Saturday 24 March 2018

Pink new world can't mask reminders of troubled past

Much has changed since Paul Kimmage first penned a Giro d'Italia diary in 1989

Dan Martin’s Garmin Sharp team before his crash on the Newtownards Rd. Photo: David Conachy
Dan Martin’s Garmin Sharp team before his crash on the Newtownards Rd. Photo: David Conachy
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

'Today, I don't associate cycling with winning; I associate it with terrible things' - Marco Pantani

On Friday evening, if you had closed your eyes and just listened to the sounds, you'd have been convinced nothing had changed. This was Belfast as we have always known it; these were the sounds of terrible things; a sky being peppered by the rat-tat-tat of helicopter blades; streets under siege from screaming emergency sirens; a huge crowd outside the City Hall being whipped into a frenzy.

But this was Ulster saying "Yes".

The opening stage of the Giro d'Italia had just started and the streets were festooned in pink and humming with cheer. The symmetry was interesting; a city with a troubled past and a sport with a troubled past had come together and were trying to reinvent themselves. They were sending the world a message:

"Hey people! Look how we've changed! Look how great we are!"

. . . And the city was in front.

Tuesday, May 6:  What can we expect?'

Twenty-five years have passed since I first wrote a diary about the Giro d'Italia. The month was May 1989 and I had travelled to the start in Sicily as a fourth-year professional on Stephen Roche's Fagor team. There was no Wi-Fi or email in those days but I'd brought a portable typewriter and would beg the hotel receptionist to fax it to The Sunday Tribune. It wasn't as polished as the Nicolas Roche column and there was a lot of swearing but it definitely had some edge.

May 21: Catania

I was nervous before the start. This is not just another bike race: it's history, legendary. And I'm here, doing it, participating in history. Starting out from Taormina this morning, I felt as if I was heading out on a great adventure. God knows what lies ahead. God knows how far I will go.

The first stage, a short one of 123 kilometres, was like all opening stages of big tours. Everyone was highly strung, and there were a lot of crashes. Everyone wanted to get to the front, to stay out of trouble, but also for another reason. The first stage is the only stage when any rider in the peloton can lead the Giro d'Italia.

I was conscious of this as I took my place at the front. It's another tale for my grandchildren 'the day Grandad led the Tour of Italy'. As a first stage it wasn't too bad, except for the finishing circuits, which were very fast. Some stupid gregario (domestique) ran into me with three laps to go, and we both nearly fell.

The bastard had the cheek to accuse me of swaying into him.

He was short, dark, very ugly and as I insisted on insulting him back we nearly came to blows. Typical Italian – they're gods in their own back garden. A journalist came up to me after the finish. My face was blackened from street dust and sweaty. My lungs were heaving from the effort of the final sprint. And he looked at me and said, cool as a breeze, 'Oh, I suppose today was only a gallop?'

And I looked at him and thought seriously about telling him to fuck off. But I remembered what Roche had said and decided to be diplomatic: "Yes I suppose it was, really."

The journalist was Paddy Agnew. He had travelled from his base in Rome for the opening stage and his conclusion, in hindsight, was reasonable. The stage had, after all, been a relatively short one. And the peloton had, after all, stayed together until the sprint. And it wasn't unusual, after all, to find Kimmage – a cranky hoor at the best of times – with his face caked in snot.

But the tension had been wearing from the drop of the flag. And the finishing circuit had been fraught with danger and pushed everyone to the edge. And the view is always different when you're sitting in the stands or outside the tent looking in.

I was reminded of it this evening listening to Matt Cooper's interview (on The Last Word) with Philip Deignan, the 30-year-old from Letterkenny who started his fourth Giro this weekend for Team Sky. "What can we expect?" Cooper asked. "The people who are turning out to see the peloton in the first few days?"

The view from outside the tent would have been: 'Not a lot, Matt. The team time-trial will give us a leader and I expect the two road stages will finish in sprints'. But Deignan gave him the view from inside the tent: "Amazing atmosphere," he said, "amazing colour and amazing noise."

Deignan was 14 years old and had barely started cycling when the Tour de France visited these shores in 1998. He caught a bus to Dublin with some friends for the opening stage and was bitten by the bug. The winner that year was also the last professional racer to do the Tour-Giro double. His name was Marco Pantani.

Wednesday, May 7: Terrible Things

In February 1992, Anne Marie Smyth, a 26-year-old mother of two from the city of Armagh, made her first visit to Belfast. Her boyfriend at the time, a roadie, was working with a band gigging at the Hillfoot Glentoran Supporters Club in East Belfast and she had decided to tag along. It was a dangerous place for Catholics, so they agreed that she would tell anyone who asked she was Protestant.

People asked all the time in those days and when it was discovered she was Catholic, she was taken to a house and tortured and had her throat cut back to her spine. Her body was put in a wheelie bin and dumped on waste ground in Ballarat Street. The only motive for the killing was religion.

A year later, John Lyness, a 57-year-old worker with Craigavon Borough Council, and a former member of the UDR, was shot by the IRA outside his home in Lurgan. He had just parked his car when two gunmen dressed in cycling gear approached from an entry. He was shot several times and died at the scene. The gunmen escaped on bicycles through a nearby park.

Four months later, on October 1993, ten people died in a bombing on the Shankill Road. A week after that, eight people died in a shooting in Derry. Three weeks after that, the Republic of Ireland played Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifying game at Windsor Park.

The ground was a two-hour drive from Dublin but the security risk was so high it was decided the team would fly to the game. "Let's get in, get the result and get fucking home," Jack Charlton said.

I was with the team on the flight back to Dublin that evening. The toxicity in the ground was absolutely shocking. It was the worst experience I've had at a game.

I was reminded of it twice today – this morning when the train taking me to Belfast ambled gently past the ground. And at the press conference this afternoon and a question put to one of the race favourites, Cadel Evans, by Brendan Wright from RTé News:

"Cadel, welcome to Belfast, as you know we have had a very troubled past in this part of the country. Were you at all apprehensive, or do you think you colleagues were worried about coming here?"

"Thank you for having me in Ireland," the Australian replied. "We understand that all countries have had their troubles in the past and I hope by the number of police I see around that we're going to be safe."

But the miracle is that we're here at all.

Thursday, May 8: Accidental Death

The City Hall, but not as we know it. A few years ago, more than 100,000 black loyalists descended on this place screaming "Never, Never, Never" and "Ulster says No" but tonight the only colour is pink. It's the team presentation ceremony and that means loud music, pretty girls, and three MCs spraying us with glory, wonder and hype.

There's no mention of the troubles.

Ivan Basso's presence in the Puerto files? He was only 'thinking' about doping.

Michele Scarponi's relationship with Lance's favourite doc? It was only training advice. Franco Pellizotti? Emanuele Sella? Ryder Hesjedal? Thomas Dekker? They've confessed or done their time. The sport has changed. It's a pink new world now.




But wait! Just a short walk from here, at the Queen's Film Theatre on University Square, a shadow from the old world lingers. James Erskine, the award-winning writer, director and producer has brought his latest work – Marco Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist to the Giro for a screening.

Ten years have passed since Il Pirata's (The Pirate) tragic demise but his legend continues to grow: the Pantani Foundation, the Pantani Memorial bike race, the Pantani Commemorative jersey (by Rapha), the Pantani monuments, the Pantani tributes. But he was destroyed by doping and addiction.

Aren't we missing something here?

For the first hour of Erskine's film it is easy to get suckered by young Pantani's dashing style and the old pros waxing lyrical.

"A lot of cycling is about climbing mountains," Bradley Wiggins says, "and he personified how it should look in this floating, angelic sense."

And then the winning turns ugly and we are presented with the facts.

The facts are sobering. And sickening. Racers jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to exercise on stationary bikes because their heart rate has dropped and their blood is thick as treacle. Injections. Transfusions. Vials. Pills. Truth.

This was a depraved and ugly world.

Friday, May 9: Luck of the Irish

One of the worst atrocities of the Troubles was the bombing of the La Mon Hotel in February 1978. It is here, in the same hotel in the suburb of Castlereagh, that Dan Martin begins his working day. If you're outside the tent looking in, a short (21k) team time trial looks the easiest stage of the race. But when you're inside the tent looking out, and the watch is not your specialty, it's a very stressful place.

For Martin, and the rest of the Garmin team, the work started on Tuesday when they lined out during a light training ride in the order they would race. On Wednesday, they lined out again but pushed harder this time, completing three five-kilometre segments flat out to test them on the edge.

This morning, they rode the course twice, checking their speed through the corners and the danger points.

"Even when they were riding slowly, I wanted them to pretend they were riding fast, because of the way people move in front of you," Charly Wegelius, the team manager, explained.

"And here it's going to be tricky because the wind has been moving them around and they don't have time to switch the side that they change on before they change direction, so it's quite challenging. But I've got absolute faith in them to do a good ride."

At 7.0pm, there were only five teams left to race when Martin joined his team-mates on the starting ramp. Bright afternoon sunshine had given way to heavy evening showers and rendered the surfaces greasy and unpredictable.

The goal wasn't winning but to keep Martin and Hesjedal, the joint team leaders, in touch with the other favourites and for 13 kilometres, they were moving and changing nicely.

Then, just before the Peace Line, where the course split for Bridge End at the bottom of the Newtownards Road, Martin was sitting fifth in the group when he bounced his front wheel on a manhole cover and lost control. The three riders behind him – Nathan Haas, Andre Cardoso and Koldo Fernandez – all fell and it was obvious, from the moment he hit the ground, that Martin wasn't getting up.

It's called the luck of the Irish.

Saturday May 10: They Haven't Gone Away, You know.

Three days ago, when Cadel Evans was being asked about the Troubles, he was followed into the press conference by Marcel Kittel, aka the fastest man in the world. He'd had his hair coiffed and was heading for a milk bath but was soon charming the room with his radiant smile and warmth.

They make them different these days.

He won his first ever stage of the Giro today and is favourite to win when the race arrives in Dublin. Then the circus will head for Italy and the bunting will come down.

It's been an interesting few days. There were a lot of Union Flags hoisted along the route today to remind the people of Europe that Ulster is as British as Finchley. And how should we interpret the banner – FINE DOMINIO BRITANNICO – on Black Mountain? Brits out? Surely not.

But the most worrying aspect of the week was the whispers inside the tent about the latest performance enhancer – Xenon gas – creeping into the peloton. Is it true? Who knows, but it came from a good source and the message for those fighting the Trouble is the message for those fighting the Troubles.

Keep working. They haven't gone away, you know.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport