The full route of the 2014 Giro d'Italia was announced in Milan yesterday, including full details of the three Irish stages that will make up the opening weekend of the three-week race next May.
The world's top riders will be presented to the public in Belfast on Thursday, May 8, ahead of a 22km team time trial around the city the next day.
Beginning at the Titanic Quarter, the teams will make their way down Newtownards Road, through Stormont where the first intermediate time check will be situated, before turning back along the same stretch of road towards a second time check on Oxford Street and the finish on Donegal Square.
Stage two leaves Titanic Belfast and will head north towards Ballymena and the Giants Causeway. The first King of the Mountains of the 2014 Giro will be decided on the fourth-category climb on the Cushendall Road after 125km, with the race hugging the coastline down to Larne and Carrickfergus before the finish in Belfast after 218km of racing.
Stage three will begin in Armagh and veer north before dropping into Richill and contesting the second mountain of the Giro at Markethill after 32km. This fourth-category climb will be followed by another at Fews Forest 20km later with the race heading south of the border at Forkhill and going through Castlebellingham, Dunleer and Drogheda.
After 137km, there will be an intermediate sprint in Balbriggan, the home town of Ireland's first ever world cycling champion Harry Reynolds, before the race continues along the coast towards Skerries, Lusk, Swords, Malahide, Portmarnock, Clontarf and the finish at Merrion Square, Dublin.
All three of Ireland's World Tour professionals – Nicolas Roche, Dan Martin and Philip Deignan – have expressed their eagerness to ride the race, while Mark Cavendish, Vincenzo Nibali, Ivan Basso, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans also look set to ride.
"As a professional, we never get to race at home now, apart from the national championships each year," said Roche yesterday. "So to be able to ride one of the most iconic races in the world, on Irish roads, in front of Irish fans... I think it's going to be really special for us Irish riders.
"I got my first underage victory in Dundalk as an U-14 rider, but I never imagined that I'd one day be riding through the same town as a professional on the Giro and maybe even doing it with my cousin (Martin) and one of my best friends in Irish cycling, Philip (Deignan). It will be a great opportunity for Irish fans to see the big names up close and personal."
Like Belfast, Dublin will hold a weekend-long Giro Festival at Merrion Square ahead of the race's arrival, which will include the Irish Cycling Show and an Italian food and wine expo.
The riders will transfer to Italy after the Dublin stage, where they will have an extra rest day before the three-week race kicks off again with a 121km stage from Giovinazzo to Bari on May 13.
Riders reacted well to a 'balanced route' which includes eight flat stages, nine mountain stages and three time trials, with race organisers having cut stage transfers after discussion with teams about this year's lengthy journeys between stages.
"I think the first stages in Ireland could be tough as it looks like it's all along the coast and it could be windy," said defending champion Nibali. "The winner will be someone who is comfortable on all terrains but the final week will be key."
The Giro ends in Trieste on June 1.