That French Bike Race Might Seem Easy Compared to This One
The 1,000-Mile ‘Tour de Pakistan’ Finds Luring Foreigners Uphill Task; a $23 Cycle
SUKKUR, Pakistan—When the creators of the Tour de Pakistan launched Asia’s longest cycling race in 1983, they were inspired by the Tour de France, right down to the name of the event and the yellow jersey awarded to the leader. But there the similarities come to an abrupt halt.
The 58 participants in the Tour de Pakistan compete under armed escort given the ever-present threat of terrorism. They swerve around potholes and broken-down trucks and ride alongside rickshaws and donkey carts. Stages of the race take place on major highways and typically finish at gas stations, making gas-station attendants a significant portion of the few spectators on the trail. Stage winners are celebrated with rose petals, but instead of kisses from hostesses in summer dresses à la française, they get firm handshakes from mustachioed local officials in baggy tunics and pants.
Riding in the Tour de Pakistan View Slideshow
“This is a photocopy but not a clear one,” quips Syed Azhar Ali Shah, one of the organizers.
In a country where cricket is king, road cycling struggles to find its place. Smooth roads are rare; even the highways on occasion turn to rubble. Good bikes are hard to come by. And the sport’s favored tight shorts, available at sporting-goods stores, are at odds with the conservative national dress code.
Syed Atta-Ullah, 41 years old, is a cycling enthusiast from western Pakistan. For years, he has recorded the Tour de France on satellite television—“my craziness” as he calls it—and last year he decided to start training for this year’s Tour de Pakistan. Not all locals have been supportive of his effort.
“Everybody appreciates cycling in European countries,” he says. Here “when we are practicing they are throwing the stones. They think we are from another planet.”
This year’s edition of the Tour de Pakistan took riders from the southern metropolis of Karachi to the northern city of Abbottabad after 11 stages and more than 1,000 miles. Money is too tight to organize mountain stages so in a country that is home to the world’s second-highest peak, the course is mostly flat.
Lack of funding has been a chronic issue for the event, and during its 28-year existence it has been held only 16 times. With a budget from the government of less than $60,000 and virtually no sponsorship, organizers have to be creative: Accommodation for cyclists ranges from courthouse buildings to a sugar mill. In early March, days before the start of this year’s race, Idris Haider Khawaja, the race director, considered halving the $10,000 prize money—which is split among the top 10 finishers—to help cover expenses, but decided against it.
Mr. Khawaja figures that sponsors would line up if only he could attract foreign riders. But that’s an uphill task with a raging Islamist insurgency responsible for bombings throughout the country. Mr. Khawaja says no one has ever attacked riders during the competition.
Still, Indians didn’t get permission from their government to participate; Sri Lankans and Nepalese couldn’t be enticed with free airfare; and Westerners were scared, he says. Ferdinand Bruckner, an Austrian cyclist, competed in Serbia during its war with Kosovo and has ridden through rebel territory in Colombia. But Pakistan was a stage too far. He says he was originally tempted but eventually backpedaled.
“If I win a stage or I’m the leader in this Tour, it could be that certain persons don’t like it,” he says. “In Pakistan it’s possible that we can be a target.”
The Tour secured the participation of one foreign team: Afghanistan. With a 10-year-old war at home, the five members of the Afghan team say they feel perfectly safe in Pakistan.
“In Afghanistan the situation is not good, and the security is not good,” said 24-year-old Afghan rider Hashmatullah Tookhy. “In Pakistan, the whole time we relax.”
All participants start the day with a breakfast of spicy omelets and lentils before riding up to 125 miles in 90-degree heat. Four of the nine Pakistani teams are fielded by government agencies and equipped with good-quality bikes. The remainder is made up of students, laborers and jobless cyclists who often struggle to find functioning bicycles. Taifoor Zareen, 20, said he paid about $23 for his bike.
“It’s the cheapest bike in the race, but I’m grateful that I got this bike,” he said.
And he should be. On another bike, one of his teammates couldn’t shift gears during the entire first stage.
Cyclists who fall behind the pack find themselves quickly immersed in regular highway traffic. That isn’t without advantages, as they can find some benefit in the draft of slow-moving trucks to keep up effortlessly—but that often comes at a price. When asked if he was afraid of being disqualified after being spotted in the draft of a truck during the race’s second stage, Awon Raza, 20, replied: “No, this is Pakistan. Everything is allowed!”
As it turned out, Mr. Raza was prevented from taking part in the race the next day for his infraction.
There is one problem the Tour de Pakistan has in common with its French counterpart: doping. Last year’s winner was prevented from taking part this year because he tested positive in another competition, said Mr. Khawaja, the race director.
Doping tests being prohibitively expensive, organizers of the Tour de Pakistan say they can conduct a handful at most. “If I think something is up, then I’ll take two or three samples,” said Mr. Khawaja. “We want to finish this stupid thing—the doping.”
This year, Sabir Ali, 24, from Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority team, won the overall race in 44 hours, 35 minutes and 45 seconds—or just a little less time than it took the Afghan team to drive from Kabul to Karachi.
Write to Nicolas Brulliard at firstname.lastname@example.org