Cycling: Roche hails Ireland's 'fantastic' Giro coup
Irish cycling fans will be in the pink next week with official news expected that the Giro d'Italia's opening weekend, or 'Grande Partenza', is coming to Ireland next year.
The Giro d'Italia was first run in 1909 and is the world's second-biggest bike race, with only the Tour de France, which was established six years earlier, rated higher among cycling fans.
While the yellow pages of French newspaper and race promoter 'l'Auto' inspired the Tour's race leader's jersey, the iconic pink leader's jersey of the Giro also came from its original promoter, the Italian newspaper 'La Gazzetta dello Sport', which was printed on pink paper.
The Giro is now run by RCS Sports under the guidance of new race director Michele Aquarone. The company also organises races such as Milan-San Remo, Tirenno-Adriatico and the Tour of Lombardy. It also runs golf's Italian Open, the Milan Marathon and looks after the commercial interests of the Italian football and basketball national teams.
The Giro has broadened its horizons in recent years, following the Tour de France's established pattern of starting outside its home country every second year. Race organisers famously held talks to hold last year's opening weekend in Washington DC before opting for the logistically easier challenge of Copenhagen in Denmark.
Next year's Irish start has been supported by both governments in the North and the Republic and has the backing of the Northern Irish Tourist Board, Failte Ireland and Belfast City Council.
The cross-border bid is thought to have been put together by former Tour of Ireland race director Darach McQuaid and his Shadetree Sports company and while it is set to cost an estimated €4.5m to stage, the three-day extravaganza is expected to attract fans and media attention from all over the world and to return around €12m to the economy here.
Although teams have yet to be invited to compete in the 2014 edition, Irish riders Nicolas Roche, Dan Martin, Philip Deignan, Martyn Irvine, Stephen Clancy and Matt Brammeier could all potentially be on the start line when the race gets under way in Belfast.
Roche and Martin's Saxo-Tinkoff and Garmin-Sharp teams would qualify automatically as part of the World Tour, while the United Healthcare team of Deignan and Irvine, Clancy's Team Novo Nordisk and the Champion Systems squad of national champion Brammeier would have to rely on wild-card invitations from Aquarone as they are currently ranked as continental professional or second division teams.
"It would be fantastic to get such a big race to Ireland," said Roche. "The Giro was my first three-week tour back in 2007. I've lived in Italy for years and I have an Italian girlfriend.
"I'm sure Ireland would put a fantastic show on for the Giro, so while it's obviously too early to know if I would be riding, I'll be the first one to put my hand up for it when they're picking the team."
Although it's highly unlikely at this stage in time, theoretically Sean Kelly's An Post team, which includes a number of young Irish riders, could also make the start if they upgraded from their current third division status next year and managed to secure one of the race's four wild-card invites.
This year's Giro starts in Naples on May 4 with defending Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins announcing recently that he will be focusing on the Italian tour instead of defending his Tour de France title this year.
"The Giro d'Italia is my new challenge, my new inspiration," said Wiggins recently. "It's the new flame that burns inside of me. I love the pink jersey. For me it's iconic. I think that to win it will be harder than the Tour."