It's often said that sport and politics don't mix, although the inaugural Tour de Timor hopes to display the role one sport, cycling, can play in the progression of a nation. The August 24-28 mountain bike event takes riders on a journey through the ruggedly beautiful landscape of the world's newest independent state.
The event coincides with the 10th anniversary of the referendum that allowed for the process of East Timor's independence to begin. On August 30, 1999, in a UN-supervised popular referendum, a majority of East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia, sparking pro-Indonesian militia into action.
The militias - organised and supported by the Indonesian military - went on a killing rampage; after an estimated 1,400 deaths an United Nations intervention force led by Australian troops was required to quell the violence in September that year. After a massive nation re-building effort the nation was officially independent on May 20, 2002.
Seven years later, the decision was made to host the country's first international cycling event, calling on riders from traditional sporting nations such as Australia and New Zealand to compete. The result? The Tour de Timor, taking riders on a 455km trek that leaves the Presidential Palace in the capital, Dili, on August 24 and heads to Old Baucau, Viqueque, Manu-Fahi and Maubisse before returning to Dili on August 28.
Regular earthquakes and fledgling infratructure mean that conditions on the road will be challenging. The race organsation warns the expected 300 riders: "I drove through potholes that were 40cm deep and the whole length of the Land Cruiser [a rugged 4WD vehicle] fitted into the pothole. And it covered the entire width of the road. Similarly I drove through 20km of dirt track with both sides of the bush brushing the vehicle.
"The roads will be closed to traffic, and there will be police escorts ensuring this will happen. However, don't expect miracles and always be prepared for a small bus or truck sneaking onto the course. Unfortunately the Police can't stop the water buffalo, chickens, pigs, dogs, cats and small children from wandering onto the road. Maintaining road awareness is critical."
There's more than just a competitive agenda for riders in the race, although a US$15,000 prize purse for the winner will ensure that the pace is on. But it's more than just finding a victor, however, as East Timor's President and Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr José Ramos-Horta, explained.
"The Tour de Timor will be a mixture of elite international athletes who will be competing fiercely for the top places of this event and many other riders who will be engaged in the experience with unforgettable memories that they will gain from meeting the people of Timor-Leste as they explore the beautiful scenery of this country," said Dr Ramos-Horta.
The event also coincides with the release of a new film - titled 'Balibo' - documenting the story of the Balibo Five. In 1974 a group of five journalists and cameramen was killed by invading Indonesian military forces, the event a tragic stain in the relations between Australia and Indonesia. The film will be shown each evening in an open-air cinema.
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