Irish eyes are smiling
A Grande Partenze on the Emerald Isle
The Giro d’Italia may be synonymous with the color pink, but for three days in May, green will be the color of the Italian race.
For the first time ever, the Giro’s “Grande Partenza” (Big Start) will be held outside of mainland Europe, instead routed along the green hills and lush landscapes of the Emerald Isle. The first two stages will start and finish in Belfast, the capital of British-ruled Northern Ireland. Stage 1, held Friday, May 9, sees a team time trial through the downtown streets of Belfast, while stage 2 will travel out to the scenic coastline of Northern Ireland and then back to the capital city. Both stages will start at Titanic Belfast, near the spot where the infamous passenger liner was built, and will finish at Donegall Square, in front of Belfast City Hall.
Stage 3 travels south, from the small town of Armagh, just outside of Belfast, across the border into the Republic of Ireland, finishing in the capital city of Dublin. The following morning riders will take a chartered flight to Bari, in Southern Italy, near the heel of the boot, with stage 4 starting in Giovinazzo on May 13.
Bringing the Giro to Ireland was an endeavor with multiple intentions. Underwritten largely by Northern Ireland Tourism, the Grande Partenza will serve as a worldwide postcard, showcasing the beauty of Northern Ireland, and, hopefully attracting a new generation of tourists — a source of revenue the area has lacked since the heyday of what the Irish refer to simply as “The Troubles,” the ethno-nationalist conflict between Catholics and Protestants that killed thousands between the late 1960s and the late ’90s.
It’s been more than 15 years since the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an accord between the British and Irish governments, as well as eight political parties from Northern Ireland, which ended the conflict and brought much needed peace to the region. In the period since the Good Friday Agreement, Belfast has undergone a social, economic, and cultural transformation, through concerted efforts toward improving its cultural reputation.
The opening team time trial will highlight many of Belfast’s attractions; it will not, however, pass through West Belfast, and it will not include Falls Road, the nationalist (Catholic) neighborhood that saw some of the worst violence of The Troubles. Colorful wall murals that commemorate revolutionary figures, both from Ireland and abroad, decorate buildings on Falls Road, making it a popular tourist attraction, while a “Peace Wall” still separates Falls Road with neighboring Shankill Road and its predominantly unionist (Protestant) neighborhood.
Paul Maskey, a Member of Parliament for West Belfast representing the Irish Republican party Sinn Féin, voiced his displeasure of the route’s bypassing Falls Road, telling BBC, “The image of cyclists going up and down Falls Road would send out a massive positive signal right across the world. This is about advertising the city. This is about promoting the city, and nowhere else can do it better than the Falls Road. I think it’s a shame that [the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment] have excluded West Belfast from this competition. What we will see is all other parts of the city being touched and being seen worldwide, except West Belfast, and it is just not good enough.”
Additionally, political parties in Northern Ireland are under pressure to agree to a pact to remove all election posters during the Giro d’Italia, which is held 11 days before voting takes place on European and local government elections.
In addition to promoting tourism, Northern Ireland leaders hope that bringing cycling into the spotlight will promote cycling as a viable form of alternative transportation — a solution for traffic problems as well as health and fitness.
“We need to create an environment which invites people to walk and cycle as much as possible,” Danny Kennedy, minister for Regional Development, told BBC after visiting the cycling-friendly cities of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Malmo, Sweden. “It has been very impressive to see at first hand how ‘normal’ cycling is for the majority of the populations in these cities. People [there] cycle for convenience because the infrastructure is so good. There are miles of wide cycle lanes, all with excellent links across the cities and out to the suburbs with easy access to public transport. The knock-on effects are a healthier population putting less strain on health services. That is my vision for Northern Ireland.”
All eyes on Ireland
Only one Irish rider, Stephen Roche, has ever won the Giro d’Italia. Roche did it during his incredible 1987 season, when he became one of only two riders to have accomplished pro cycling’s “triple crown,” winning the Giro, the Tour de France, and the world road championship in the same year.
Sean Kelly, Ireland’s most accomplished racer of all time, did not pay much attention to the Giro during his career, instead focusing his efforts on the spring classics and the Tour de France. Kelly experienced plenty of success in Italy, however, winning Milano-Sanremo twice, and the Giro di Lombardia on three occasions — Italian monuments managed by Giro owners RCS Sport.
Both men will be on hand at the Grande Partenza in Belfast. And while only one man will wear the maglia rosa after the opening team time trial on May 9, for two riders, the opportunity to wear the race leader’s jersey on home soil will, no doubt, fuel their efforts. Roche’s son, Nicolas, is a professional with Tinkoff-Saxo; Garmin-Sharp’s Daniel Martin is Stephen Roche’s nephew, the son of his sister, Maria. Both men are outside contenders for the podium in Trieste, and both will aim to don the pink jersey in Belfast, becoming the first Irish rider to lead the Giro in its first visit to Ireland. (A third Irish rider at the WorldTour level, Philip Deignan of Team Sky, crashed and broke his collarbone in mid-February, jeopardizing his chances of making Sky’s final Giro team selection, but was confirmed for the team’s roster in late April.)
“As soon as I heard the Giro was coming to Ireland, I put my hand up and said I wanted to ride it,” Roche told Irish cycling website Stickybottle.com. “To be able to ride one of the biggest races in the world in Ireland, on some of the roads I raced on as an underage rider, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I think having the Giro in Ireland is going to be really special for both the riders and the Irish fans. I’m really looking forward to it.”
A city with an urban population of about 500,000, Belfast has produced its fair share of famous citizens, including singer Van Morrison, actor Liam Neeson, and writer C.S. Lewis. The profile of the flat and fast 21.7km team time trial course has but one significant rise — the hill that leads to the Parliament Buildings, commonly referred to as Stormont because of their location in the Stormont area. Total elevation gain on the rise up to the Parliament Buildings is less than 200 feet, covered over about one kilometer.
Along the TTT route, the race caravan will pass murals on Newtownards Road commemorating the Titanic, as well as murals depicting scenes from Lewis’ book series, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The course will pass the many bars and restaurants of the trendy Ormeau Road neighborhood, as well as Stranmillis, an area in south Belfast popular with tourists for its proximity to the Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens. The finish line is at Belfast City Hall, where U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have both delivered speeches to city residents.
With a race leader determined, stage 2 will see the team of the maglia rosa, as well as those belonging to the sprinters, at the head of the peloton as it heads north, looping back to Belfast along the scenic Causeway Coast, a stretch of green, jagged coastline that rivals California’s Big Sur and Australia’s Great Ocean Road as one of the most scenic coastal roads in the world.
As the peloton reaches the Atlantic coast it will pass through Bushmills, home to the famous Old Bushmills Distillery, which dates back to 1608, when King James I of England granted Captain Thomas Phillips a license to distill whiskey. The route then passes the iconic Giant’s Causeway before it makes its way along the North Antrim Coast. Renowned for its hexagonal-shaped columns of layered basalt, the result of a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago, the Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Coastal winds could wreak havoc on the peloton along the Causeway Coastal Route — the rugged coastline, traversing the Glens of Antrim, where HBO’s fantasy drama “Game of Thrones” is shot on location — and rainstorms are not uncommon. The stage’s only significant climb, up and over Cushendall Road, comes with 83km remaining; it could cause problems for the sprinters, but is likely too far from the finish to cause major separation. However this is a stage that will be completely dependent on the weather; the seaside ride back into Belfast could be a sunny jaunt along the coast, or a breakneck battle in sideways rain and wind.
Like stage 2, stage 3 is likely another for the sprinters. It begins in Armagh, known as the “Orchard of Ireland” and home to two cathedrals dedicated to Saint Patrick. The rolling countryside roads outside of Armagh are similar to the vineyard hills found in Italy’s Tuscany region; the stage 3 course barrels over a few cat. 4 climbs early, and then hugs the coastline en route to its finish in Dublin’s Merrion Square. A city with an urban population of just over one million, Dublin has a world famous literary history, having produced prominent literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, and James Joyce. Dublin is also the birthplace of rock band U2, actors Colin Farrell and Gabriel Byrne, and, of course, Guinness Irish stout.
In January, Martin took some time out to visit Dublin’s Merrion Square, where stage 3 will finish.
“I did a bit of a recon of the Giro route by foot, walking up around Merrion Square and standing where the finish will be, and I’m already getting goose bumps,” the Garmin rider told VeloNews in January. “The reaction I’ve had when I’ve been home, people stopping me in the street, it’s been special. I think there’s going to be a huge buzz about the place. I don’t think people quite understand the level of the WorldTour here, all the glamor of the team buses, the bikes, and all the helicopters and all the vehicles. It’s just going to be immense. I think it’s going to bring a real buzz to Ireland and hopefully the boom in cycling here will increase even more, and the sport will become even more popular.”
For more, visit discovernorthernireland.com/giro2014.
Team Presentation: May 8, Belfast
Stage 1: May 9, Belfast — Belfast (21.7km TTT)
Stage 2: May 10, Belfast — Belfast (218km)
Stage 3: May 11, Armagh — Dublin (187km)
Back on home soil
After three eventful days in Ireland, the Giro d’Italia returns to the motherland on stage 4, starting and finishing on the Adriatic Sea on the heel of the Italian peninsula. After a rest day that included an air transfer, this short, flat stage will ease riders back into the rhythm of the race, starting in Giovinazzo and finishing in Bari, the town where they flew in 24 hours earlier, and will certainly be another day for the sprinters.
The “real Giro” begins on stage 5, a “medium mountain” day offering the first legitimate climbs of the race, including a pair of categorized climbs before the finish in Viggiano. From the start, in the coastal town of Taranto, riders will traverse the arch of “the boot” before heading inland, tackling the climbs of Murgitelle and Valico di Serra San Chirico before the uphill finish in Viggiano. This could be the first successful day for a breakaway, as the uphill finish will be too difficult for the sprinters, but not difficult enough for the main GC contenders, who will likely be more concerned with eyeing each other than they will be with a stage win. If it hasn’t already, the race lead will likely change hands in Viggiano.
Another medium mountain day, with another uphill finish, awaits the peloton on stage 6. The route from Sassano to Montecassino travels north, passing close by Pompeii and Naples before finishing on the ramps of Montecassino. This may, again, well be a day for the stage hunters, as the uphill finish won’t do the sprinters any favors.
After a flat stage 7 from Frosinone to Foligno, stage 8 will bring the race’s first true summit finish. This will likely be the moment when we finally see the overall contenders come to the fore. After starting in Foligno, the route travels north to the town of Montecopiolo. An 8km climb up the Cippo di Carpegna, which averages 8.3 percent and tops out just 36km from the summit in Montecopilo, will soften up the legs. The final push to the finish is actually two climbs — first the 9km climb to Villaggio del Lago, followed by a quick descent before another 7km climb. All said it’s a 19km haul, bottom to top, averaging 6.3 percent with a maximum gradient of 13 percent — the steepest section right at the finish line. Watch for the maglia rosa to again change shoulders.
Stage 9, from Lugo to Sestola will travel south and west, and will force the peloton to earn its second rest day. After a flat start, riders will roll over a pair of small categorized climbs before a summit finish in Sestola; the final 10.7km averages only 5.7 percent, with a steep section in the middle of the climb topping out at 13 percent. The final 4km section of four percent gradient at the top of the climb could allow dropped riders the possibility of catching back on. Time bonuses at the line may see GC riders sprinting to the line, with another possible change in race leadership setting the stage for the rest day.
Stage 4: May 13, Giovinazzo — Bari (121km)
Stage 5: May 14, Taranto — Viggiano (200km)
Stage 6: May 15, Sassano — Montecassino (247km)
Stage 7: May 16, Frosinone — Foligno (214km)
Stage 8: May 17, Foligno — Montecopiolo (174km)
Stage 9: May 18, Lugo — Sestola (174km)