In contrast to its printed prominence in ‘Asia-Pacific’, the Pacific part of this vast region doesn’t register as a growth-center for cycling. As Cycling iQ is an equal opportunities website, it’s only reasonable that occasionally we go beyond the Far East in our search for emerging cycling nations.
Checklist for aspiring road cyclists in Tonga: National Cycling Federation? Not really. National Race Series? No. Weekend racing? No. Bunch rides? No. Bike shops? No. Not even one? No. Roads? Check! Good, at least the fundamentals are in place. How about participation? A recent press release intro from Tonga’s Ministry of Information & Communications website captures what Tongans – and nearby Pacific Islands nations like Samoa – are really into:
“Today, the nation was filled with an overwhelming sense of national pride and patriotism as thousands of people flanked the main roads of Tongatapu from the Fua’amotu International Airport, where tens of hundreds awaited impatiently to greet and welcome home the ‘Ikale Tahi.”
Rugby is King (in addition to the official King) in Tonga. Of the 93 rugby-playing nations ranked by the International Rugby Board, Tonga is ranked 9th. So how many of the nation’s 106,000 residents – only one-fifth of the archipelago’s 169 islands are inhabited, with a quarter of Tonga’s population living in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa - prefer cleats to studs, and are 184km’s of paved roads enough for everybody? At least two organizations in Tonga are working on the answers.
Founded as a not-for-profit organization, Pasikala Nuku’alofa set out with an admirable list of objectives in its official constitution, adopted in December 2009:
2.1 encourage and promote cycling of all types throughout Tonga.
2.2 promote cycling as an alternative means of transport to the motor vehicle.
2.3 promote cycling as a viable means of reducing non communicable diseases.
2.4 promote cycling as a means of reducing the impact of climate change.
2.5 provide a means of providing an affordable bicycle for all Tongan residents.
2.6 provide appropriate skills to local residents in the sport of cycling and maintenance of bicycles.
2.7 develop cycling as a competitive sport.
2.8 lobby relevant government departments to promote safety among all road users including cyclists.
2.9 provide for the above objectives through being a not for profit organization
Since last year, Pasikala Nuku’alofa has held several community events to introduce locals to cycling; this effort was further boosted by a substantial donation of 300 bicycles from Australian NGO ‘Australian Goodwill Bicycles’ in July 2011.
Meanwhile, the ‘Friendly Islands Triathlon Association’ (FIT – accredited earlier this year as an ITU Federation) is providing the competitive environment crucial to converting interest into ambition. Tricia Emberson, secretary of FIT, lent Cycling iQ an insight into the development of cycling in Tonga.
Who are the people behind FIT?
Pesi Fonua, Alo Feiloakitau and myself
Are there any corporate backers?
There are no official sponsors. Mostly (it’s the) people behind FIT who have other businesses.
What is FIT doing to improve the professionalism of cycling in Tonga?
Alo has attended numerous international events and is now our technical expert. We have introduced mandatory bike helmets as well as bike inspections prior to an official event. Alo assists Pasikala Nuku’alofa with bicycle inspections at their events as well.
Is there a national cycling calendar?
Not really. The Pasikala Nuku’alofa is in its infancy and they are running programmes on an ad hoc basis. Eventually, they will come up with a calendar. Friendly Islands Triathlon (FIT) does have an annual calendar, although not limited to cycling only. There are no road cycling events at this stage. Within FIT we have discussed such and may schedule something in 2012. Anyone can enter any of our events.
Are there many good roads to train on?
We have good roads compared to many other Pacific Islands. The main island, Tongatapu, is mostly flat though with only ONE hill. There is one team, which is the triathlon (FIT) cyclists combined with some of the Pasikala Nuku’alofa cyclists
Is it easy to find high-end road/triathlon bikes in local stores?
There are no bike stores. Amongst the FIT athletes, Trek, Giant and Avanti are the popular bike brands.
Cycling expats and business travelers have also contributed to cycling’s visibility in emerging countries. Chris Bennett, a Sydney-based civil engineer within the World Bank’s transportation sector department, has visited Tonga more than a dozen times. A competitive cyclist with bikes spread across the globe – ready for when he lands in a regular overseas destination – Chris often sees locals out on the roads during his early-morning rides. I emailed Chris to understand if a serious cyclist can get their training fix in Tonga.
“The main roads are comparatively good – I’m a road engineer and fixing them. If you go to secondary roads, it’s definitely an issue. The lack of any hills is an impediment for sure, but you can always get around that by using a stationary trainer. I think that if you are serious, you find a way of getting in your training (which is why I have a bike in Tonga, bikes and trainers in Tarawa, Sydney, D.C. and Toronto). There is one hole in the wall repair shop for non-serious bikes, but anything high tech or for a serious cyclist must be imported.”
It’s a stretch to think one day there could be a UCI-accredited ‘Tonga Cup’ or ‘Tour de Tonga’, but visiting road cyclists will be encouraged to learn the Tour de France is already shown on local television and, just as purists do worldwide, a post-ride breakfast at the local café is already an established part of FIT’s group rides.
[Thanks to Tricia and Chris for their time]