We need to go up a gear to catch cycling dividend
Government should do more to maximise revenue from cycling, writes Jerome Reilly
While the Republic has been sleeping, our neighbours in the north have grabbed one of the greatest shows on earth and the multi-million financial bonanza that comes with it.
The Giro d'Italia, one of the three grand tours of professional cycling and arguably the most evocative, is coming here in May including a stage into Dublin.
But, with a little over two months before the Grande Partenza or 'Big Start' in Belfast, you would hardly know it in the south.
Former winner Stephen Roche, who was inducted into the Giro d'Italia Hall of Fame last week, believes we are complacent, that this is an opportunity to reap a rich dividend and provide a boost to the economy equivalent to hosting a Ryder Cup.
"South of the border [we] are a bit blasé maybe," he says. "The important thing is that up here [in the north] they are doing the job. They want the returns and they need the returns. There is no way we can sit down afterwards and say, 'Well, we didn't do what we should have done to get x'. They are doing everything possible. Down south I think it will kick in a little later maybe."
Of course by then it could be too late. The comparison with the Ryder Cup may even underplay the potential value. Golf is a sport in decline when it comes to harvesting the tourist dollar.
The figures are extraordinary. The Giro is now one of the world's largest sporting events, with 12.5 million spectators lining the route over the three weeks of the race. It will be broadcast in 165 countries across all continents, reaching 125 million households and a global accumulated audience of 775 million people.
And they will see the best this island has to offer in terms of visual appeal. Each day's coverage of the three days in Ireland (May 9-11) will be an extended advertisement of the country as a tourism and cycling destination, with sweeping aerial shots of the countryside worth hundreds of millions of euro in marketing terms broadcast for hours on end throughout Europe, North America, Australasia, Africa and the Far East.
The north's two stages have been chosen with great care to showcase the best it has to offer so viewers will be bombarded with spectacular images of the magnificent Giant's Causeway coastline and the picture-perfect Glens of Antrim. There will be extended shots of the Titanic Museum and other attractions.
The north expects to get at least £10m in direct earnings to the economy from the event itself – with more than 140,000 visitors expected. Many will travel up from the south, but also tens of thousands from overseas. That will include media from all over the world. Roche was inducted to the hall of fame last Monday at an event at the Giant's Causeway which attracted more than 100 broadcast, print and web journalists from all over the globe.
The determination of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to maximise returns on their investment in the Giro 'Big Start' was clear. They used the event to showcase the north's food, history and culture. Bushmills whiskey was on every table and a meal showcased local beef, seafood and other products. Italian journalists were provided with Pinarello bikes to cycle part of the coastline so they could bring home the message that the North is a great place to cycle.
The North's Tourism Minister Arlene Foster said: "There is no doubt this event will be a significant boost for tourism across the board. Hotels, restaurants, town centres, villages, local communities, and most of all the economy, all stand to benefit.
"In addition to the feast of cycling, there will be an array of family-friendly events and festivals, with lots of music, food and live entertainment for visitors to look forward to. Hosting the Giro not only gives us the chance to witness one of the world's greatest sporting spectacles up close, it will let us showcase our unforgettable scenery, as well as demonstrating that Northern Ireland really is the home of great events."
Longer term, the Northern authorities see an opportunity for a lasting tourism legacy – hoping to cash in as cycling becomes the new golf.
And there is big money involved. Even now cycling generates €138m for the Irish economy and is the fastest growing sport at home.
The Bike to Work Scheme introduced in 2009, where employers can buy a bike and equipment up to a value of €1,000 for employees to cycle to work and recover the cost from the employee's pre-tax salary over a maximum of 12 months, means that the employee can save 52 per cent of the purchase price of a bike.
It's been an outstanding success. More than 90,000 bikes have been bought and the average spend is €750 on bike and equipment.
Membership of Cycling Ireland has risen by 50 per cent and there are now 250 cycling clubs in the south but this is merely a reflection in the resurgence of cycling for sport and leisure worldwide.
Tourism bosses want to target the big-spending middle-aged men and women in lycra from all over the world who have eschewed golf in favour of cycling. They are deeply aware that cycling is becoming the corporate sport of choice.
In Scotland last year marketing experts came to the surprising conclusion that cycling now generates almost 10 times as much tourist spending in Scotland as whisky.
And the Government here should follow Scotland's example of making a conscious hard-headed business decision to maximise this country's undoubted appeal as a cycling destination worldwide.
So far, however, we have missed the breakaway by our neighbours when it comes to the Giro and the priceless exposure it has to offer to market the Republic.
Sunday Indo Sport