The Biggest Day Of My Life

Christie Hamilton is a rad chick. Anyone who has ever checked out her instagram account (@bright.christie) can see how raw, bubbly and passionate persona on full display. She also raced in this year’s Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a 5500 kilometre bikepacking race across the width of Australia. Christie’s race was one of the most captivating, and she became something of a mascot for the event, as she pushed through huge barriers to make the finish. 

This is a part of her story:

It’s 4am, I’m lying in my tent and I can hear Jesse Carlson’s voice.  He’s talking about the race.  I snap out of it, I’m in Quardaring, sleeping by a cricket oval. Chris is nearby and must be watching the recap video of day one in his swag. I understand what’s going on.

I get up, we’d decided the night before to ride start at 5am and head to Southern Cross. It was going to be a 240k day, but it made the most sense, and I know if I can stay with Chris and Paul it will be a much better day.  I don’t want to be left behind, so I start shovelling food between packing up my tent as quickly as I can.  I won’t be last to be ready to roll.

Home away from home
It’s raining,  it’s dark, and we’re ready to go, somehow rain always sounds worse on a tin roof and so the three of us stall a little in hitting the road.  But it’s time to get moving, and just before 5am we pull out from the safety of the shelter and onto the road, happy that the rain is lighter than it seemed.  We’re past the town limits in less than a k.  Paul is dropped quite quickly, and Chris and I ride along in the pre-dawn dark. There’s no sense of what’s around us, and I assume it’s more of yesterday’s wheat-belt farmland.  Very slow downhills roll into very long false flats and we stop to relieve our bladders and wait for Paul to catch up, I offer the boys some breakfast potato chips.  Dawn is breaking, and we can see evidence of recent flood water pushing the sand on the shoulder into giant dried rivulets.  We’re still in farm country, but things are getting drier and surrounded by wheat stubble. We’re riding East and heading towards the desert, Chris slowly starts pulling away from me, Paul is long dropped again.  I let Chris go, I can’t draft him anyway, and I’m secure in the knowledge that I know where he’s going to stop for the night. It feels good, I’m IndyPac’ing, I’m about to ride the biggest day of my life, but it’s 240k on the flat, so how bad can it be?

As the day lightens, the headwind picks up. The roads are very straight. The surface is bad. I’m tired from yesterday and I’ve already been riding for a few hours.  It’s 80k’s from last night’s camp to the first real town, but I pull into a place called Yoting, a ghost town of one street and five dilapidated houses. I don’t know why, I don’t need anything, but I want a break from the headwind and the riding.  I want something else to think about.  Broken glass litters the street.  One empty plot has a bunch of caravans on it, and strangely american bunting, with something about Trump.  I’m so confused, this is a wheat hamlet in the WA countryside, not the USA, and it makes me feel alone and uneasy, Trump people aren’t my people.  No-one is around, there are no stores, and nothing to do, so I keep riding, scared of a flat from all the junk on the road. Pulling into the town was a bad idea.

I start feeling overwhelmed, the small town has unsettled me and the conditions have gotten worse. It’s so hard to ride, the surface is slow, and my average speed is really low. It’s under 20kph, and I’m on almost flat roads.  I’d worked out my numbers based on big days on the flats, and lost time in the mountains later in the course, but I’m more than 5kph lower than I planned and this really worries me. At this rate I have to be peddling for 12 hours to get to Southern Cross, without stops, it starts to seem impossible, and foolish to have thought I could have added more than 50k to my biggest ever day, when I’m fatigued already. It’s spinning around and around in my head.

It hits me. I’m racing IndyPac.  I’ve bitten off more than I can chew and I’m totally overwhelmed.  At the same time, it hits me, I’m riding IndyPac, and my heart breaks for all the love I’ve had from my friends, particularly from Jake and what he’s given up for me to be able to ride this race. I can’t bear to tell any of them how hard it is already. I have noone to speak to because I don’t want to be a failure  to them already.  I start crying. It’s pathetic, but I’m tired, alone, and it’s only the morning of day 2.  I expected this on the second week, not the second day. I’m trapped by my own ego, I could pick up the phone and tell someone how bad it is, but I don’t want to add the feeling of shame to everything else that’s going through my head, and in my fatigue I don’t consider that a conversation with one of them might actually help my mental state.

Since before lunch yesterday I’ve been heading east parallel to the main highway with runs North above me, I know I’m heading to Bruce Rock for brunch, and then turning north to Merridin to join the highway that connects Perth to the rest of Australia. It dawns on me, I’m on an almost dead straight Easterly bearing for the entire 80k to Bruce Rock.  I have a headwind. That means I’m going to have the headwind for the next 80k; and it nearly beats me. I do the maths, 5 hours just to Bruce Rock at this rate, and then I’ll still have 160k left to ride for the day.  That means the amount I have to ride after Bruce Rock is almost as long as my longest day.  I’m worked and I’ve only been riding for 3 hours. My phone pings, it’s Eddie from Bright on messenger with a screen shot of the tracker.  It’s my little pink dot, on a very big map at the start of a long straight, along with a caption from Eddie, “That’s a straight road!”.  “Fuck! Way to drum it in!”  But Eddie is someone I can talk to, I don’t really care what he thinks of me, and he’s not someone I’d be letting down. I’m not ready to stop riding, so can’t keep up a conversation on messenger, so I type my mobile number into the chat box, and like magic my phone rings.

A friend in need…
Eddie moved to Bright not long before I left.  He’s a bit of a hooligan, and works for Tourism North East.  We haven’t spent a whole lot of time together, I’ve ridden a few MTB sessions with his wife Ally, he didn’t even know my number, but we’re Facebook friends.  At that moment, it doesn’t matter, Eddie completely bails me out of my tears and fears.  I guess because we aren’t super close I can tell him how it really feels  in a way I couldn’t share with Jake or Phil. With my headphones in, I ride into the wind and we talk shit.  I tell him how unbelievably tough the road is.  The chip seal surface is shaking my saddle sores that developed overnight to death, every pedal stroke feels like a razor cut to my groin.  The road surface glitters as though it’s completely covered in glass, making it impossible to avoid real glass, the wind is head on, and I’m pushing Frank into it. There are very few trees to break it all up, and there’s zero traffic which, instead of making me feel safe, makes me feel really isolated.  I tell this practical stranger exactly how bad I’m finding it, and after I stop complaining we start talking rubbish about Bright. Eddie tells me which locals he smashed over in the club bunch ride town sprints.  I calm down, and I’ve stopped crying. Someone out there is looking out for me, and someone out there knows how incredibly shit it is.  I hang up on Eddie and I’m ok, I’m going to keep it together and get to Bruce Rock.  15 mins later I realise how important that call was, so I send Eddie a message, “Thanks for the chat, I was a broken woman”.  He replies simply with a photo of his dog Utah lying in some grass next to a ball.  I don’t think he understood how bad I was, or maybe he did. I decide I like Eddie, the new Bright local.

Finally I pull in to Bruce Rock, it’s another ghost town, it’s Sunday after all, but the variety of engineering warehouses on the outskirts tell me that it’s big enough for at least something’ to be open.  I see 2 pedestrians and I call out for directions to the service station. There’s a chance that I just might catch Chris as he finishes his breakfast, and I’m in a rush to find him.

I see Joe first, leaning against the wall in his full pannier glory, and there’s Chris, sitting at the only outside table with a big carton of milk and some bananas. I pull up, lean Frank up beside Joe and walk to Chris.  “Thank God you’re still here man, far out that headwind was bad” I try to talk without the lump in my throat.  I’m looking at his table, trying to gauge how long he’s been sitting, and how long I have before he’ll be rolling out.  I don’t want to be alone again.  Looks like he still has quite a bit to eat, so I rush inside and buy the mystery fried food from the hot cabinet and some chocolate milk. I don’t want to wait for something to be cooked.

With a bit of food in me I start perking up again.  I roll out with Chris, and I realise, we’re not heading East anymore, we’ve turned North. And by some miracle, the wind has shifted just enough to be a cross tail wind; so we’re booting along, side by side on a quiet road and I feel like a cycling hero. There are slight downhills, and Frank’s wheels are a little faster than Joe’s, so Chris is peddling downhill while I freewheel, between that and the wind I think I might just have a chance to keep up for the remaining 160k’s into Southern Cross.  I’d averaged 16 kph into Bruce Rock, and now we are averaging 24kph.  This was feeling better.

Chris starts talking about his travels around Australia on Joe.  He talks about meeting one of the Elders from the Jigalong community at a rodeo, and his invitation to go out to the township.  He tells me in his kiwi accent about heading out over the scrub to hunt, and then prepare a wild turkey. We talk about how tough the Aboriginals have it, and how flawed the system is for them. I feel bad that I’m doing a flying visit across Australia and my journey won’t teach me things that Chris has learnt on his own over the years on his travels with Joe.  Chris really impresses me.  He isn’t one of the trendy male cyclists making up the field, he’s got some serious substance, a super balanced world view and he’s strong as an ox.  I want to ride with him just to hear his stories and I know without a shadow of doubt that he will complete the course.

Before I know it, we’re in Meredin. It’s the first proper town we’ve hit since Maundering on the outskirts of Perth.   Giant flocks of black cockatoos screech over us as we roll into town, hundreds of them descend on a paddock right as the farms give way to houses.  Meredin has a subway, and I’ve done my research, I’m buying 2 footlong subs, some to eat now, and some to eat later.  I’ve already learnt what a difference a bit of food can make to my mental health, and I decide I’m not going to be caught short.  I need real food, and the subs will travel well.

It was a quick stop in Meredin, and we pull out, and onto the main highway.  The road has one lane in each direction and a broadish shoulder, so I’m sitting beside Chris chatting.  Less than 1 k out, I get buzzed by a road train.  “Fuck!” we both say, and Chris suggests it’s time for single file.  I hadn’t realised the difference pulling onto the highway would make traffic wise, and suddenly I’m aware that the game just changed, we’re heading back into the headwind and there is traffic everywhere. I’m at risk of it rapidly turning into a repeat of this mornings conditions, only with huge, long trucks.

My bike starts bouncing with every pedal stroke, I’m 100m in front of Chris, and I look down between my legs.  We’re 5k out of Meredin and I have a flat rear tyre. I still have 120k to ride today, it’s already after lunch and we’re only just halfway to Southern Cross.

I pull over and explain it to Chris.  “Yea, it looked a bit flat out of Meredin”.  But I’m not running traditional tyres with tubes, I’m running a tubeless set up. Instead of an inner tube, I have a tyre filled with latex goo, designed to fill small punctures without you needing to change the tyre.  I want to give the tyre a chance to self heal, because if it doesn’t I’ll need to take the tyre off, take the valve out, clean out the latex glue, put a tube in and pump it up.  It’s not just tedious, once I give up on the miracle tubeless set up I’m far more susceptible to flats, and I don’t want to give up on it just yet.

I call Phil, and ask his advice.  He tells me with the cut at the bottom, and a bit of a lower pressure, the particles in the latex might heal the small hole.  I need to give it a few minutes though, and although I’m riding with Chris, we’re not partners and I sense the urgency for him to get moving. I understand, it’s a big day today, and doubtless it will be a big day tomorrow, he has no reason to wait on the side of the road with me.  So it’s a gamble, change the tyre now, and get rolling with Chris, or give it time to heal, pump it up and ride with Chris.  But if it doesn’t heal properly I’m going to be pulling over in 10k anyway I don’t think he’ll wait the second time.

I decide to gamble on the latex in the tubeless.  I probably don’t wait long enough, but I pump up the tyre, put my pannier bags back on, and we pull back onto the road.   20k’s later I have my answer, it’s too flat to ride and I pull over.  I wave Chris on, he has places to be and I’m not his problem.  I have no ill will, and I’m feeling good.  This is a problem I can manage.  But I decide not to change my tyre. There’s 100k to go, which means at the current rate, I’ll have to stop 3 or 4 times to pump it up between where I am and Southern Cross. That’s going to be quicker than changing it, and means I can get in sooner.  So I pump it up and hit the road again. I still half hope it will seal too.

Another pump stop, at a roadhouse, I spin my tyre to face the cut down, and head inside for some food.  I’m starting to understand that new levels of food are going to be required to keep me out of the box. I’m served by a short tempered woman who tells me how stupid we all are.  That all night cyclists were flying past without lights.  She wants to know why the police weren’t notified.  I dodge the questions, drink my chocolate milk and coke, pump up my tyre.  Success, it seems that the hole is holding! Latex has stopped bubbling out of the hole.

But it’s short lived, and 30k later I pull up at another roadhouse. I’m feeling pretty good, but I’m glad it’s closed so I don’t have to have a repeat of the “cyclists are idiots” conversation from the last roadhouse.

It’s just past 5pm and the road house is closed.  But a woman and man walk out, “Christie!”, they say, “We’ve been waiting for you! I’m Mary and this is Barry, and your friends Chris and Steve told us you were coming! Do you want a pie!?”  I feel bad, I’ve only just eaten, and I was just using their roadhouse to lean my bike against something while I pump up my tyre again.  I explain that I’m in a bit of a rush, but I’d love a coke, and I dig into my ziplock bag wallet for some coins, Mary runs inside and gets me a coke, and then offers me a pie again, explaining that they’re free because it’s the end of the day.  But I’m pumping up my tyre, have no way to carry a pie, and I don’t want stop long enough to eat it.  While I pump, Mary explains that I’m past the worst of the road trains, it’s Sunday night and they’re all into Perth or out to the East.  They won’t start really heading East again until Tuesday/Wednesday and the traffic should get a bit lighter.

I use the wall to prepare myself for nightfall.  Switch out my glasses and put on my reflective vest.  I turn on the rear light on my pannier rack and congratulate myself for thinking of all this while I have somewhere to lean my bike, and before it gets dark. I’ve already learnt that there are few places to lean your bike on this highway, sometimes it’s 15k between somewhere that works, and Frank is going to be spending a lot of his time lying on his side on the shoulder.

The big breakfast of Bruce Rock, Lunch at Meredin and multiple cokes of the afternoon seem to be working and I feel great.  I’m pumping my tyre, but I’m making good decisions and this is a problem I can solve.  I’m going to get into the 24hr service station at Southern Cross, and change my tubeless setup to traditional in a place with clean surfaces and paper towel.  The wind has died down and my headlight is strobing with the same flash as the light on a wing tip of an aeroplane, like the heartbeat of my bike. It feels surreal, and I’m just dislocated enough from what’s around me by it that I’m enjoying the moment. Spotify plays Thin Lizzie’s Dancing in the Moonlight, and I scoot along singing my lungs out.

This morning’s hell starts to feel like another life,   The 5k sign to Southern Cross appear.  I did it, I’ve just ridden the longest day of my life, into a headwind, with a slow leak for 100k.  In the darkness Southern Cross appears, looking like a distant oil rig.  I pull into the service station, and there is Chris, finishing his desert, smiling at me.

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