With pedal power, UN staff take part in race to change perceptions about Timor-Leste

Bikers at the opening of the Tour-de-Timor

24 August 2009 – It may lack the glamour or the pedigree of the Tour de France, but the inaugural Tour de Timor – which starts today in the capital, Dili – can probably claim to be a more gruelling race than its storied peer, with potholes, dirt roads, slippery river crossings and uneven off-road routes to unnerve even the most experienced cyclists.

Over the next five days about 330 entrants from nine countries will contest the 455-kilometre course that criss-crosses the small South-East Asian country before returning to Dili on Friday. They will also be part of efforts to change perceptions about Timor-Leste and show a new side to the fledgling State.

The field, which will be bidding for a share of $75,000 in total prize money, includes 24 cyclists with the United Nations Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), which is also providing logistical support to race organizers and helping national police maintain security along the course.

Alexandra Covarrubias of Mexico, who works in UNMIT’s information technology section, says she entered the race as “a personal challenge.” She is part of an all-female team, one of six entered by the mission in the race.

Ms. Covarrubias contested a 75-kilometre event in Timor-Leste two years ago and surprised herself at finding how easy it was, despite the country’s undulating terrain, energy-sapping humidity and poor road network. Nevertheless, she insists her goal this week is just to finish given the tough nature of the course, which at one stage will force riders to a height of about 2,000 metres above sea level as it crosses the mountains.

“I’m sure it’s going to be really hard,” says Ms. Covarrubias, who has worked in Timor-Leste for two-and-a-half years. “It’s not really about competing to win – it’s just going to be a pleasure to participate. This is just an excellent opportunity for giving back to Timor and for knowing the place where I’m working.”

Ms. Covarrubias says she is not sure whether the heat and humidity or the state of the roads will be the greatest challenge during the race, which is being held to coincide with the celebrations later this month to mark the tenth anniversary of the UN-organized Popular Consultation of 1999, in which the Timorese voted to determine their future.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Timor-Leste and head of UNMIT, Atul Khare, says that the fact that the country is staging the race, following the violent unrest of 2006, “speaks volumes for the progress made over the past three years. Tour de Timor will be a showcase for the friendliness and energy of the Timorese people, and the beauty of this island nation.”

In each town where a leg of the race ends, a day-long festival of peace will be held, featuring concerts, theatre, art work and other sporting activities.

Ms. Covarrubias says she hopes that she and her fellow competitors can serve as role models of a kind, helping to change international perceptions about Timor-Leste and its people.

“I think this is also an opportunity for the Timorese as well… For example, when I first came here and started going jogging, you would never see Timorese doing that. Now you do. This kind of healthy participation is important. People are going to see what they are capable of.”


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