Conor Dunne's Giro d'Italia diary: 'Leaving my girlfriend and newborn son to race here is the hardest thing I've ever done'
May 11: Stage 1, an 8-kilometer individual time trial in Bologna
It's funny how life pans out.
Around 10 months ago, I thought my professional cycling career was over after just two years in the paid ranks.
After years of trying, I'd just won the national road race championships and was looking forward to an end of season campaign that included the Tour of Britain and the world championships when the call came that my team had folded and everything suddenly stopped.
With most teams having used up their budgets and signed their riders for the 2019 season by then, it was panic stations. I thought it was the end of the road. After riding my first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a Espana the year before, I was washed up at 26.
But I kept training, got to ride the world championships for Ireland, got handed a lifeline contract by the Israel Cycling Academy team and now, 10 months later, I've just become a dad for the first time and am making my debut in one of the world's biggest races, the Giro d'Italia.
Just over a week ago, I was a very tall bag of nerves, hovering bed-side as my girlfriend Stacey gave birth to our firstborn child in Waterford General Hospital. It was a magic moment to witness my son Jesse come into this world and while the dynamic duo recovered, I stayed bed-side for the next few days - some early morning training rides around the Comeragh mountains the only thing keeping me out of the hospital ward until they came home.
Stacey and I met almost five years ago when she was a soigneur for the An Post team and I was a rider. Initially, we became friends and didn't start dating for a good while after. She came to British team JLT-Condor with me in 2016 and although I've spent quite a lot of time on the road since, she has been beside me for most of it.
Although I was born in St. Albans, north of London, my nan is from Mayo and my grandad is from Offaly so I've been back and forwards to Ireland ever since I was a kid.
Stacey's home town of Carrick-On-Suir though, is where my heart lies and for the past few years I've put in countless miles along the coast road and over the Comeragh Mountains. Actually, that's what I've been doing the last month or so to get ready for this Giro.
Even though she was heavily pregnant, Stacey pampered and protected me in the build up to this race and it's no exaggeration to say that I wouldn't have made it to the start line without her. I have absolutely no doubt she is going to be a fantastic mother because she's been looking after the tallest baby in the world for years.
Stacey brought Jesse home last Sunday and leaving them three days later to come to this Giro was by far the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm not going to lie. No race comes close. There were a few tears shed before my flight from Dublin to Italy on Wednesday evening.
The flight was delayed by a couple of hours, so it was 2am by the time I arrived at our team hotel, an Italian version of the Holiday Inn, on the outskirts of Bologna.
After sneaking into the room and brushing my teeth in the dark in an effort not to wake my Canadian room-mate Guillaume Boivin, I went straight to bed.
Six hours later, I was woken for the usual pre-Grand Tour anti-doping test and after breakfast I did a two hour easy spin with my teammates before heading into town to represent the squad by hopping on a turbo-trainer alongside a member of each other team and competing in a virtual reality version of today's time trial course.
Upon riding back to the hotel afterwards, I realised I'd missed lunch so a big bowl of porridge took its place before massage and a pre-race team meeting where we went through our goals for the race, checked our bikes and, most importantly, transferred all of our bad weather kit into our second kit bag for the team car.
It's nice and sunny here now but the last thing you want two weeks into a stage race is to find yourself stranded on a mountain in a the middle of a storm with your winter gloves and rain jacket still tucked in your suitcase back at the hotel.
With that box ticked, we were off to the presentation, where thankfully we were second team on stage, didn't have to hang around long and were back at the hotel just in time for dinner and bed.
After a hectic few days, I'd already dozed off when the hotel fire alarm went off around 11pm.
Deciding it would be better for my first Giro participation to go down in flames than to waste any more energy getting out of bed, I just pulled the duvet up, stuck a pillow over my ears and ignored it.
After another easy training ride yesterday (Friday), the remainder of the day was spent trying to get as much rest as I could. I know from experience that this morning is the freshest I'm going to be for the next three weeks, so I made sure I got a lie-in too.
These days leading into the race can be more hectic than the race itself and it's often a relief to get into the rhythm and routine that comes with daily racing.
After days of hanging around the hotel and being pulled left, right and centre for meetings, photo shoots, presentations and interviews, I rolled down the start ramp in Bologna at 7pm this evening.
The start of the first stage of a Grand Tour is really special. That's when you know there's no going back. You've been sucked in the Giro's time vortex now and the next time you'll see reality is three weeks away.
As I clipped into my pedals I could hear my Mum and Dad shouting my name and managed to wave in their general direction before rolling down the ramp.
While some of the more serious contenders dabbled with bike changes today – using an aerodynamic time trial bike for the flat section, before changing onto a road bike for the two kilometre climb to the finish, I opted to ride my road bike today. I sort of regretted it just before the start but the mechanics would have killed me if I'd changed my mind.
It meant I wasn't the fastest on the flat but at least on the climb I felt a bit more comfortable - if you could call grinding my way to the top on a 39x32 gearing 'comfortable'. The climb to the finish was an absolute brute, a longer version of Seskin Hill in Carrick, so it was no surprise to see that the main contenders for overall victory filled the top spots on the stage.
It was also no surprise that I lost two minutes and 25 seconds to stage winner Primoz Roglic of Jumbo Visma.
My role here is to help the team try and win a stage. As a second division team, coming here on a wild card invitation, to beat all the bigger teams and get a stage win would be a dream come true for us. Massive.
My first opportunity to do that will be by helping our sprinter Davide Cimolai on tomorrow's opening road stage to Fuccechio.