Well, it has been a while sorry, but I am finally back in Dili, and sufficiently rested to give an update from the Tour de Timor.
The race turned out to be a huge event, with around 300 starters from 12 countries. Officially the event was a road race, but with the quality of roads in Timor Leste that was always an interesting definition, and the rules actually stipulated mountain bikes with minimum 1.6” tyres. After racing over the course I understand completely why they put in this stipulation. Much of the road surface was asphalt with large potholes and washouts big enough to swallow a bike and rider, while other sections of the course were gravel road or just dirt road covered in sharp rocks. Certainly a road bike would have been very unlikely to survive intact, and as it was several mountain bikes proved inadequate for the job.
The standard of rider was quite variable, with some elite MTB riders who were on their way to the MTB World Cup round in Canberra using this event for a final hit out, and several elite road riders making the trip over. In addition there were several people with very little racing experience, including some who had never done a stage race in their lives.
It was my first race back after injuring my knee a year ago, and so I was uncertain how I would perform. I was also reluctant to push too hard, least I re-injure it, preferring a conservative approach to make sure I finished. Combined with a road surface that really didn’t suit my riding skills I never expected great results, but was hoping to finish in the prize money at least.
Day one went pretty well, with a a few early undulations followed by a pretty reasonable climb to finish off. I was riding happily until the fast guys all kicked on a climb about a third of the way in. Although I was still feeling good I just didn’t seem to have the very top end performance needed to hold onto them. I think that is what I had to expect following a year without racing, but can’t claim not to have been disappointed. Happily though I was still feeling good, so I managed to hold onto a second group and then ride away from them with one other guy on the final climb, bringing me in for 20th overall. Disappointingly, this was to be my best finish for the race.
We stayed that night in Betano, the second biggest city in Timor Leste. It was a great village with friendly people and a great swimming pool to cool down in after the race. Camping on the floor of the old school building was nice, but I think most of the riders were wishing that the locals were not partying outside. It was OK though, they stopped about 3am.
Day two was not one I was looking forward to. It started with some nice climbing, which was all good, but we had been told that the road conditions then went downhill very quickly, as the road itself also went downhill very quickly. With very little recent MTB experience and a definite wish to protect my knee I was always going to be very conservative on this descent. I also decided to take it easy on the climb to make sure I was fresh and alert for it. It turned out to be every bit as tough as I had feared. I had crested the hill with a mountain bike racer by the name of Dave. I was pretty sure he would be going hard down the hill, and was interested to see how our times compared. As it turned out, he was over 10 minutes quicker than me on the way down, despite having to stop when he lost his chain. It is pretty clear I need to work on that aspect of my riding!
I still managed to come in around 43rd, and more importantly come in intact, on a day when a lot of people lost a lot of skin. Arriving at the finish I was exhausted and pretty hungry. One of the difficulties of this race is that the roads we raced on are pretty much the only roads, and they are so bad that bikes can often go faster than cars or trucks. What this meant was that this particular morning, although we had, as usual, got all our gear onto the transport trucks by 7:00am, the riders caught the trucks following the 8:30 start. That meant the trucks had to pull over and wait for ALL of the riders to pass by and the road to re-open, reminiscent of a lot of my Tour de France experiences. Since the tail end of the field was coming in pretty slowly, with many people nursing injuries, we had hours to wait for our gear to arrive. In the mean time though there was a stall selling local food around the corner. Four of us went up to get something to eat. There was asome highly complicated discussion on prices, but in the end we gave them one dollar for our light lunch for four. When they went looking for change we told them not to worry about it. It really would have been wrong to do anything else I think.
Day three was always going to be interesting. It started with a continuation of the horror descent from day two, but then turned long and flat. I could see instantly that I was going to loose time on the descent. One of the key things about bike racing is that you get a huge advantage from drafting. What this meant was that I would be left behind on the descent, and then have to find a fast bunch to work with and catch up. It started as predicted, and sure enough I got to the bottom with a lot of time to make up. I soon found myself in a bunch, but then made a huge tactical mistake. They were a bunch with different racing objectives to me, and they were not going as fast as I wanted to. What I should have done was ride straight away from them, and soloed until I caught another faster bunch up the road. What I did was stay with them, and keep trying to increase their speed. All the time I was doing this the gaps to the faster bunches were getting bigger and bigger. By the time I thought about what was happening they were very big. So I took off anyway, with one person from that bunch coming with me to help. He had had a pretty tough day the day before, so I was pulling longer turns, but still he came through when I needed it for just long enough to let me eat and drink and get my heart rate down a few beats. Eventually we caught a few more people, but dropped most of them quite quickly. About 20km out it was Patrick and I and a Timorese rider. Patrick came through and did a huge turn, knowing that he was spent but willing to give all the energy he had to keep us moving quickly, before dropping off. The Timorese guy and I kept pushing hard, although he was doing about 15 second turns to my three minute turns. Finally we saw the line. Since I was more concerned with the total time than placings I decided to give him the sprint, so about 300m out I called him through and told him to sprint for the line. He sprinted, as I shouted encouragement, but then hit the end of his 15 seconds and sat up exhausted. Ridiculously I had to hit the brakes to get him over the line ahead of me, but I think it was worth it for the joy it gave the locals to see their guy coming home in front. Not the very front alas, I think we were still about 36th and 37th, but I was happy with how I had ridden and how I felt. I was a little concerned that I may have overdone it and would suffer for day four, but figured I would worry about that at the time.
In the mean time we had a magnificent spot to camp on the beach, which also gave us some great swimming.
Day four was the shortest day, with the biggest climb. I was hoping to do pretty well, and make up some places. Unfortunately I had to work very hard on day three, so recovery was going to be important. I had thought hard about what I ate and drank the day before, done a lot of stretching and self massage, and was hoping I would be OK. The stage started and I pushed up to be with the front bunch. It was a fairly big bunch, but I was feeling good. I had a good feeling about the day. Then, I started struggling to hold on. I lost contact with the bunch up a steep pinch, and had to work very hard to get back on. Soon afterwards it happened again. I still felt strong, but clearly something was wrong. I seemed to be sinking into the bike with each pedal stroke. Finally I woke up enough to lock out my front suspension, but was still bouncing up and down. Then I noticed that my tyre was half way to flat. Foolishly I kept riding for a while, hoping to get to a flat spot to change it, but there was no flat spot, so the only effect was to tire me out more. Eventually I stopped to change it, and was instantly swarmed by the locals. They all wanted to help, but I resisted the temptation to say ‘great, pump that for me!’ (only because it was against the rules). Unfortunately I lost over 10 minutes fixing that (next race I do without a spares vehicle I will definitely take a gas tyre inflator), and I think when I was done it was still a very soft tyre. I managed to climb back up through a number of places though, and I think I came in somewhere in the 30s.
We camped that night in the town of Maubissi, in a valley amongst the most spectacular hills you can imagine. With the altitude we had gained it was actually cold overnight, and in the morning the mountains looming out of the mist below were just stunning. Pictures will follow when I get some faster internet!
Day five was basically down hill, but with a whole lot of short climbs thrown in. Once again my slow descending on the poor roads cost me in a big way. I would pass lots of people every time the road flattened out or headed up, and then they would all fly past me on the descents. I managed to get to the bottom of the hill though, and then it was just a long flat drag home. I picked up one guy along the way, and then we picked up a second, Justin. I think Justin is slightly nuts, because he did the entire race on a single speed. Slightly nuts, and also astonishingly tough. On the flats roads though he couldn’t pedal fast enough. Once again he did a turn when he could, but eventually got dropped, leaving two of us to sprint home to salvage some pride.
Unfortunately I misjudged the distance to the line, underestimating it by about four kilometres. I opened up and started sprinting, and then just kept going. Unfortunately, getting slower as I went. The other guy must have been laughing, and of course he came past me on the line, giving us 39th and 40th places. This was enough to get me an overall result of 31st place. It wasn’t quite what I had hoped, but still not too bad.
Overall though the event was fantastic. The country is beautiful, the people friendly, the landscape spectacular, the organisation was great (although of course there were a few hiccups, as you have to expect with the first ever stage race in Timor Leste) and the other racers a wonderful bunch. Also, my knee survived well and I felt like I was riding pretty well, so I am looking forward to getting into a lot more racing coming up.