When I was growing up my father imbued me with some very key concepts: never buy a car from someone named ‘Honest John’; don’t eat at a place called ‘Good Eats’, and if someone goes by the name ‘Friendly’, they usually aren’t. Well, Tonga—which is also called the ‘Friendly Islands’—proves the latter does not apply here. It is a country populated by exceptionally friendly and approachable people, as I learned during this week when I managed to get 5 tyre punctures during some 200 km of training rides.
What a difference a week makes. After leaving Timor Leste I had a weekend in Sydney before heading off to the Kingdom of Tonga. Since I’ll be coming to Tonga regularly over the next few years—unless the government uninvites me—I brought one of my bicycles to leave in the capital Nuku’alofa. I’ve now got Tonga, Kiribati, Sydney, Toronto, Washington D.C.—and of course New Zealand covered. Just have to get another one for Timor Leste 🙂 With my bike on hand I was able to do proper cross-training and got in some good rides.
The bike I brought was my folding road bike. It is the one that I used a few years ago for Ironman Switzerland—not my wisest decision. With 20 inch wheels it is a bit more difficult to ride than a regular bike, but at least it fits in a suitcase!
Nuku’alofa is on the main island of Tongatapu which is a coral island—so VERY flat. Just how flat? I did a 100 km bike ride (more about that later) and as you can see from below the highest point was 75 m above sea level. Personally, I think that is a GPS measurement error since I never felt more than 20 m above sea level. If that.
I stayed at a new hotel—the ‘Little Italy’ (highly recommended)—which was right at the water. It was great for doing running drills and sprints since it was a very flat road with almost no traffic, particularly early in the morning. We had great views from the hotel room which overlooked the water, unfortunately the ship wreck you can see in the distance in the picture to the left dominated. It got washed up on the reef in a storm some years ago and is now being left to rust away.
My training plan had a big week of rides, so good thing I had my bike. I had drills and anaerobic intervals which I *really* hate. These are 11 x 2” full on, with 2” recovery. Never enough recovery. The good thing in Tonga is that the roads, particularly early in the morning, are very empty. Even during the busy times they are not that bad, with only some 16,000 vehicles in the entire country.
The hardest thing is to be focusing on your interval training and having to say hello to all those friendly Tongans through your gritted teeth. Seriously. You are focusing on your form, breathing hard when you pass a group of lovely young children who all smile and wave calling out ‘goodbye!’ (or occasionally ‘hello’). They are just too nice. Even tattooed huge teenagers break into a smile and a wave as you pant by them.
I had a relatively big recovery ride to do so I went off exploring. Being an island I couldn’t really get lost. All I had to do was keep the water on my left—which as you can see from the map below I did. Exactly 100 km door to door. Which also tells you how few roads there are to ride here! But at least as mentioned above, there is very little traffic on what roads they have!
The biggest challenge that one faces is the quality of some roads—which is why I’m here to help them improve the roads. The pictures below give a few examples.
These potholes were lethal. I had only gone 20 km when I was unable to dodge one due to a rare passing vehicle and ‘BANG’ goes my rear tyre. So I sit down by the side of the road and within two minutes a couple of Tongans come over and say hello to see if I need a hand. Later, a young man Daniel comes down and sits to chat with me while I change my tyre. I’m telling you, these Tongans are seriously friendly.
I patched the tyre and then mounted my replacement tyre to continue my ride. About 15 km later ‘BANG’ again. This time it was a pothole in a dark shaded area. Out comes my replacement tube and on goes my patched first tube. That lasted another 30 km before I hit a rough patch of road and the tyre went ‘psssst’. Less dramatic then a ‘BANG’ but the effect was the same. Patched tyre number 2 lasted for about 15 km and by then I was seriously worried as I was down to one more patch. However, I managed to get home with no more flats. Of course two days later in the middle of some intervals I had another flat… which is a record even for me!
At least my runs went well! It was great to run along the waterfront in Nuku’alofa, through the quiet capital. It really has a great atmosphere.
On one run I passed a woman with a T-Shirt named ‘FIT’ which I saw meant ‘Friendly Islands Triathlon’. Of course I stopped and chatted. She pointed me to a Facebook page and there is some serious training going on here, and they even have local races. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to connect this time, but I will in the future.
Had a good week of training and managed to get in 11 h compared to 12 in my program, not bad all things considered. Just wish there was a few more hills! Still, was great to have a run by moonlight as a farewell to Tonga. Next stop … Kiribati.