the eliminated riders’ backs. The middle part has been cut out, gone, just like the rider from the race. I slouch over my bike, my body shattered and dizzy from the heat.

I don’t know if I’ve ever done a race where they cut numbers off before. It seems particularly brutal, leaving the corners still pinned, the empty shells where the writing was. But this is brutal – it’s normally a World Tour standard race and not far off now.

Embracing the race, top of Willunga Hill

‘Good job Kirsty,’ someone yells as I fight my way up Willunga hill. The leader is long gone up the road, so I give them a wave as I pass, rocking over my bike.

The roads are not exactly lined with a wall of noisy spectators like previous years. But there is a crowd gathering in town, and the hill is scattered with people, clapping and cheering as we claw our way past. A string of battle-weary bunches, just trying to make it to the top so we can get out of the heat. People have turned up to watch us race.

At the finish, the two riders from our men’s team are waiting for us. They were devastated when their race ended with a mechanical mishap on the first day. That’s what can happen when you don’t have everything the World Tour teams would normally have at this race - support staff looking after you, a team mechanic, even a car in the convoy.

The boys hardly said a word to us the night after it happened. They didn’t come down for dinner.

That’s how much we put into this race and how much it means to us. We might not be the peloton of World Tour riders who normally race this event, but we still put everything we have into cycling.

Which is why, slumping on a chair at the top of the hill, pouring cold water over my head, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be here. To have been cheered on as I battled up Willunga.

People could have easily dismissed us as not being World Tour riders, the event could’ve been cancelled when international teams couldn’t get here.

But people backed us and gave us the chance which, no matter how the week of racing has gone for each of us, we are grateful for.

It hasn't been without its hardships but racing in imperfect conditions means more stories, more adventures and more memories. From standing on podiums in jerseys freshly printed with our team logos, to laughing as we put official race stickers on our ‘team car’ which looks like it’s going to fall apart before we get there.

That rollercoaster of contrasts and contradictions is typical of this sport. That’s why we love it and why we’re grateful that despite all odds, this event went ahead and people turned out to support it.