A tense duel between Australian cyclists marked the climax to the gruelling Tour de Timor on Friday, with Neil Van Der Ploeg pedalling to victory despite a narrow loss in the final stage.
Van Der Ploeg, a 21-year-old student, lost by a few metres in the final 92.5-kilometre (57.5 mile) haul back to East Timor's capital Dili to fellow Australian Mark Frendo, who came third overall.
Another Australian, Benjamin Grieve-Johnson, came second in the five-day, 450-kilometre, all-amateur race across the tiny half-island.
"It feels great, it's a bit surreal really. It hasn't sunk in yet. It's so different to what I'm used to, all the media around and stuff. It's good fun," Van Der Ploeg said after crossing the line to secure his title and US$15,000 in prize money.
The race, the first of its kind in the tiny country, is part of celebrations in the lead up to the 10th anniversary on Sunday of East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia, whose 24-year occupation cost around 100,000 lives.
Van Der Ploeg said the Tour's rugged terrain of dirt roads, dry river beds, forested highlands and plantations was the toughest he had experienced -- particularly the almost 2,000 metre (6,560 feet) climb from the south coast to Maubisse in Ainaro district on day four.
"That was the hardest climb I've ever done and then today was also just really tough. That last 10 kilometres was just the hardest I've ever worked," he said.
Australian Tory Thomas, who scooped US$5,000 as the top female rider, told AFP the Tour de Timor was "more than a race -- it was like a real adventure".
Four flat tyres, a bout of diarrhoea and heat stress weren't enough to deter Thomas from finishing the tour, she said.
© 2009 AFP