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World's toughest MTB race!

Friday, 30 August 2013

An old lady making a traditional cloth called a Tais.

Landing at the airport, I would not have thought that the country was at peace. Helicopters, dark green and brown, lined the runway. Men dressed in camo's, rifles slung over their shoulders, marched here and there.

Sure, I had come to witness a battle, and I expected to see blood being spilled and bones broken, I just hadn't expected the machinations of death to be so prolific a figure. Besides, the fight I'd come to see was of a different kind; it was a struggle of man against man, man against nature and man against himself, fought on two wheels over five days and the roughest terrain nature could provide as a battle field.

Clearing customs I was bundled into a 4 by 4 and we sped off. I was grateful for the air conditioning, it must've been at least 35℃. The airport is on the outskirts of Dili, the capital of Timor Leste', but we were soon bumping and grinding over rough roads. Potholes everywhere threatened to swallow us and we had to be careful to avoid them.

The Tour de Timor, touted as the toughest mountain bike race in the world, had begun that morning and we were in a hurry to catch up. I soon realised why the tour has got the reputation it has; notwithstanding the potholes, we drove along roads no more than ledges, a single mistake and we would fall onto rocks jutting out of the ocean hundreds of meters below. Our 4 x 4 struggled over the dirt roads, sometimes strewn with rocks, at other times thick mud and yet at other times with thick banks of desert-like sand.

The Tour de Timor is in its second year and was the idea of the President of the country, José Ramos-Horta, and integrated into the governments plan to help reduce poverty throughout the nation by attracting adventurers and tourists. About the idea Ramos-Horta said, “Why did I come up with an idea to start a mountain bike race? Some people say, 'doesn't the president of a country have better things to do than think of bicycle race?' But my main purpose is to promote peace in our country and to do so you have to engage the people; you can't just talk about peace. You have to show people a horizon and give them hope and sport is just one way of doing that,” he explained.

Cyclist had to climb these mountains.
The road hugged the coast for a 100km, several times climbing a 100 or 200 meters and then dropping back down to sea level before the first stage came to an end with an agonizing 24km winding climb of almost 600 meters. Half way up the hill we began passing cyclists, many pushing their bikes; they had been cycling since 08h00 and it was after 16h00 already. Others were bundling their bikes onto the back of the sag wagon, the challenge too much.We reached the finish line just before sunset. The cyclists who had made it, either by own steam or courtesy of the race assisting vehicles, were scurrying around setting up tents before darkness hit. And with a presentation ceremony still to take place and a looming 05h30 wake up looming I could imagine how some of the competitors could be feeling defeated, and that just after day one.

                                                                                                          I caught my first glimpse of President José Ramos-Horta, who is also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, at the ceremony that night. “We've just heard that the competitor who was airlifted off the mountain today after hitting a goat has a broken collarbone but otherwise is ok,” he began, “your safety is our primary concern and we're doing everything to make sure that all competitors are still living by the competitions end. I've told the villagers to keep their goats and cows off the road and I told them that I instructed the army to shoot them if they're found on the road,” he said with a wry smile.

Although the day belonged to multiple mountain bike orienteering world champion, Andrew Jackson(Australia), who claimed the yellow Leader and red-spotted King of the Mountain jerseys, the hero of the day was undoubtedly the diminutive 15 year old local boy, David da Costa, who received the special Presidents Jersey.
President Ramos-Horta commends 15 year old David.
His hand on the boys back, who had cycled the entire 124km course in old school shoes, the President said, “When I found out about David, I didn't know what to do. The legal age for entering this race is 18 and of course David lied about his age when entering. And when he was asked to show his ID he lied again, saying that he had left it at home. This course is treacherous and already people have broken bones and bicycles; what if something happens to David? But then I thought, this little boy has a dream and he has done everything to achieve it. And isn't that what this race is about? So I will let him go after his dream and everyday he finishes a leg, I will give him the hero's jersey and a prize,” he said, quickly adding, “I'm not going to get any sleep for the next few days, I'll be on my knees asking God to protect him.”

David proudly slipped the jersey over his head to warm applause from fellow competitors and spectators. “And now the police can come take him away for perjury,” the President quipped, adding, “he wont be allowed to compete next year, in fact not until he turns 18.”
Day one over, and being the longest stage of the tour and double some of the other legs, riders might have gone to bed thinking things would get better.

Timor Leste' became the newest country of the millennium on the 20th of May in 2002 after having endured 26 years of violent Indonesian military rule, which left the country in a mess. On August 30, 1999, 78.5% of the population voted to secede from Indonesia. Pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian soldiers retaliated by razing towns, slaughtering thousands of civilians, and forcing a third of the population out of the province. Indonesia finally bowed to huge international pressure and agreed to allow UN forces into East Timor on the 12th of September in an attempt to restore peace to the land.

Peace was long in coming though, the various political parties becoming embroiled in bloody fights, the President coming close to death when shot in the back and stomach in a gun battle outside his home in the February of 2008. But even with the long and painful past fresh in the memories of the people of Timor Leste, they somehow still manage to retain a sort of dignity, openness and friendliness.

We left early to get ahead of the cyclists, knowing that if they caught us we would be stuck on the side of the road until they all passed and then having to crawl behind the entourage. As early as it was though, the roads were lined with spectators already, flags in hand and eyes glued to the road. Young boys and girls, their parents and their grandparents were all there, waiting. “Bon dia,” they would all shout, raising their hands or waving their flags, as we passed by. They were in for a long two hour wait before the first cyclist would pass them.

Immediately we had to negotiate a steep descent, the road alternating between tar, rough dirt, landslides and massive potholes, followed by a flattish stretch of 10km's before a dangerous switchback climb of 500 meters into the Bobonaro Mountains, the track narrow broken tar.

Sections of the road were covered with thick mud, so thick that our 4 x 4 struggled to get through. At some places the mud patches were so big, they resembled a little dam. We did eventually get stuck. Our driver was spinning the wheels to try get us out and a UN vehicle tried to squeeze past us. Our vehicle kicked loose and immediately swerved out and smashed into the passing vehicle. Thankfully no-one was injured and we were able to carry on.

Then began a serious climb along narrow ridge-lines, cyclists reaching dizzying heights of 1500m. A little mistake and that would be it. The vehicle in-front of us skidded racing up a very steep section of road and almost went over the cliff. Needless to say, we held our breath as we crawled up the hill.

Reaching the crest of the mountain we could see the ocean, a blue mascara line on the horizon, where the days finish lay. From that point on the race metamorphosed from dangerous to crazy. Cyclists whizzed down the mountain side, having to negotiate mud-baths, rock slides and potholes and having to break sharply for unexpected switchbacks springing up on them.

There were many casualties, right till the end. A 100 meters from the finish line, Steele von Hoff hit a pothole and came off his bike. Hobbling, he managed to get back on his saddle and still finish second, just seconds in-front of Andrew Jackson, who had won the 1st stage.

“It was pretty much hard from the gun,” said Dan McConnell, winner of the stage, “it was only 30 km's or so until you hit the first climb and it was a pretty fast pace up that hill. It was really hot. There were exposed hills, not much shade and no wind.

“I was cramping up but managed to hang in there,” he added, after loosing out on winning the first stage when cramps forced him off the bike just minutes from the line and he had to watch as three other riders pass him before he managed to get back into the saddle.

Dehydration from cycling in the direct heat of the sun and rough conditions continued to challenge contestants, sixty two riders were collected by the sag wagon the day before and 70 bikes needed repair work – mainly brakes, gears and spokes. And although there were many casualties, race organizers were thankful that none were fatal.

Rowena Fry continued to dominate the women's competition, coming in 10th overall after finishing 12th on the first day. The 15 year old David da Costa, cycling in school shoes, completed the tough and dangerous leg, capturing the nations attention and heart. Moved by the young mans determination, the President bought him a pair of cycling shoes.

In spite of two punctures, Andrew Jackson managed to begin day three as the overall leader of the tour. The leg from Suai to Ainaro is considerably shorter than the first two legs at just 67km long. But with a total 896 meter climb, 700 meters of that over the last 15km of twists and turns, over very rough dirt and tar potholed roads, the competitors knew it would not be easy.

However, in contrast to the first two days, the track wound through forested areas and provided a much-needed break from the sun and change in the scenery. The pace was murderous though, with Adrian Jackson's team mate, Ben Mather, leading the pack.

“Ben sat on the front for 60 kilometres through all the rough roads and then the smooth roads, he was just driving it and driving it trying to stay in front of Dan McConnell,” said Jackson. “He took me to the bottom of the climb where I was feeling fresh.”

In the end though, it all came down to one second, with Steele von Hoff snatching victory from Jackson in a time of 2:23.21. A victory von Hoff cherished after cramping minutes from victory on day one and then wiping out a 100 meters from the finish line on day two.

Coming in third was Malaysian Shahrin Amir, who, although he rides alone, was giving a good account of himself, achieving 3 top ten finishes. And continuing his meteoric rise to fame was David da Costa, the 15 year old schoolboy, while Rowena Fry continued to dominate the woman’s category with an impressive 13th place finish overall.

Leaving Ainaro we almost immediately began to climb. The roads were winding, narrow and full of nasty potholes and 300 meter long patches of gravel that suddenly appeared. To make things worse, the heavens opened up, washing away sections of road and causing rockslides that ended up blocking the roads. At one stage the climb was just about vertical and I shuddered thinking about what would happen should our brakes fail. We eventually reached the peak, which towered 1870 meters above sea level. The view was magnificent; tall trees as far as the eye could see hugging mountains and deep gorges with waterfalls streaming down the mountainside like water over a windshield.

Beauty aside, the downhill was even more scary. “Speed kills!” Those were the words running through my mind as we descended the mountain. “Slow down!” I commanded the driver several times, adding my two cents worth to the already demonstrating Julian Swinstead, who was also part of the media team.

We finally reached our destination where we overnighted. We stayed in a B+B perched on the top of a hill that towered above the village and valley below. A mountain encircled our castle and valley, creating a natural barrier and spectacular scene from the establishments dining room. A glass of red wine went a long way in adding to the atmosphere.

We woke early the next morning to make sure we got to Aileu ahead of the riders. We continued our treacherous descent, the heavens still pouring down and our driver still not having learnt from his mistakes the day before. Though the roads were rough, the scenery was beautiful. We passed an elderly lady fertilizing her crops by hand from a bucket, fine mist and drizzle wrapped around her like a ghosts dress.

Having reached Aileu early, we had time to go exploring while the media center was set up and before the riders started coming in. The village was quaint and as in all the other villages that we had been to, the people, young and old, were extremely friendly. We couldn't go anywhere without “Bon dia” being sung to us, and for the adventurous youth wanting to practise their English, a nervous “Good morning” followed by a nervous laugh.

Passing by one house, made of the typical wood and zink plates, plumes of smoke pouring out the back caught my attention. Curious I drew closer, venturing to the front door which stood slightly ajar. I saw big pots cooking over a wood fire on the dirt in what must have been the living room and kitchen. I knocked and then waited.
A young man approached me and said, “What do you want?”
“Can I take some photos?” I replied, holding up my camera, adding a congenial, “please?”
He looked me up and down, looked at the camera and then smiled, opened the door and showed me in. My wife followed. An old woman, Maria de Jesus, was busy chopping wood with a machete for the fire, while her daughter, Tereza Fatima, haunched close by, keeping a watch on the corn cooking in the pots. Her kids and the neighbours kids milled about.

Through the young man, Paulino Fernandes(28), we got chatting, albeit in very broken English. He was unemployed and had been for years. “There is simply no work here,” he said, throwing his hands up in the air, “so I do what I can – whenever there is work I just take it. Like chopping and selling wood.”

Leaving there we walked back up to the main road and made our way to one of the only restaurants in town. We ordered a local coffee and a beef and vegetable stir-fry dish each. But when it came we realized our mistake, It was huge and we could hardly finish one between the two of us, let alone two. So we decided to pack the one in a take away box and go give it to the family we had just met.

I walked back to the tin shack and knocked on the door. Maria appeared and I simply gave the box to her. “For you,” I said and turned and left. Seconds later she erupted into shouts of joy. I turned and saw Tereza running into the hut. Immediately she joined Maria. It sounded as if though they had won the national lottery. The thought that a little beef stir-fry could have that effect on people really gripped our hearts.

We quickly disappeared down the road and made our way to the village market. Some people spread a blanket on the dirt and laid out their wares on that, others simply spread out their goods on the dirt and the more privileged had a little section under a big zinc roof or in a little store running along the sides of the open-sided shed. All kinds of interesting things were sold, from fresh produce, which we were later told most locals could not afford, to local coffee, colourful Tai's, the ubiquitous betel-nut and more.

The first rider to cross the wet finish line in 2:39.57 was Neil Van der Ploeg, who had won the inaugural 2009 Tour de Timor. His teammate, Steele von Hoff, followed a second later while the holder of the Yellow Jersey, Adrian Jackson crashed and lost a crucial 31 seconds to come in third. And except for suffering extensive gravel rash, cuts and bruising the fall meant that the race was now up for grabs, with either von Hoff or Jackson the likely winner of the Tour.

For the fourth day in succession, Rowena Fry led the woman home, all but closing the door on any would be contender to the throne. And to the Presidents great relief, David da Costa once again made it home. By now he had become the darling of the media and the hero of the people. One knew he was coming in long before he could be seen because of the shouts that went up as people recognised him and as soon as he crossed the line fans and media rushed at him.

Later on I had occasion to meet the rising star. Physically he was every bit a school boy, but one could see how he was becoming accustomed to all the fuss. “I love being part of this race,” da Costa enthused, and then continued, “I love cycling and jumping over obstacles and the President shaking my hand on the first day was a great surprise for me.”

Speaking of the race, da Costa, who wants to become a professional cycler, said that the leg from Balibo to Suai on day two was the worst stage, “It was a long ride, up and down through mud and potholes, and it was very hot, no shade. But I'm glad I've made it this far, my parents call everyday to find out if I'm ok,” he said.

The final leg of the race from Aileu back to Dili, the capital city, is the shortest of the tour at just 57km but even though its the last leg of the race, competitors will not have it easy, having to climb 364 meters up to 1300 meters above sea level over several steep climbs before a final break-neck descent over dirt and tar roads takes them to the final 15km of flat road running along the beautiful but sun exposed north coast and then to the finish in-front of the Presidential Palace.

We went ahead of the cyclists and spent the night in Dili to make sure that we were there to welcome them home. The speeds that they would be traveling down hill would make it impossible for us to stay in-front of them. Knowing that the first cyclists would arrive at around 10h30, we set up camp at the finish line. It seemed that the whole city was there to welcome the contestants home. Literally thousands of people, as far as the eye could see lined the road, waving flags and shouting encouragement, long before any cyclist had even entered the town.

When Steele von Hoff appeared, tearing down the dirt road, the crowd went berserk. “How much have we got?” he yelled, falling off his bike as he crossed the line. Unfortunately for him it wasn't enough time because Adrian Jackson crossed the line a minute and 12 seconds later in 3rd place, thereby clinching the overall title by just 29 seconds. Von Hoff, who had to be content with 2nd place overall after the race said, “I’m absolutely spent. Absolutely done,we attacked a lot and cleared the blocking game. Me and Dan (McConnell) put a big gap in before the last climb but they caught us on the descent.”

Finishing the stage in 7th place, Malaysian Shahrin Amir, 26, clinched 3rd place overall. Rowena Fry, who had dominated the womans competition from day 1, took the woman’s title in convincing style, 7 hours and 2 minutes in-front of closest contender Jenni King followed 2 hours and 6 minutes later by the young Malaysian rider, Masziyaton Mohd Radzi.

The crowd erupted when the first Timor-Leste – Jacinto Da Costa – crossed the line in 2:05.53, 14th for the stage, to win $US2000 as the first local to finish. His brother Orlando came in 18th. But more than anyone, young gun David da Costa came home to a dilly celebration.

Leaving the country, thinking about the people I met, the way that they were always armed with a smile and a Bon Tarde, I cant imagine that they were ever at war, let alone just three(?) years ago.

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