If you have ever wanted to participate in a “Tour of insert-desirable/exotic-placename-here”, but have been put off by restrictions and impediments such as: lack of support from your Pro Team, race licensing, insufficient fitness, extreme distance/duration, etc, then perhaps the Tour of Fiji should be on your agenda. All you need to do is pay a modest registration fee and turn up at the start line with your bike. I did it in 2014 and this is my story.
Yvonne and I were already going to be in Fiji for four weeks from early September for Keenan and Mikhaila’s wedding, so when the Tour of Fiji was advertised for 10-12 October, it was no hard decision to extend the holiday for another week. The Tour weekend also coincided with Fiji Day celebrations for the country’s independence 44 years ago on 10 October 1970, which Yvonne was keen to be part of. The fact that we had a base at her family house in Sigatoka, on the south of the main island Viti Levu and part-way along the Tour route made things a lot easier.
The first ten days in Fiji were spent with focus on the wedding in the far north of Viti Levu with no time on the road and just a couple of gym spin sessions. However, return to base at Sigatoka meant that some real riding could start. This entailed riding local rough tracks on my Jamis Durango mountain bike that I had left at the house the previous year. The weather was great, and so was the scenery from the hills surrounding Sigatoka. Although the Tour was on bitumen roads and best ridden on a road bike, I hadn’t taken my Cervelo R3 road bike. I decided to compete on the somewhat heavy Jamis rather than pursue the suggested option of borrowing a road bike.
The Tour of Fiji has been running from 2009 and although it is small (think boutique), it continues to grow and improve. This years edition comprised five stages over three days, travelling south along Queens Road from Nadi to Suva, with overnight stops at Korotogo near Sigatoka and Pacific Harbour. The 45 rider field included last year’s winner Peter Hutchings who returned from Melbourne to defend his title (together with a crate of donated refurbished second hand bikes for local distribution – well done Peter!). However, his defence would be difficult with Australian Masters TT champion Shane Miller and team mate Stephen Lane also attending. Local riders, including expats, also needed to be respected. My following of local riding activity through Facebook revealed that there was talent to match the local passion. I had little hope!
Stage 1 commenced at 8:15am at the spectacular Hindu temple at the southern side of Nadi. Nadi is the first port of call for most visitors to Fiji due to the international airport there. The town itself has many small stores specially catering for the shopping needs of tourists (whether they need or not). The relatively new Denarau area contains upmarket hotels, western style shopping and dining, marina (servicing numerous offshore excursions, islands and resorts), recreation and residential estate. It’s nice, but I don’t think it’s the ‘real’ Fiji.
Anyway, the peleton had a relatively gentle start to the 68km journey to Korotogo, south of Sigatoka. The roads remained open to normal use, and although there was an ‘escort’ at the front and rear of the peleton this did not prevent Fiji drivers from doing their ‘thing’. In general, this means scant regard for road rules or their lives and the lives of other road users. Fortunately there were no crashes but there were moments of some drama with hard braking and rapid heart rates!
The pace gradually quickened through the stage and combined with a few hills this caused the peleton to fracture. Local young rider Anthony Navolo (only 17) clearly had talent to match his ambitions – his break ahead of the lead group halfway through the ride was matched only by Shane Miller. These two maintained a handy margin through to the finish, nicely won by Anthony, with the next four riders (Stephen Lane, James McCann, Stuart Gee and Peter Hutchings) arriving within the next four minutes.
Most of the riders and supporters stayed in the Korotogo area to refuel and recover in preparation for the afternoon Stage 2 time trial. I rode back to the house at Sigatoka which was a festival of activity and excitement related to Fiji Day celebrations. I just ate and rested. Sigatoka is about the 4th largest town on Viti Levu and although it contains no hotels itself there are many hotels and resorts nearby, particularly to the south along the so-called Coral Coast toward Suva. The main town is located near the mouth of the long and very fertile Sigatoka River valley, which is commonly and appropriately known as the ‘salad bowl’ of Fiji. A large proportion of crops for the country’s local consumption and export are grown there. It is a nice place to live and ride!
The ride back to Korotogo for the TT gave cause for concern – there was nobody at the start location so I continued through to where everybody was being accommodated for the night to learn that the TT had been lengthened from 11km to 16km, and delayed by 30 minutes. Kinda funny, I guess! Anyway, Shane Miller and Stephen Lane virtually flew around the course on their nice road bikes and TT bars to grab the top two times. I scraped in for 3rd, one second ahead of Peter Hutchings with Anthony Navolo making 5th place. Then I rode home in the rain to complete a fairly satisfying day in the saddle. General Classification order now had Shane in the lead with a small buffer of about two minutes over Stephen, with another four to six minutes to the next riders; Anthony, Stuart, James and Peter. It seemed likely that these groupings would remain to the end, with the interest being in what changes there would be in placings 3 to 6. This was somewhat a mute point, because I/we didn’t actually know the times gaps or position places at the time.
Day 2, Stage 3 comprised a 70km journey from Korotogo to Pacific Harbour. The fairly benign profile belied the treachery that this stage had in waiting for me. The first 40 kilometres were comfortable, but as the series of steep little hills in the Serua area continued, the effort of hanging on to the lead riders tolled on my strength and energy, so that I was soon going ‘backwards’. Fortunately, I was able to recover a little and latch on to riders catching me from behind, to finish with the third bunch, 8th overall, nine minutes behind stage podium Stephen, Anthony and Shane, and three minutes behind rivals James and Peter. Damage done, two places lost!
The afternoon’s short 6km Stage 4 should have seen no change to the top six order, but things did not go to plan. Although many riders took the wrong turn at an early intersection, time lost in penalty and/or backtrack did not change the top order. However, Peter suffered a puncture on the rough course and with the time lost in repair (no team support cars here) he dropped from 5th to 6th whilst I benefited to jump to 5th place on GC and 3rd for the stage. Yay!
Pacific Harbour, the location for overnight stay at end of Day 2, is an interesting place. It seems that its creation was founded on somebody’s 1970’s dream of substantial residential development that is not quite yet realised. Nonetheless, there is quite a bit to do there including fishing, golf, nearby zip-lining, river rafting, offshore island excursions and more. Once again, it was a great place for stage end/start, with multiple accommodation and dining options. I stayed at the low key but pleasant Club Oceanus where the group’s evening meal and formalities were conducted, while most of the riders stayed at The Uprising and a few spent the night in style at The Pearl Resort Hotel.
Day 3 Stage 5 of 40km from Pacific Harbour to Lami (on the western outskirts of Suva) was not expected to be overly challenging, and presented little opportunity for large time gains and position changes. Nevertheless, Anthony with ambition and much to gain established an early 2-man break of perhaps a minute of more (am guessing here), halfway through the stage. Sadly for the local young gun, he lacked sufficient support and when his breakaway partner tired, he was doomed to return to the main bunch, with GC 3rd place the most likely outcome. Not too bad really!
As the first bunch approached the finish line near the Novotel Hotel at Lami, the pace really picked up and it was all I could do to hang on. Last year’s race winner Peter Hutchings scored a nice consolation stage win, with local riders Mapa Bolea and Carl Ngamoki-Cameron getting second and third – chapeau boys! Then followed closely Shane, Steve, James, Stuart, Jason Turner, Scott Smith, Anthony, and George Lal of the first bunch.
After all the riders arrived, group photos were taken and the field rode en-masse to Albert Park in Suva and thence to the NZ commissioners residence for refreshments, celebrations and presentations. Unfortunately I needed to drive back to Sigatoka to prepare for return flight to Australia early on Tuesday morning. By all accounts, based on FB pictures and comments, this function was excellent and is one I should not have missed, so I will plan better next time.
Congratulations to the podium, especially race winner Shane Miller, but also to all other category winners and participants. Sincere thank you to the hosts and event organisers, Adrian, Adrienne, Christian and support crew. Well done!
GC top ten:
1. Shane Miller
2. Stephen Lane
3. Anthony Navolo
4. James McCann
5. Stuart Gee
6. Peter Hutchings
7. Petero Manoa
8. Carl Ngamoki-Cameron
9. Jason Turner
10. George Lal
1. Nau Dakuliga
2. Amanda Smith
In summary, the whole event was fantastic. Really good competition, great route and staging arrangements, typically wonderful hospitality and warmth from the local Fiji crew, inspiring sportsmanship by Shane and Steve, generosity from Peter Hutchings, high talent and enthusiasm amongst the local riders, new friends made, and fun. What more could you want? 2015!