Security worries keep world's cyclists away from Tour de Pakistan

One of the most gruelling cycling races in the world once attracted competitors from around the globe, but this year only Afghans are brave enough to join.

LAHORE // As one of the most gruelling cycling races in the world, the Tour de Pakistan once attracted competitors from around the globe. The punishing 1,685km biennial event, based on its French namesake, follows a course that snakes its way through the spectacular mountains of the North West Frontier Province before descending towards Karachi. Developed to promote cycling and to improve Pakistan's image as a serious sporting nation, cyclists from New Zealand and Germany joined those from the subcontinent and the Middle East.

But this year, due to increasingly poor security, the only other country that decided to participate was Afghanistan. "I like it here," said the Afghan cyclist Imtiaz Hassan, 19, speaking in Karachi yesterday where the final stage will finish today. "It all seems very familiar and when I came to Peshawar it did look a little bit like Afghanistan." Mr Hassan, for whom the race was his first trip across the border, is one of 62 cyclists who entered the event. He cycled for 13 days, starting from Peshawar, and rode across Rawalpindi, Gujrat, much of Punjab, Sukkur and other southern cities before ending up in Karachi. He was among the 31 cyclists who made it to the finish.

The shy teenager who speaks in monosyllables and shies away from giving interviews was the Afghan team's top performer. "For me it wasn't about winning or losing," he said. "It was about participating with our Pakistani brothers and developing a bond of brotherhood with them." Idrees Haider Khawaja, secretary of the Pakistan Cycling Federation, said they had wanted it to be an international event. "We invited teams from the region and we thought we had a good representation, but then it didn't turn out that way."

Mr Khawaja said teams from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Nepal confirmed and even sent the "passports and names of their team members, but ended up not showing up". In all, Mr Khawaja invited more than 50 foreign teams but only Afghanistan, one of the few nations where the cyclists probably live and ride in greater danger than the hosts, decided to take part. Though disappointed, Mr Khawaja said he could understand why regional teams were reluctant to participate.

Sport events in Pakistan have suffered hugely from the nation's escalating violence. Just over a year ago a deadly attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team's bus in Lahore, ended any hopes of the country hosting international matches of its beloved sport. In January, a suicide blast killed 101 people at a volleyball game in a north-west village. "There are genuine security concerns associated with sending a team here," said Mr Khawaja. "Especially after the attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, sportsmen are reluctant to come here."

But it was not just violence that put off potential competitors. The Pakistan Cycling Federation cannot even pay for their tickets or lodging. "We have no sponsors," said Waqar Ali, a board member of the federation. "Not even the government supports us and, as it is, the budget for sport in Pakistan is so limited that less popular sports like cycling get nothing. We are running this show purely out of passion and a desire to improve the state of sport in Pakistan."

But this desire to reach out to foreign cyclists did not stretch to India - the only regional team to be snubbed by the Pakistan federation. "After the way they treated the Pakistan cricket team in the Indian IPL, we thought we needed to show them that we will not take this attitude," said Mr Khawaja, referring to the recent Indian Premier League action where not one of the 11 Pakistani cricketers were sold. This incident was considered by many Pakistanis to be a public rebuff.

"As a board we decided not to engage them," Mr Khawaja said. One of the stars of the 15th Tour de Pakistan, Zahid Gulfan, 24, from Lahore, said he had enjoyed this race, but at times he also been scared with all that occurred during the 13 days. "There were killings in Karachi and bomb blasts in Lahore and yet we continued cycling across the country," he said. Mr Gulfan has been cycling for more than eight years, and said his passion is what carried him further. "In Pakistan, there is no support and no encouragement for sport," he said. "Those who do it, do it only because they enjoy it."

The race, which was divided into 11 stages, was scheduled to finish this morning at the Quaid's Mausoleum in Karachi. The prize money of US$10,000 (Dh37,000) will be divided among six winners. Though Mr Hassan from Afghanistan will not win, he made a mark by finishing first in three stages and also won the hearts of his fellow competitors. A top participant from Pakistan, Haroon Rashid who belongs to the Wapda team (Water and Power Development Authority) said he was impressed by the poise and confidence of the Afghan team. "They are also so patriotic," he said. "They don't care about what the world is saying about their country. They just want to do their best for Afghanistan."

* The National