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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tour de Timor: trouble, trauma and triumph

Aug distance: 723 km

Sat 21 - Sat 29 Aug 09
Timor Leste, 529 km.

Some participants, like me, would've packed yet sleepless. Others would be packing and sleepless. This has been a rush job for all of us; the idea for the tour was mooted in May (by Nobel Laureat and Timor Leste President Ramos Horta, no less), to come to pass in Aug, for about 300 cyclists, 50 international volunteers and thousands of local volunteers. Never before have I had so little time to prepare for an expedition; I hear about it only in Jul. Flights, visas, climate, terrain, vacinations, routes, team formation, name, dynamics and training, all have to be settled fast ... Well, let's not call it training. There's little in Singapore to help us train for Timor and its long and steep mountain roads. Moreover, it's a half marathon run I've been training for. The 21 km run is a week before the Timor race!

Sneak peaks
Day 1: Sat 22 Aug, Dili, 9 km. As our flight passes over Timor Leste, we have sneak peaks at the peaks we'll be riding on. We wait in the VIP room to collect our bikes and baggage. I assemble my bicycle at the hotel (essentially, airconditioned cargo containers) and take it for a test ride. There is no TV in my "room" so I gaze at my bicycle instead, and realise that the decals on my bike spell out my team leader's family name and her initials. The cold of the airconditioning is a prelude of the cold in the mountains to come.

Night stop: Timor Lodge

Presidential address
Day 2: Sun 23 Aug, Dili, 39 km. I knock on my team mates' doors but as they still seem to be in dreamland, I cycle along the coast and do a bit of offroad before heading back to become a tour guide, showing the team cheap eating spots. At race registration, I'm asked about allergies. I say I'm allergic to pain ... I receive my race number: 101. MTB101, sounds like a freshman course in university. I improvise a vertical clothes line to dry my washing. The evening is special. Dinner and movie, with dinner speech by President Horta (a vision of "Dili, City of Peace". No war, no violence of any kind, not even domestic violence) and a movie Balibo (starring some of the race officials) set in 1975, when Indonesia did what it did to the fledging state. As if in sympathy with memories that do not fade, the video stalls. After some frantic jabbing of buttons, "rebooting" the player puts the show back on track. And tomorrow, it's Stage 1 of the race.

Night stop: Timor Lodge

Radio silence
Day 3: Mon 24 Aug, Stage 1: Dili to Bacau, 135 km. I have less than six hours of sleep. Each session is about 45 minutes long. Breakfast is hearty: bacon, sausage, toast and bananas. I collect my lunch too.

Flag off is in front of the Presidential Palace. Crowds line the road, which is closed to all traffic except for us cyclists. I start near the front to see what is like to cycle with the front runners. There are so many cyclists, it is like drafting a truck at over 40 km/h, which drops to over 30 km/h, until we hit an average 5% steepness over 10 km. I lunch at 10 am. There are two feedstops, serving bananas. There are slim pickings at roadside stalls - biscuits perhaps, no cooked food. I run out of calories and walk sometimes to cheer myself up. The road is interminable. usually, the radio station in my head plays rock or marching songs. For this trip, the effort drains the "batteries" in my head and I lapse into silence. I listen to my breathing and feel my cycling form.

Two things happen which I've never seen before: i) a newbie "bought-my-first-mountain-bike-a-month-ago" keeping up with seasoned riders and ii) my inner tube bursts with a hiss like an angry snake, because my rim tape shifted. I use a screwdriver to shift it back in place, stretch and wait for my team mates.

Team leader, who cycles with running shoes, shows up with a scorching pace. With biscuits and a Coke in my gut, I crank up again and the two of us finish Stage 1 in over eight hours; almost double the time taken by the champs.

In camp, I fix both rims with electrical tape (that means removing tyres and inner tubes from rims then putting them back), pry a stone out of a tyre wall (some cyclists have punctures, one rider had three) and patch the burst tube in the remaining daylight. I look after my bicycle so it looks after me but it's been a long day. I put a tyre the wrong way round and have to redo it. While inflating the tube, the tyre valve flies off. I have to change the inner tube all over again. By the time I'm done, long queues have formed for the communal showers cum toilets. By the time I'm done washing my cycling clothes, dinner is over. Fortunately, team leader saves some food for me. I brush my teeth beside a drain as I find the showers cum toilets damp, dingy and depressing. So much for Stage 1, the easiest among all five stages ...

Night stop: a tent. Communal living is noisy living. The noise stops only when a voice somewhere in the campsite yells in exasperation: "will you be quiet?!"

Double trouble
Day 4: Tue 25 Aug, Stage 2: to Loihuno, 60 km. The night gone by was just about the worst I've spent outside a hospital. At least, a hospital has a bed. To start the new day, I do my eye-poking ritual. A contact lens pops out. Pardon me, it's hard to do this in a tent and keep my fingers clean at the same time. Not that there's much time to do all this - the tent has to be taken down and loaded up the trucks by 7am.

Keeping yesterday's calorie deficit in mind, during breakfast, I pack two sandwiches for lunch. Today is Stage 2, with 6% elevation for 5 km after a 25 km ride. I stop at a cemetary to take a photo. Any excuse to pause. A passing cyclist calls out: "Found a spot to stop and die, have you?"

Further on, I see a sign: double black diamond. I know it means bad news. There's no turning back now. I plunge in. It is bad. Very bad. Chunky rocks, loose stones and downhill at 6%. I spend much time airborne on my rigid bike. When I'm in the air, there's no steering control and brakes don't work either. When I'm on the ground, I ride my brakes down at some parts. My semi-slick tyres lose traction. A few times, it's as if I'm going to wipe out, but my guardian angels work overtime. It's as if an invisible force keeps me on my bike and upright. At some points, I want to get off but hang on. I pass a cyclist who's gone down, clutching his arm as a policeman speaks urgently into a walkie-talkie. Further down, an ambulance rocks and rolls upslope.

In over 43,000 km of cycling, it's here that I'm most scared, though unscathed and unscarred. The fear factor comes from looking at the long downhill and all that's strewn below, then hurtling along knowing that I either come out without a scratch or a bloody mess. I reach the campsite at 1215, about 3 hours 45 mins after flag off. A team mate returns in an ambulance and is stitched up. The other two ride back; it's only when team leader removes her bandages that I see the raw, palm-sized abrasions and a puncture wound. I grimace, she doesn't. To save myself from blood loss, I decide to use a lighter shade of shades from the next day onwards. It's hard to see on the roads speckled with shadows of branches and leaves what is a shadow and what is a hole.

Camp amenities are rustic: a shower stall, neck high, with a broken bamboo door, with cool, free flow of water piped in via a bamboo pole.

Night stop: a tent. Around 11 pm, some people decide to play games and music. Team leader tells me that when life "hands you lemons, make lemonade". Here's a glass of lemonade: what's great about living in a tent? Answer: there's no need for room numbers or keys.

Day 5: Wed 26 Aug, Stage 3: to Betano, 111 km. As we cycle uphill to eat, a kind passer-by yells out "breakfast is over". She's kidding, if only she could eat her words. A team mate valiantly starts out but pulls out, I next see her, one arm in a sling, the other taking photos.

The race director wasn't kidding when he said the route downhill is riddled with potholes. Only they weren't potholes - more like wok and cauldron-sized. Next is an incorrigibly corrugated road; as I bounce along a passing rider says: "your bike isn't built for this". When I reach mostly flat terrain, my rigid bike makes up for the lost time spent bouncing in the air and picks a line on the verge of the rough road. I come across a river crossing - a first in my life. I stop to see how it's done, shift gear while at a standstill and make it across with my feet dry ... Then I ride through a village where I emerge dripping wet from a "water festival" as well-meaning people splash and pour water on me from scoops to buckets. There goes my nicely-lubed drive train, and my feet go cold and clammy.

At the campsite, I haul together all my team mates' bags, using my bicycle as a wheel barrow. A bag slips and makes a 2 cm gash on my top tube. Ouch, that really, really hurts. How ironic, my little red Tank unscathed from a double black diamond yet it gets hurt like this. Team stuff settled, next comes my equipment: first, remove the cement-like gunk on my cleats from the river crossing; second, check my brakes. Third, wash myself and clothes when team mates are back. I notice my watchstrap is half-broken; I sew it and tape it up.

Night stop: a tent. I get up around 3 am and walk in the cool night air, under the starry sky. Stuff whatever's out there in the night, I gotta get outta here. Back in the tent, I "turn down the aircon" by lowering the tent flaps. Lemonade: why are the rides so long? Answer: because the nights are even longer.

Hard up, hard down
Day 6: Thu 27 Aug, Stage 4: to Maubisse, 72 km. It's a cold start, I'm up at the crack of dawn but the toilet queue has already formed. I take my place to use the 'gravity flush" porta-loo.

Today is Stage 4. "4' rhymes with "die" in Cantonese. We've been warned about this stage, like "very, very, very steep". Mathematically, it's about 10% gradient for about 4km. I've been looking forward to see how this compares to the mountains of Laos; this thought keeps me going. At a peak of 1,835m, this is higher than the highest Laotian road I've been on, but doesn't feel as hard.

From the peak, it's another double black diamond downhill. I overtake two cyclists while cornering. I should've been twice shy; I cut the second corner too fine and fear the rider behind me might crash into me. So I turn wide and wash out on sand with a bang and tear my new pair of shorts. I squirt water on my knee. I wonder why red paint is on my pedal and realise it's blood. I later count five holes in my arm warmer.

At the finish line, I must've appeared dazed. An official comes up to me and asks: "Are you ok? First aid is over there." But there is another hard hill to cycle up, to the campsite around a "pousada" (hotel). Some kind souls from Singapore have already set up camp for us. I manage to get what seems to be the last load of water for my team mates (I guess this is where my watch tells me "time to go" and I never see it again). After the big bang of a crash, I check my bicycle more carefully, patch an inner tube then patch myself up (the medic handed me stuff and told me to help myself). It's a bloody day, but my best performance to date: 187 out of about 260 riders.

Night stop: a tent. It is wet and cold - not that it's raining; it comes with camping at cloud level. At 2.40 am, someone remarks: "There's a queue for the toilet even at this time." Lemonade: how does the phrase "happy camper" come about? Answer: because of camp humour, like the lady who asks loudly "who nicked my knickers?". It is here that I lose my towel too; something of sentimental value. Which means I use a sweater in lieu of it henceforth.

Washed out
Day 7: Fri 28 Aug, Stage 5: to Dili, 103 km. As I walk down the stairs on my cleats, I slip. "And that's my only fall of the day," I say to the audience. As I cycle to the start point, my cyclometer pops off.

I snap it back on and ride. Along the route, I nod to the policemen whenever I see them. They've been there for hours and will remain there for hours, dotted along the entire route. The route is "washed out" in places, states the stage map. Now I know what that means - the tar has been washed away, leaving big rocks beneath which I bounce on. Having "washed out" myself yesterday, I corner slowly while other cyclists cut past me on corners. Hmm, I should've done that yesterday and save myself all that bloodshed. Along the way, I see red flags planted where road hazards are.

I use my cyclometer as a watch, toggling time and odometer functions with one hand. This is the last stage and I make a last ditch attempt to ride my heart out. I keep above my cruising speed but below lactate threshold. To save time, I barely eat nor rest, nor wet my contact lens that threatens to fly off. That's turning a blind eye. I meet two other cyclists from Singapore, K and L. We take draft each other for a while, then they cheer me on. Soon, I'm out of the hills. The headwinds I'd read about hit me full blast. A vehicle coming the other way avoids me. I blaze past a few other cyclists. The roads get busier nearer Dili. And soon, rider 101 crosses the finish line.

I eat part of my lunch, give part of it away (the gift gets half eaten; I'm hungry but not that hungry to reclaim it). The crowd gets smaller and smaller as the rest leave to eat and shower. Only a few of us are left until the last Singapore cyclist returns. There goes all the arrangements. Calorie-depleted, tired and hot after the check-in to and fro, I shower, eat my emergency rations in airconditioned comfort and miss the prize presentation ceremony. For dinner, I eat the equivalent of lunch and dinner. There's no medic present but another cyclist kindly passes me some bandages. I also attend to my bicycle, packing it with tender loving care after the pounding it suffered. Then I pack it all in ...

Night stop: Timor Lodge. On a real bed, with air-conditioning and temperature control. And quiet. What a treat!

Day 8: Sat 29 Aug, Dili, non cycling day. Team mates seem to be asleep so I stick notes on their door about transport arrangements to the airport, then go walkabout. A couple of kids come up to me to "high five" though I'm off my bicycle. I visit the Resistance Museum, one of the best looking places in the land. Most of the exhibits are not in English so I fill in the blanks with what I'd read pre-trip. Somethings don't really need words anyway. I eat twice, first in an Indian restaurant with a photo of Xanana with the proprietor, then at a roadside shop. My Achilles heel is my gut / high metabolic rate as I do long rides and rue the need to eat like a spinning hamster. I guess others who love to eat would want to have my metabolism.

I get back in time to catch the transport to the airport. Some of the people I wanted to thank, have disappeared since last night. If you're reading this, "obrigado, adeus".

Some injuries are physiological and visible, eg multiple lacerations. Some injuries are physiological but invisible to the naked eye, eg soft tissue damage. Some injuries are psychological; perhaps only the symptoms are visible.

It was a mad rush, clearing work to go on leave, preparing for a trip to a place I've never been to before, packing for an expedition that involves camping (a first for me!). I don't regret coming, and don't regret running a half marathon a week before my longest off-road ride ever.

It was hard rolling and bouncing over rocks and incorrigibly corrugated roads on a rigid bike with semi-slick tyres and steep roads. What an experience, to have a president of a country flag off a race and have roads closed just for us, with security provided by the police and military under the UN. Riding east, south, west and north, over mountains, over river beds, in valleys, by the sea. With people lining the roads all over the country, watching, cheering, hoping.

It's a moving experience and I don't just mean moving on two wheels. The Timorese struggled for independence, paid for in bullets, bombs, blood and bodies since 1975. A remarkable resilient people, a nation before becoming a state. Viva Timor Leste!

© 2009 Kevin Lee. All rights reserved.

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