Timor Leste is a small country situated on the eastern end of the Indonesian chain of islands, the western half of the island is Indonesian while the eastern half is a young 12 year old country called Timor Leste. It is a country which has been battered around for years, first under Portugues rule, then invaded by Japan during the 2nd World War and most recently invaded by Indonesia in 1975 which brought on 24 years of bloodshed and hardships. After years of turmoil, flattened infrastructure, massacres and referendums the country of East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on May 20, 2002. Since then the small country of just over 1 million individuals have been busy as they started nearly from scratch to build up there nation. There is a lot of pride in the people as they are full of hope and aspirations to make there country something special. It is also a long road ahead for this 96% catholic country as they are still working on basics such as nutrition and are ranked as the hungriest nation in Asia, and 4th hungriest in the World.
This year the 6th annual Tour de Timor took place with around 100 riders and 5 stages. We raced through some stellar natural scenery, villages of friendly people and through a very much developing part of the World which still scrapes by to find the basics for life. Having been to many parts of the globe racing a bike it isn’t often I’m shocked as much as I was during this event. The first day after 3 hours of racing through the countryside I came to the finish line in Hatolia, a tiny mountainside village lined with locals screaming as I came across the finish line as the first racer. The crowd support is something I have never witnessed before, with throngs of locals yelling from the side of the road throughout the whole stage. It’s probably the closest mountain bike stage racing will ever get to Tour de France like crowds. Often there would be 20-100 individuals just starring as I road by, as soon as I said Bon dias or acknowledged them they would go crazy. They probably thought we were some sort of crazy aliens with our unfashionable cycling kits and weird looking bikes with enormous 29 inch wheels racing by. Right after coming across the finish line I leaned my bike against a post, only to have a local ride away with it and soon after was surrounded by locals and race cameraman asking about the race. Exhausted and overwhelmed I looked for an escape but was in the middle of a very dusty rundown village with no where to go. It was one of those moments where I thought “what the hell have I gotten myself into this time.” The rest of the afternoon was a weird one as I watched little kids and dogs get chased away from the lunch table, a cow get slaughtered for dinner, and after a walk around the village it became very apparent the only goods available in town were sketchy Indonesian snacks loaded with either sugar or MSG. Mid afternoon I headed over to get a massage which had been strategically scheduled to break up the day. Laying down on a mat beside three other guys we were given a very awkward massage as the Timorese girls grabbed at our legs with one hand and texted in the other. It was a forgettable 20 minutes, then it was back off to the toilet/shower room for a 2nd bucket shower to get the weird oil off my back and legs before it turned into something nasty. Before dinner we had a very interesting Timorese style race briefing then it was off to the dinner tables to battle for food.
Dinners for the week were pretty rad as the organisers had the locals do all the cooking. Every night it was fresh beef or buffalo, bok choy, white rice, potatoes and maybe some carrots. Basic, healthy and pretty good fuel for a stage race. As plates of food would come out,a hundred of us racers and another hundred or so Timorese and Australian work staff would hover over it like a bunch of vultures with dogs running around picking up scraps. It was impressive the food never ran out as we were demolishing it, apparently the locals are use to cooking for large gatherings of hungry individuals.
That night racers made deals with the locals to rent rooms in there basic concrete houses to lay sleeping pads in. I set up my tent away from the chaos underneath a huge bamboo tree alongside a little creek in what I thought was an abandoned yard. Right after the tent went up a large pig came running at me out of nowhere frantically oinking. I guesse I had pitched camp in his pen. After a tense standoff the pig and I came to an agreement which turned out to be a rad little campsite for the night.
Stage 2 started with a 8 km downhill, 40 km flat section through some agriculture land and then onto a great 45 km finishing loop on some technical jeep road through some very rustic villages. This was a tour of Timor’s heartland and made for some great riding. There were some solid climbs in there and the heat was reaching the mid to high 30′s which was good for the farmer tan lines. According to Cape Epic winner Catherine Williamson, this sort of riding is very similar to the Cape Epic down in South Africa. Coming across the finish line into the historic town of Balibo was something special with hundreds if not thousands of fans lining the course, screaming and giving high fives. Hollywood time! This afternoon was great as the organisers drove us 13 km down to the Indonesian border along the Ocean. After years of conflict it was great to be part of some Indonesian-East Timor good times as we shared ice creams and shot some pictures with the Indonesian border patrol before heading back up to Balibo for the night. Back in camp the whole town was out for a local soccer game taking place in the middle of camp. These kids had unreal foot skills as they raced around the rough soccer field highlighting this country is on the full upswing.
Stage 3 started out with an easy 30 km paved section of flat and dh roads before we hit a very hilly 27 km route to the finish. The climbing was euro like with some tight switchbacks meandering through stunning landscapes with big rock outcrops and large rigid mountains looming behind us. Most days I was lucky to have Nelson, the lead moto blazing the trail, chasing dogs and alarming the locals a race was coming through in a few minutes. On this day it was status quo until Nelson stopped to chase an unruly dog away, this leaving me blazing ahead, only to have a pack of 4 viscous pot hounds take chase. Trying to sprint uphill was a losing cause. Usually a guy can chase away these pesky dogs when they come in ones or twos by simply squirting water or raising an arm there way. With 4 of them coming they had a pack mentality and I was screwed, jumping off the bike and using it as a shield from the the buggers for 20-30 seconds before Nelson came in for the rescue on his motorbike. After this things chilled out and it was a fun ride down a rough road lining a ridge top before climbing up to the small mountain village of Hauba. Perched on the side of a mountain the climate was fresh and the views unreal. As riders came across the finish line they would walk up to the local houses and make deals to rent out some floor space for accommodation. The veterans of the race scooped up all the good home stays while rookies like Catherine and myself would usually miss the boat. This worked out good as pitching our tents away from the chaos usually worked good. Sleep was always an issue though as places like Timor really like there noise. Whether it was a local party, barking dogs, crying babies or roosters, there wasn’t more then a couple hours of quite time on any given night.
The local woman worked very hard to keep us all fed and always did a fine job with lots of leftovers usually around. The dinners weren’t flavour sensations but the food was filling and always locally made outdoors over campfires. One of the Australian medical team members was keeping track of the cleanliness of the kitchens in every town but was a little mystified when he found a bulls penis hanging from a tree amongst the outdoor kitchen on day 3. Not sure if these kitchens would pass any international standards, but not a single rider got sick from the food over the course of the tour. Very impressive in my books!.
Stage 4 was spectacular as we road some winding roads up and down mountains, below waterfalls, through coffee plantations and along ridges. The last hour was nearly all downhill as we ended up in a pretty major town called Gleno. This was a hub for the surrounding district and was full of chaos. The locals were always great, coming out to greet us and hanging around trying to figure out just what we were up, with many of them more then eager to try and practice there English with us. A local band came down for the night to provide some entertainment, while the locals showed off there unique dancing styles. Like most nights all the local houses and buildings filled up with racers looking for some shelter. Pitching my tent behind the government building and away from the noise of the local band I figured I had things sorted for a good sleep. This ended up being a disaster with Ac machines leaking water into my tent, local kids finding me, and a confused rooster in a local yard going off all night. In the good picture, racing this week on a real lack of sleep was good training for the 1000km Munga race coming up in December down in Africa.
Stage 5 was rad as we road up a ridge spine for the first 15 km before dropping down a long dusty descent into a river bed which would take us to Dili. The riverbed was a full gongshow as the organisers let us riders go wherever we wanted, dodging between construction workers, deep waterholes and endless route options. At one point I came ripping around a corner leading 4 racers only to come upon a backhoe ready to dump a SUV sized boulder onto the road. It would have squashed us but luckily the operator saw us in time and carefully balance the rock on edge allowing us to slip by in one piece. Once into Dili the chaos continued as we sprinted down one of the main streets to cap off what was a truly unforgettable journey. After some post race high fives and pictures it was off to a car wash to get a 1$ bike hose down and get some rest before the evening awards banquet. Benjamin Dingle, one of the Aussie racers who was living in Dili working as a Nurse offered to house me for 3 days after the race. This was unreal as he lived in an open air designer style beach house 5 km out of town on a hill overlooking the ocean. He gave me the loft, full of fresh air, the sound of the crashing ocean below and even a maid to do all the post race laundry and cleaning. This was a real jackpot.
The post race days were great as we explored the local seaside cycling routes, ate cheap food on the beach and enjoyed the rustic freedom which only a developing country like East Timor can offer. It was hard to leave this country yesterday, chilling with Ben was a great time, the country is still wild and just begging to be explored and the people are really welcoming. Tour de Timor is a great adventurous race doing a great job at promoting the beauty and peace of this country. It would be great to return next year to see more of what this wild land has to offer. Developments are popping up all over the country, which will be good for the people, but will slowly take away the special charm which only a few off the beaten track countries can still offer. Some say East Timor is like Bali, but 30 years behind. I’ve never been to Bali but I would have a tough time seeing it top the wild freedom of this place.
For Next year the Tour de Timor has already been announced for Sept 13-17th, taking part on a 100% new route. As far now it is off to Singapore for a little Formula 1 action, and some rest before heading off to India for the 8 day MTB Himalaya bike challenge. Over and Out!