Northern Ireland prepares for the Italian invasion
"The Irish people don't yet realise how big the Giro is but it's huge and and it’s coming to Ireland" - Stephen Roche
The Giro d'Italia is often considered cycling's most beautiful race and so Northern Ireland - a country with a turbulent history in stark contrast to the natural beauty it has in abundance - is an altogether fitting host for the 2014 Grande Partenza.
When the Giro arrives in Northern Ireland in early May for three days of racing that will see two stages take place in Ulster before a third to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, it will be only the 11th time the Grand Tour has started outside of Italy and the first time beyond mainland Europe.
One man who will watch on with pride is Dubliner Stephen Roche, winner of the race in 1987 at the start of an annus mirabilis which saw him become one of only two riders, after Eddy Merckx, to win cycling's Triple Crown - the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France and the World Road Race Championship in the same year.
"The Giro is just as big as the Tour de France," Roche tells RoadCyclingUK during our visit to Northern Ireland to check in on preparations for the start of the 95th edition of the race. "When London hosted the start of the Tour de France in 2007 it started the cycling revolution. The Giro can have the same effect here."
Our interview with Roche is taking place at the Causeway Hotel, a stone's throw from Northern Ireland's most iconic tourist attraction, the Giant's Causeway, which the race will pass on stage two. One of Northern Ireland greatest exports - besides the whiskey produced in the nearby Old Bushmills Distillery - is its natural beauty and few sports offer a better platform to showcase that than cycling. The open road is cycling's arena and for three days in May, Northern Ireland will be its Wembley Stadium and it's for that reason that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board sought to bring the race to its shores.
The race will open with a 21.7km team time trial in Belfast which will showcase the city's tourist attractions, and provide an early shake-up of the general classification on a fast course which includes a short climb to the Parliament Buildings at Stormont, before a 218km road stage which leaves the capital and take a direct route north, through Antrim, Ballymena and Ballymoney, before following one of the world's most scenic roads, the Causeway Coastal Route, back to Belfast.
Our visit gave us a chance to take in a 60-mile stretch of the Causeway Coastal Route and it's a breathtaking stretch of tarmac which, even when viewed through a red mist of torrential rain and gale-force winds, is genuinely jaw-dropping.
The race joins the Causeway Coastal Route east of Portrush and diverts briefly inland through Bushmills before returning to within a stone's throw of the water at Ballintoy, where a short hair-pinned climb - which itself will be a fine place to watch the race - will briefly take riders back to the Dolomites and Alps. The view that will open up before the peloton on Saturday May 10 is remarkable - with the jagged cliff dropping sharply into the white horses of the Atlantic Ocean, and Rathlin Island in the distance - and viewers at home will be able to drink in the panoramic vista beamed back by the television helicopter.
Ireland’s is a brutal beauty. The Causeway Coastal Route is often exposed to the fierce prevailing south-westerly wind which howls across this northernmost point of the country. Having passed through Ballycastle, the road climbs for six kilometres - one of two category four ascents on the route - but at a gentle gradient which will cause no concern for the peloton. The wind, however, is another factor.
"The Causeway is not particularly long but how long does it have to be to cause mayhem?" says Roche, who recalls stage 13 of last year's Tour de France, when a seemingly innocuous transition stage saw Saxo-Tinkoff take advantage of a strong crosswind to rip the race to shreds. Mark Cavendish won on the day and the man Saxo-Tinkoff were riding for, Alberto Contador, gained one minute and nine seconds on race leader Chris Froome.
Those seconds would turn out to have little impact on the overall race, with Contador slipping out of contention for the title on Mont Ventoux and eventually falling off the podium on the penultimate stage in the Alps, but it exposed the first - and only - chink in Froome's armour.
“Saxo-Tinkoff got on the front, caused an echelon and blew the stage apart," says Roche. "That could very easily happen on the Causeway and cause ructions."
— George Scott (@georgetscott) February 25, 2014
It says much about the conditions that beset our ride that we were glad to turn into a howling headwind once we reached the village of Cushendun after a nerve-shredding descent buffeted by a gale-force crosswind and with a front wheel wavering nervously towards the side of the road.
Conditions that beset our ride in February are unlikely to be as severe in May, and Roche expects the race to stay together for a bunch sprint in Belfast, but teams will have to be on their toes should be the wind be blowing on stage two.
“I can see it being a sprint but the applecart could be upset by a strong crosswind on the Causeway," says Roche, who believes any breakaway will be kept on a tight leash so early in the race. Stage three, he says, is likely to be more straight forward, with a bunch sprint expected in Dublin.
The Causeway is not particularly long but how long does it have to be to cause mayhem? The applecart could be upset by a strong crosswind on the Causeway
“If somebody goes away then everybody will be chasing because the sprinters' [teams] are going to try and keep it together. At the start of a major Tour, no-one wants the jersey to go too far away because during the first week, before they get to the mountains, it can be anyone's glory day by pulling on the pink jersey. Nobody wants to let the maglia rosa get out of reach because they could have a chance of getting it tomorrow or the day after. Everyone's always very ambitious."
Two riders who will go into the race with significant ambitions are Roche's son, Nicolas, who is likely to lead the Tinkoff-Saxo team, and his nephew, Garmin-Sharp's Dan Martin.
Both will start the race in pursuit of a high overall placing - Roche finished fifth and won a stage at the 2013 Vuelta a Espana, while Martin won a mountain stage of last year's Tour de France and finished 33rd overall while riding in support of Andrew Talansky. The two riders will dream of wearing the pink jersey on home roads and [Stephen] Roche believes both have a shot during the opening team time trial. “When they go on the start line they're always motivated," he says, “but they'll be extra motivated to do well here in Belfast because it's an opportunity to ride on home soil in front of a home crowd."
“Whereas in previous years they might have arrived at the Giro 80 per cent fit, and ride themselves in, this year they'll be coming at 95 per cent fit and hoping to take the race in two stages - the Grand Partenza and then into the race for real."
“Both of them can dream to do well in the overall classification, both of them are able to win a stage - especially Dan - but at the same time they won't want to miss out on the chance to wear the pink jersey on home ground. Both teams are strong in team time trials, so either one of them could do really well." Both Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin have built up significant reputations in their own right but Stephen Roche remains Ireland's most famous cycling son. The first of Roche's Triple Crown victories, his Giro triumph in June 1987, has earned him a place in Giro d'Italia folklore and saw the 54-year-old inducted into the race's Hall of Fames in February this year.
Roche's joins five-time champion Eddy Merckx (1968, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1974) and three-time winner Felice Gimondi (1967, 1969, 1976) in the Hall of Fame but while the two riders have eight victories between them, Roche's single triumph is one of the most memorable in the race's long history.
Roche took the pink jersey from shoulders of his team-mate, Roberto Visentini, after disobeying team orders on stage 15, a 224km mountain stage to Sappada, and overhauled a deficit of more than three minutes to pull on the maglia rosa. He would defend the jersey all the way to the finish in the Saint-Vincent with the support of just one Carrera team-mate, Eddy Schepers, and despite facing the scorn of Visentini, who threatened to crash into Roche, and the Italian tifosi, who Roche later said spat rice and wine in his face for the rest of the race.
“It was a difficult event that year and there was a lot of controversy around it, but I've been back many times and I've even had a private audience with the Pope because of that Giro d'Italia," says Roche.
“It was difficult on the day of the Sappada and the days after it but things got better. Roberto Visentini was doing a lot of talking but I was still up there, giving it to him blow-for-blow. When the race ended even some Italian journalists said that the strongest man won.
“It was a difficult time but I have extraordinary memories of the different battles I had. A lot happened and I could write a book on all the experiences in that one Tour of Italy."
Fast forward to 2014 and while the names may have changed, the drama of the Giro d'Italia remains. Roche identifies Nairo Quintana, the Movistar rider who finished second behind Chris Froome (Team Sky) on his Tour de France debut in 2013, as the pre-race favourite but he is relishing the prospect of a stellar line-up, set to include the likes of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), pitching up in Ireland for the first Grand Tour of the season.
But it's not just Roche eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Giro. It will be the biggest single event - sporting or otherwise - that Northern Ireland has ever hosted. The Giro d'Italia is expected to generate £10 million in media coverage, 42,000 tourists are estimated to flock to the Grande Partenza and the country is set to turn pink to welcome the race.
Taxis in Belfast have been given a makeover in the iconic pink of the year’s first Grand Tour, a chip shop in County Antrim has changed the colour of its fish to capture the spirit of the race, and the coastal town of Laarne, which features on the route of stage two, has launched a ’12 Days of Pink’ campaign to celebrate the arrival of one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
“People don't realise how big the Giro is," says Roche, “but when it happens and they see the scale of the race and the entourage it brings, then they'll realise," says Roche. "The Giro is huge and it's coming to Ireland."
The Irish people don't yet realise how big the Giro is but it's huge and and it’s coming to Ireland