The Tour de Timor started in 2009 and has been an annual event on the MTB stage racing calendar ever since, growing and improving every year into a successful international multi-day MTB stage race. 2013 was expected to be no different, however six weeks out from the start of the race, the race organisation was shifted into the Timor Leste Ministry of Tourism (from the office of the President). Race entries were refunded, information was sporadic and to be honest, I was expecting the worst so started looking around for another event. To their credit, the race was soon resurrected and things were back on track albeit with minimal rider communication which didn’t really inspire confidence. Despite this, i’m always up for a bit of a challenge so headed over to Dili with an open mind and full of anticipation for a good solid five days of racing.
Fast forward to 2 September 2013 and about 160 racers gathered on the start line outside the Palacio de Governo in Dili, well down on the 250-300 riders seen in previous years. Unfortunately, fallout from the changes to the race organisation were evident when about 100 Timorese riders turned their bikes upside down in protest at the lack of assistance provided to them (bikes, nutrition, training and other support etc) and refused to start the race. This served as a reminder to the international riders that many challenges still remain for local East Timorese cyclists. Nevertheless, the race started and 60 riders rolled out of Dili along a beautiful coastal road on the way to Baucau, 125kms later. I won’t give a detailed account of the racing, save for a brief summary of each stage as the race is so much more than what happens between the start and finish line each day.
Stage 1: Dili to Baucau 125km – A mellow roll out from Dili, lead group of 12 forms on the first climb, follows beautiful coastal road towards Baucau. Nerves are evident in the bunch early on but dissipate when the field thins out. The Timorese attack through the first feed zone, the leading group splits on second climb about 2hrs into the day. The Aussies have a bad day and the Malaysians ride away to fill the podium. The leading three Timorese riders show they can ride and take positions inside the top 10.
Stage 2: Baucau to Ossu 70km – The lead group forms early on the small rise out of Baucau, a steep and rocky descent splits the bunch (particularly as the first feed zone was placed immediately before the descent leaving riders scrambling to secure bottles of water – I rode the whole descent holding a bottle of water in my mouth – not recommended). Aussie Adam Cobain rides off on the climb out with race leader Amir from Malaysia to take the win.
Stage 3: Ossu to Luak 125km – Heavy rain overnight delays the start of the day as the race convoy struggles to get through the muddy roads to the finish. A fast downhill immediately off the start creates a nervous descent but forms a leading bunch without the Timorese climbers. A short, steep but very muddy climb cements the lead bunch of 6 who then descend to ride a 100km flat road along the coast. Three Timorese bridge across and the bunch cruises along nicely along a wet potholed road. The Malaysian KOM rider sneaks away and nobody responds. The feed zone at 80km doesn’t materialize. The Timorese don’t assist the bunch so attacks start on the flat before the final climb to the finish to try to distance them. The climb splits the bunch, the Timorese are dropped, KOM man stays away to take a well deserved win after spending the whole day off the front, his team mate takes second and i’m lucky to take third.
Stage 4: Luak to Aileu 79km – A 40km climb to 2000m greets riders for the start of day 4 which gets very wet and muddy towards the top leaving many riders with big rings only to climb the steep mountain roads to the summit. The weather is cool for a change. Adam attacks early on the climb to drop everyone, the Malaysians ride to minimise the damage and the Timorese show their stuff on the steep mountain roads. Adam stays away on the descent and following 35km rolling roads to the finish to take a classy win and pulls back 7 minutes in the process to move into second overall. Amir still looks solid in the lead and holds about a 17 minute advantage into the final day. The Timorese ride well to finish inside the top 10.
Stage 5: Aileu to Dili 70km – Two steep climbs split the field early as Adam and Amir ride away from the rest of the pack. A long but rough descent down to the coastal road outside of Dili was the perfect warm up to about 20km of flat, mostly well sealed road leading into the finish line. Adam took his third stage ahead of Amir. The Malaysians dominated pretty much everything taking top spot on GC and third overall, KOM, teams and two stages. Adam Cobain rode a consistent race to take second overall, second on KOM and three individual stages. Special mention should also be made of the female winner, East Timor’s Francelina Cabral who rode the entire final stage with a broken collarbone and still won the stage making it four wins from five stages!
Despite concerns coming into the race about the race organisation, the tour turned out to be an excellent event. Riders were well catered for, there was plenty of food and water, a team of Australian medical experts were available every day, mechanical assistance kept bikes running and transport efficiently transported riders bags between stages to be ready by the time the first riders crossed the finishing line (even if it did mean 4:30am starts each day!). Police and volunteers were stationed frequently along the route which provided a strong feeling of security (not that I ever felt insecure). The volunteers were brilliant and ensured that the riders had everything they needed before, during and after each stage. The local communities warmly welcomed riders to each overnight stop and provided nightly entertainment for all. The course and terrain was challenging and varied and the stage lengths were long enough to hurt riders, but not totally destroy people by the end of the event. We rode over everything from smooth coastal roads to high mountain passes and had weather ranging from 40 degrees and dry and dusty to 10 degrees and wet and muddy. Despite the low numbers, thousands of cheering locals still turned out to line roadsides to cheer on the riders as they went past, a real highlight of the event. The scenery was amazing for those who looked up and provided riders with a pretty good appreciation for what East Timor has to offer outside of Dili. It is certainly nice to be able to experience some of the less populated regions of the country to see how people live in rural communities.
Things will no doubt improve for 2014 and with a bit more certainty next year, the event should begin to attract the numbers of riders seen during the first four years – the prize money will surely remain a drawcard for many. Improvements in rider communication, feed zones (riders do need more than just bottled water during stages!) and presentation ceremonies will hopefully be addressed by the time the event rolls around in 2014. It was really disappointing to see the poor response by riders to presentations in the evening – not only was this disappointing for the riders who had achieved results during the day, but it was a slap in the face for the communities who were so welcoming to the tour and who had taken the time to prepare cultural events for the riders. This would also have been a good opportunity for greater mixing between the international riders and the Timorese riders which was generally non-existent. While everyone was also looking to celebrate at the final presentation night in Dili, a rigid structure, long-drawn out presentations and lack of alcohol was a bit of an anti-climax! However the race organisation seemed to be open to ideas and keen to learn from this year and come back again better next year.
Despite a few areas for improvement, the Tour de Timor still represents a challenging multi-day MTB race in the region that offers a unique environment and racing experience. The Tour de Timor will never be a Cape Epic or Transalp but remains unique in its own way and will reward those who are willing to give it a go. Take a few days before and/or after the race to take a look around, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the amazing coastline, beautiful clear, warm water and white sandy beaches. Order some fresh seafood and a cocktail and start to forget the pain of the tour! I have no doubt that the Tour de Timor will be back and better in 2014 and encourage anyone interested to give it a go.