Real Giro dividend will come later on
Irish cycling hopes to rekindle interest with visit of big race
Eyebrows will be raised this week when the Giro d'Italia starts in Belfast and heads for Italy via the Armagh Coast, Dundalk, Dublin and a lengthy air transfer.
But bizarre as it may sound, this will be building on a long tradition in the race that cycling fans consider second only to the Tour de France. The 1973 Giro featured a Belgian start, and meandered into its homeland via Germany, Luxembourg, France and Switzerland, a series of stages immortalised in the classic film Stars and Watercarriers.
The Giro adopted foreign partenze later than its French counterpart – 1965 against 1954 for the Tour – but in recent years they have become more common as the Italian race strives to build its fanbase abroad in the same way the Tour has managed. The road to Belfast has taken the Giro via Athens in 1996, Holland in 2002 and 2010, Belgium in 2006, and Herning, Denmark, in 2012, but the final leg actually began in, of all places, the United States.
The Giro's start in Ireland was inspired by an abortive attempt to have the race visit Washington DC, a Holy Grail which major Tour organisers have flirted with for many years but none have actually clasped. Nothing came of that, but one of the middlemen involved was Darach McQuaid, the brother of the then International Cycling Union president, Pat McQuaid. Not surprisingly, it all got Darach McQuaid thinking.
"I had a conversation with Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach," McQuaid explained. "He was in Washington for St Patrick's Day and so was I. When I cornered him at the White House, he said he liked the idea."
That was one element; another was the resurgence in the Northern Irish economy after the peace process, and in particular the opening of the Titanic centre in 2012. Showcase events were needed, and the Giro is one such.
The total outlay is about €6m to host the Giro but the expectation is that, as is always the case with foreign Grand Tour starts, that will be recouped by inward tourist traffic, both in the short and longer term. There is also a political message in that this is a cross-border event.
The most radical consequence of the Belfast partenza, in actual cycling terms, is that the race will begin this Friday evening, rather than on the Saturday as is usual, to allow for the extra day's travel that is needed to get the race back to Italy. The team time trial from the Titanic centre to Donegall Square via Stormont is brief at just 21.7km, and will establish an initial pecking order.
Stage two is more significant, a 218km loop northwards along the Antrim Coast road, past the Giant's Causeway and Rathlin Island, before returning south to Belfast through Ballymena. It is almost bound to end in a mass sprint finish, as is Sunday's slightly shorter run southwards from Armagh to Dublin city centre.
This is not the first time that Ireland has hosted a major Tour start.
The Grand Depart in Dublin in 1998 has been described by Darach McQuaid as "a disaster", although it was a popular success. That Tour is infamous for a major drugs scandal but in a purely Irish context it failed to relaunch the sport, which had dipped commercially after the golden era in the 1980s which included Stephen Roche's Giro win.
Irish cycling is in a better place now. McQuaid is optimistic a professional Tour of Ireland can be relaunched on the back of the Giro start; critically, the Giro has three home riders in its field. Two of them, Daniel Martin – who has a realistic if outside chance of tilting for overall victory – and Nicolas Roche, who leads the Saxo-Tinkoff team, can be expected to make their mark before the Giro finishes in Trieste on 1 June.
Philip Deignan, who rides for Team Sky, shone in 2009 when he won a stage in the Tour of Spain, and is now on the comeback trail. Sadly, the Giro will not include the most exciting Irish talent, the sprinter Sam Bennett; he has won two major professional races this year at the age of 23, but his NetApp-Endura team has not been invited to the Giro.
Sunday Indo Sport