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Global sponsors make the wheels of competitive cycling turn, and it’s hard to remember it wasn’t always like that. In Samoa now is a cycling race around the two main islands. It’s straightforward, it’s just a race, but somehow – without this being the intention – it’s more than a race. It has a harder edge than other cycling events to be sure, but its appeal is greater than that, too. It’s a quest as well as a test.

Wally Collins rode in the 2016 Ford Tour of Samoa on an old, borrowed bike. He’s a local rider, fast, but with no experience of riding in a bunch, no training in road racing. His shoes were cleated, but worn, and they kept slipping. This was an improvement on 2015 when he rode with sandshoes on those raised pedals. Steve Gurney, in admiration, went up to him at Tour’s end. While hugging Wally he lifted the front of the bike off the ground. The wheel fell off.

On the second day of the last Tour, on the island of Upolu, Wally hit a dog. Dogs are prominent; some chase the bikes, pugnaciously. Wally’s bike was too damaged to last 300 more kilometres. The riders caught the ferry the next morning to the island of Savai’i. Wally went too, hoping Dylan the tour mechanic could fix his machine. Not even Dylan could. Wally went back to Opolu. That day the competitors completed another stage, and got ready for the Day 3 time trial. Wally was borrowing another bike. He caught the next dawn ferry, and while everyone else (a long way up the road) was still asleep in their beach fales he rode the stage he had missed. He arrived just in time for that day’s 40-kilometre sprint into the hilly interior of the island. Wally would finish fifth on the Tour. As a salute, Auckland’s Philip Moore gave his own bike to Wally at the end of it. Wally told Phil, a few days later, that he had never owned anything like that. He found it hard to believe someone would do that for him. But Phil had done something else for other Samoans, seven years earlier. On the day of the September tsunami he had been relaxing at the resort of Lalomanu. Phil decided to fly back to New Zealand ahead of schedule. His flight out was at 1am; the tsunami destroyed the village later that morning. His departure probably saved the lives of his Samoan family who had planned to join him there; the waves that engulfed Lalomanu were 10 metres high. Back in Auckland, Phil immediately raised $15,000. He and other Les Mills trainers hopped on bikes and had their kilometres sponsored. The money went a long way towards helping rebuild the village. Phil rode back there on the first day of the 2016 Tour. He found a community reborn.

There’s a lot that people do for one another on this unusual tour. It is not without its dangers, so each rider stays as others are counted in at the end of a stage. They stop to help after crashes; there is a bond you don’t find in normal A-grade cycling events. But A-graders wouldn’t take their $10,000 bikes to Samoa for this ride, and they might find the conditions a bit challenging. They might not like being woken by roosters at 3am, for instance. Some Samoan roosters helpfully remind you of the time regularly through the small hours.

Malo lava. Welcome to the way top cycling races used to be when they started, maybe. Here are fit weekend athletes with regular jobs: GNS scientist, company director, fruit importer, mental health nurse. Someone works for DOC, someone else for the Cancer Society. They come from New Zealand, Samoa and Australia. Many have ridden in big cycling events, but none like this. They look the part in their racing underarmour and lycra, but they have no sponsors, no support except for a truck lumbering behind with water and advice. Before the heat of a Samoan morning gets too sapping they can be hurtling down a mountain hill road, the terrain ahead hardly visible in the semi-darkness. Catastrophe is possible with every metre that flashes by. “In any given second” says Wellington rider Brent Thomas, “you have to expect a pig to run out in front of you.” I don’t think you hear that advice in pre-race briefings back in New Zealand. Downhill these men and women travel at more than twice the speed limit for cars on these roads, racing right on the outer rim of their nerves and talent.

There is no doubt about Christian Wenger’s talent, he seemed unbeatable. Christian works for EQC in Christchurch auditing construction work, and was looking good for his third Tour of Samoa win. But at the end of a sprint stage he came up behind a slow vehicle. The car’s hazard lights were on, and Christian assumed it was part of the Tour, and overtook it. The car wasn’t part of the tour, and its driver turned right into his path. Christian’s collarbone was broken. He dragged his bike across the line, still in the lead, but there would be no third victory. His partner Rebecca Marley was the first woman home, though. Christian stayed to watch her win, grateful for donated painkillers, before he was medevaced to New Zealand. “It’s not just a bike race on a tropical island,” he says; “I love the heat, the hills… the friendships. I always come to Samoa with a mindset that ‘anything can happen’ and for me it did. The Tour means so much to me, and the fact I could not ‘complete’ it was devastating, not to ride the final laps of the Apia clock tower and stand beside the other riders and share the sense of completion…”

Mary Lambie, on one of those dark mornings, slowed at the bottom of a hill, trying to see the riders ahead of her. She slowed too much. A stone on the road that might have been flicked sideways at high speed, flicked the bike sideways instead. Mary had a re-shaped helmet, a long gash on her knee down to the bone and was bleeding from both legs and an elbow. She had 80kms more to ride that day, and finished the stage.

Undeniably the setting is consoling; actually it’s just plain gorgeous, with the blues of the ocean running that clichéd adjectival gamut from azure to turquoise. There is every shade of green on land, and marvellous blooms, teuilas, plumerias, tea flowers, crowded yellows and pinks, reds and purples. Local kids shout “Paapalagi!” as the Tour flashes by. Some of them in a remote village don’t quite understand what is happening, they see the riders as strange entertainment, and throw stones. A big one from a slingshot nearly unseats somebody. “Good thing it hit me, not the bike” he says.

Fa’a Samoa is ‘the way’ of the islands. When you hear about a ‘way’ there is usually religion, as with the modern pilgrimages in Europe like El Camino Santiago. Here too are pilgrims. They are riding for reasons bigger than themselves. For the USO riders from Wellington (“Understand your Strength and Overcome”) there’s a determination to improve health for Maori and Pacific men and women. They want to be behind any initiative that does that. Someone else is honouring the memory of his late Samoan wife by riding her home roads. Chris T’eo from Wellington reached the age of 42 and was not pleased when he stepped on the scales. One day on a fun ride he was exhausted after 18 kilometres on the flat. Now he looks like The Rock. Most of the men and women here have something to prove. One rider’s wife and mother died from cancer.

They don’t seem wide-eyed with zeal. They laugh and joke and prank and drink like any other assemblage of sports men and women, there is nothing solemn about this procession around Samoa. But to tough out 30-degree heat on rough roads, to avoid traffic unused to cyclists travelling at speed, and – perhaps trickiest – to escape being bowled off your bike by one of Samoa’s two hundred thousand peripatetic pigs, this is a tour that needs a special determination.

Obstacles require inspiration. In Samoa there is no escaping inspiration; it’s everywhere, in the slogans for Jesus on the buses, the religious lights and flags in the villages, and in the multiplicity of worship venues. (Apia’s Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is one of the grander churches in the world, with medieval themes whisked across to the Pacific, the Virgin and apostles in stained glass among palm trees, with Mary as matai.)

At first there was no interest in the Ford Tour of Samoa. In the beginning, in 2014, was the word and not much else. Organiser Seti Afoa had given up on getting any entrants. Then came a call from Christian Wenger asking if the race was still on. Seti decided to go ahead, even though it would mean a financial loss. Christian lined up against three locals. Numbers improved in 2015, and the Tour of Samoa may now have reached critical mass. Seti still carries the loss, offset by his successful Samoa Swim Series. 2017 will likely see a small profit. Mike McKay, who placed third in 2016, loves the event because it is “thrilling”, full of the unknown, it heightens his awareness of life. The eventual race winner, Tim Robertson, in his victory speech, said “Out of the enduring comes a beauty and a peace, and it makes you a better person. Riding is freedom, and after you have ridden, the world seems a better place. The bike is the vehicle of freedom.”

You can ride this race as recreation: you will deter the dogs by shouting “Arloo!” (“Go!”) at them, which usually works. You will pedal slowly enough not to collide with pigs. You will have time to say “Talofa” as you cycle through pretty villages, and receive a hundred smiles back. You will stay at resorts that suit either your sense of adventure or your desire for comfort. Even at a sedate pace this ride has a curious extra dimension beyond the physical. The cyclists themselves have the usual mix of personal beliefs, probably reflecting Australasian agnosticism. But Seti Afoa tells a story about how his Swim Series got going.

You must swim between Upolu and Savai’i, a similar distance to Cook Strait. Seti enlisted two local swimmers to test the route, and they set off in perfect weather. Close to Savai’i the weather closed in, the rain swept the ocean, currents grew stronger, the waves became towering, and they could not, literally, see the large island they were only a few hundred metres from. Samoa is fringed by reefs, and this was serious. Did Seti pray? He didn’t say. What he saw was the inter-island ferry looming through the rain, heading for the safe gap in the reef. Furiously they swam for the spot, were carried by the surging waves through the gap, and they were safe.

When this tour is over, there is a curious addendum. If you have succumbed to heat on one of its stages, or had too many punctures, and for whatever reason you haven’t managed to complete part of it, there is a final Redemption Ride. You get up in the morning and make up the distance you didn’t cover. You can bail (certainly riders balked), but only one did not complete the requirement. It says something about the place this event is held in, and the small team who run it. There is one road to redemption around these two big islands, nearly every Samoan lives on that road. As a rider you feel intimate, in a sense, with their lives, and in many ways they have plenty to teach us about the right way to live, where family is everything, no-one goes hungry, and the bonds you are born into stay strong throughout life. It’s not the perfect society, but in these crucial ways it’s better than the one we have. Maybe that is some of the attraction for the palagi cyclists who will go there now in greater numbers.

By Jim Mora