Tour de Timor 2012: Peace begins with me

I have just returned from East Timor, where I spent a memorable week suffering racing the Tour de Timor, one of the world’s toughest MTB stage races. I am in equal parts (1) exhausted and (2) worried about this mysterious new rash that has just taken over my neck. This is not good news. As the experts say, don’t come back from a third world country with a rash.

To Twitterise the TdT in 140 characters or less:

  • 6 days
  • 6 stages
  • 600km
  • 40 degrees in the shade
  • No showers
  • Definitely no Facebook

I had agreed to do TdT in a weak moment in January, when September had seemed far enough away not to matter. Grover’s boundless enthusiasm for adventure and shitting in small shallow holes was infectious. Much like my new rash. Everyone I spoke to was positive:

‘Oh, you’ll love Timor!’

‘It’s such a great experience!’

‘I had so much fun!’

No one mentioned the inescapable heat, the 4:30am starts, or how, by day 3, you would probably be unable to stomach the food or warm Powerade. To be fair, Grover did mention the overflowing long-drops but by then we’d already paid our entry money.

Here is some advice for aspiring TdT-ers: Anyone who tells you that TdT is ‘BRILLIANT!’ and that they ‘LOVED it!’ is lying. They do not have your best interests at heart. They want you to go only so that you can suffer through it just like they did, so that you will appreciate how incredibly tough they were just to survive it. Next time someone tells you with shining eyes, ‘Do it! It’s AMAZING!’ you have my permission to smack them in the face. In fact, tell them it’s from me. This tour is so hard it made the AIS selection survival camp look like a stay at the Hilton.

Now that I’m home, I can appreciate how incredible the race is. 6 days of racing mountain bikes through a country that most white people don’t even see on television was culturally eye-opening. On its own, racing up to 5 and a half hours a day in 40deg+ heat on mountain bikes is a massive challenge. But that’s only half the challenge. Add to that not being able to cool down (EVER); being constantly dirty; trying not to get sick from the food, or the toilets, or the water; struggling to sleep on your crappy thermorest camping mat; struggling to eat in the heat… this is what makes the Tour de Timor EPIC.

The highlight, as anyone will tell you, was meeting the Timorese people. Every day as we passed through the villages they lined the race route, and as we rode the kids would cheer and clap and smile for us. I’ve never seen people so happy with so little. In a country that has been ravaged by war, where the average Timorese earns less than US$1 per day and where maternal mortality and child malnutrition rates are amongst the highest in the world, it was humbling and beautiful. Less humbling and beautiful were the soldiers with machine guns on stage 5, but it turned out they were only there to fend off the cannibal tribes who roamed the region and had developed a taste for tourists.

Team Apollo Bikes had assembled in Dili, each of us fresh-faced and with 7 pairs of clean knicks. Masterminded by John Groves, the only man I’ve seen cross a finish line doing the ‘Superman’, the crew was bolstered by MTB superstars Nick Morgan and Pete Kutchera who stayed at the pointy end of the race all tour. As the sole girl on the team, my job primarily was to remind the others how grotty boys were. Given the state of the men’s toilets though, they hardly needed reminding. The guys are all classy riders and together they got Pete into the yellow jersey at the best possible time. Pete would have taken out the tour had it not been for an unlucky mechanical, and in the end placed a close 2nd.

Personally, I struggled with the heat all tour and never really felt good. I won the first mountain stage on day 3 (with super domestique Grover), but Peta Mullens well and truly deserved the GC win. My tour ended in the back of a UN ambulance on stage 5 with heat exhaustion, and to be honest without the help of the awesome Laurent (a fellow rider who saw me in trouble) it could have been much worse. Laurent rode with me for the best part of an hour, sometimes walking, sometimes sitting, and eventually walking both his bike and mine as I could no longer push my bike. He fed me bananas and kept me talking, and then flagged down a motorbike to take me to the feed station where I could get medical assistance. Thank you Laurent! From there it was a 3.5hr trip bouncing down the mountain in the back of the ambulance to the next campsite, a quick trip to the race medical centre for a weigh in, some medication usually reserved for chemotherapy patients, and then a trip to Dili.

I’m glad to be home. I’ll need a few weeks to get back to normal. But Tour de Timor IS a once in a lifetime race. Go on, do it. You’ll love it.

Ride Happy.