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Cyclists Start Grueling Tour de Timor

Cyclists from about 10 countries are competing in the first ever Tour de Timor, a five-day bicycle race across the Southeast Asian island nation of East Timor. The tour is being held in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia.

The president of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, attended the opening of the inaugural Tour De Timor, a 350-kilometer bicycle race across his island nation.

"We hope that everybody arrives intact, no broken arm or leg, or no bruises, no dehydration, and that everybody will be a winner in this race for peace," said Mr. Ramos-Horta. "That is the theme of this Tour De Timor."

The president hopes the race will showcase the progress East Timor has made to build peace and security in the decade since it voted for independence from Indonesia.

Erica Collins from Australia is one of 270 cyclists from 10 countries competing in the race. She was in East Timor before it became independent. She came in part to see how this nation of less than one million people has changed.

"I love it. It is totally different than last time I was here. Yeah, it is great," she said. "People are great. It's going to be a hard but fun race I think."

The five-day race takes the riders over dirt roads, dry river beds, forested highlands and finally a descent through rice paddies and coffee plantations. The most challenging leg of will come on day four when riders will climb almost 2,000 meters in altitude.

Before independence, East Timor, a former Portuguese colony annexed by Indonesia, suffered a long and bitter separatist war. The vote for independence set off weeks of violence by pro-Indonesia militias, until international forces came after the vote.

Since it gained independence, there has not been much good news out of East Timor. It has struggled with economic hardship and internal strife. Over 1,500 United Nations police now keep the peace here.

But Francelina Marques Cabral, the only woman from East Timor to qualify for the race, says this competition accentuates the positive side of her country.

"This is a good opportunity so the other people from the other countries can come and see how we develop our country and how we have a good relationship for the others and also I can learn from them," she said. "That is the important point."

As the horn sounds the race begins. In addition to testing their strength and endurance, the riders compete for $75,000 in prize money.