Cyclists roll out for Tour de Timor

DILI: Some 280 cyclists from around the world pedalled out of East Timor's presidential palace on Monday, on the first leg of the inaugural Tour de Timor.

The five-day race is a highlight of festivities surrounding the 10th anniversary of East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia.

Riders from about 10 countries, including 25 from East Timor, are competing in the 350-kilometre (218-mile) Tour, which promises to be one of the toughest in the world.

With a prize purse of 75,000 dollars it is the biggest sporting event ever hosted by East Timor.

"The weather is perfect -- very low humidity -- and when you get to the hills it's cooler, so I think it will be a very pleasant ride for you," President Jose Ramos-Horta told the competitors before the start.

Over nine districts the cyclists will face rock-strewn dirt roads, dry river beds, the forested highlands and finally a descent through rice paddies and coffee plantations back to Dili.

Australian Cameron Darragh said the biggest test would come on day four when riders climb almost 2,000 metres (6,560 feet) from the south coast to Maubisse in Ainaro district.

"I think people will be tired. There's a lot of climbing and the hills here are pretty unique," he said.

Canadian Sarah Brown was travelling in Australia when she heard about the tour and decided she couldn't miss it.

"It just sounded like an amazing event to partake in for world peace and seeing the country, and it's a way to get in with the culture," she said.

"The biggest challenge is going to be the hills and probably the heat," she added.

On August 30, 1999, East Timorese voted in a referendum on independence which overwhelmingly chose to split from Indonesia, ending a vicious 24-year occupation.

"It's a special kind of occasion, the first race, 10 years on from when East Timor made its path towards independence," Darragh said.