One of the world's most gruelling bicycle races started today from the capital of Timor-Leste, bringing together 450 participants, including 15 United Nations staff, who are taking on a six-day, 500-kilometre-long challenge across the country's unforgiving terrain.
The Tour de Timor, a unique event for peace hosted by President José Ramos-Horta and the Timorese Government, has been gaining acclaim since it began in 2009.
The Tour this year will take place over six days rather than the normal five as it will cover 500 kilometres of assorted roads and tracks, all the way from Dili, the capital, to the country's eastern-most district of Lautem. The 2011 Tour will leave behind last year's mountainous terrain to take in beaches and coastal landscapes instead.
“We were very proud of all 75 Timorese riders in 2010, especially the Da Costa brothers who regularly finished in the top 10,” said Mr. Ramos-Horta before the race began. “The 2011 Tour de Timor will display their hard work over the past 12 months and hopefully see our first podium finish.
“This year you will visit my childhood mountain village of Laclubar, as well as the spectacular far east of the country,” he told competitors.
The list of concerns for the riders is long, from road conditions and the steepness of the downhill grade to nutrition, the race's length, and safety.
Barbara Maria Rohmann, one of the two female UN racers in the event, wondered how far she can go. Ms. Rohmann, a UN human rights officer, expects that by participating in the race she and her teammates can contribute to building a more peaceful Timor-Leste by inspiring the population, especially the young people of the county.
“Each week I trained a little bit more,” said another participant, Toby Lanzer, the chief of staff at the UN peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). “During the past three months I have trained four days per week, going farther and farther each week, culminating with 450 kilometres on average each week over the past month.”
As the Tour de Timor enters its third year, there are set to be more challenges, more technical cycling stages – including a team time trial on day four – and more opportunities to see the positive benefits that the race is having on the local communities visited.
“The Tour takes a commitment to hope for a nascent country. The Tour is a poignant allegory of the endurance and camaraderie required for all of Timor-Leste to grow Dili and across the rural areas,” says Colin McInnes, a planning officer at UNMIT. “It is long, hard and can only be done one day at a time with a lot of help. It will be great fun.”