Monday, 12 May 2014

My weekend in Pink (and Tartan)

So the Giro d'Italia was in Ireland this weekend, though some of the UK press you would be hard pressed to realise that one of the three Grand Tours in the UK was taking place in part of the UK. Indeed some of them devoted more space to another of them coming to Yorkshire 2 months hence than the action going on in Northern Ireland for 2½ of the three days that the Giro spent on Irish roads.

However, that was not the same for Northern Irish media. All the papers had pink headers and front pages and back pages full on pictures and stories from the fans or curious locals who were lining the roads in their thousands as some of the world top cyclists sped past.

This however, is the story of my weekend following a sport I love close to my own doorstep.


Although a wheel wasn't to be turned in anger until Friday, the day before any Grand Tour is when the 22 teams are presented to the host city of the first stage. In Belfast this took place in front of City Hall and only a few yards away from the finish line for the first and second stages. Over the last couple of weeks leading up to the Giro coming to town Belfast was becoming more and more pink in shop windows, people's gardens, school playgrounds or wherever. 

Some of you may have seen on Twitter my agonies on the day that the wristbands allowing free access to the presentation led to frustration. However, I have to thank the manager of Visit Belfast for helping me secure tickets.

I had left just down the road from City Hall just before the Gates opened but already there was queue that went around the back, so instead of heading somewhere for food as I had intended I made my way to teh back of that queue.  

We were soon moving very swiftly forward, but by the time I was in the presentation area all the good spots in front of the stage had been taken. However, being a fan I knew how these things work so went over to the side where the ramp was set up for the riders to make their way unto the platform. There was plenty of space there when I turned up. 

As you can see from me in the pink cap I got a prime piece of cycling fan real estate. On my right is Sky superfan Mavis Evans a north Walian, on my left another fan from Cumbria. But beyond Mavis you can see two young fans from Australia, there were also Americans, Belgians, Italians and Colombians not too far away. The person with the blue jacket and iPad was actually the last person who made the front page of the Belfast Telegraph on Friday morning, yes I was that close to being on the front page.

I took some pictures before my batteries in my camera had died, I had no extras (an error I would not make for the rest of the weekend). So most of the GC contenders were not captured on my camera as they rode in after their teams, nor sadly did I capture the three Irish riders Dan Martin (GRS), Nicholas Roche (TCS) or Philip Deignan (SKY), or the only Brit Sky's Ben Swift.

As Deignan is from Donegal and my kilt is Donegal County Crest Tartan there was only one item of clothing along with a Giro d'Italia T-shirt that I was going to be wearing the whole weekend as I followed the race around.

The eventual winners Orica-GreenEDGE during recon
Team Time Trial day saw me heading first to Titanic Belfast to see the preparations from the team in the morning before their recon sessions. Got to see around the paddock and the various times was stopped for photos myself because of the kilt. But as the roads were getting closed off I headed away from the paddock area and out unto the course. I'd earmarked by spot at the foot of the Newtownards Road (at least for starters).

It allowed me to get a lot of good shots of the teams coming around under the overpass, then sweeping around and unto the Newtownards Road, but also gave me a chance to get them coming back down. The weather in the morning was perfect and dry and the teams went out initially to see the lie of the land and then pushing harder and faster to see how they would ride the TTT on full gas later in the day.

After a while I wanted to get some different backdrops so heading up the Newtownards Road and just as the last few teams were coming past I was watching alongside former Junior Road Race Champion Colm Armstrong, brother to Adam, who in 2008 was second in the U23 to Dan Martin.

But me and my kilt made our way back down a lot of the Newtownards Road and to the Titanic quarter ready for a bit of atmosphere in the pit area.

However, for the evening I decided that I wanted to get to the Stranmillis corner. So before the roads closed I headed off to the most Westerly part of the route. However, when I got there over an hour before the racing was actually to start it was already packed with people (see below).

I did take a few videos of the action at this point, but with the crowd growing even bigger than from these images I wasn't getting good enough pictures of the sweep around the bend that I wanted. So I moved back along the embankment towards Queen's PEC. It was here that I knew that Garmin had had a major mishap as they arrived well over 7 minutes behind the team in front and with only five riders. But it allowed me to get images like this of Team Sky in the Race:

The day was to be the Aussies with Orica-GreenEDGE taking the honours, but it was Canadian Svein Tuft who pulled on the first Maglia Rosa of 2014 Giro d'Italia.

A Biciletta Rosa for the Maglia Rosa

The first road racing stage of the day came on Saturday. I was once again hanging around the paddock at teh start. The star of the show was the Bicicletta Rosa for the Maglia Rosa Svein Tuft of Orica-GreenEDGE he had been the first of their team to cross the line in what turned out to be the fastest TTT the evening before, although they had to wait for 20 other teams to take to the course to find that out.

As you can see in this picture there is a guy with a camera pointing in my direction. Little did I know that I also getting filmed for the Orica-GreenEDGE backstage pass. You can see me below about 45 seconds into the video. I'm actually talking to Matt White the sporting director of the team about how he'd kept his promise from the Liege-Bastogne-Liege backstage pass to win the Maglia Rosa in Belfast.

However, when I say star of the show there was also Irish cycling greats Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly walking around who I managed to photograph both of.

I hung around the Titanic long enough to see the Giro leave, here they go on their roll out:

However, I knew where I wanted to be out on the course, so I headed to Central Station to get on a train. I got off at Carrickfergus and header out along the route (taking in a little of the activities that were taking place in Carrick. An hour later with many thumbs up, waves on the as yet unclosed roads I made it to my destination the climb of Knocknagulliach, just above Whitehead.

There were two reasons for this, first it was the closer climb to Belfast allowing me to double up both seeing the start and some of the action. Plus while I was in my Donegal tartan within sight of Whitehead I was remembering how at the start of the last century my Donegal born great grandfather was stationed as a policeman in the town below. It was here that he met a local girl, fell in love and their third child was my maternal grandfather.

Bizarrely on a day when the race was wet we had decent weather and I was able to take my green tweet jacket off from most of the time I was waiting for the race. Then I was able to take this picture of the breakaway. But sadly as I took a snap of the helicopter hoovering above us I got a battery exhausted warning on my camera, and as I started to change them the peleton came around the corner and I missed them.

After the race had passed however, I made my way down into Whitehead, just as the rain started to fall, so I headed into the pub in time to see the race arrive at Whiteabbey and so unlike Friday I was aware of how the race finished without having to ask people on the train.


Not to cause offense to the great city of Armagh, but getting there from Bangor in time to see the race head off would have been problematic. However, getting to Dublin and the finish was doable and also would hopefully allow me to witness a bunch finish. So I had booked myself unto the Giro special which was sadly not full to capacity but I met up again with Mavis from Thursday and we were able to catch up on our Giro's so far.

My camera issue today however was that I had left my SD card in my laptop, something I'd realised on the train up from Bangor when I went to show someone the pictures of Tuft's frame from the day before. So I knew I would have to buy a new one when I got to Dublin. Meanwhile on the way down Mavis and I had great fun looking out for the signs of pink that showed us where the route was visible from the Belfast to Dublin line. When we arrived I set off on the hunt for an SD card and she to book into her hotel for the evening.

SD card secured I found a good spot about 270m from the line. But just after the last chicane and opposite Oscar Wilde's house. It was here that I ran into my second Irish cycling champion on the side of the road, only this time the reigning women's road race champion Melanie Spath. It seemed ideal and I was just going to snap on continuous for the duration. Here are the start of the sequence of the lead outs:

Coming into sight Edvald Boassen Hagen (SKY) was leading the way, his team mate Ben Swift was sitting in third wheel.

Ben Swift is just about to exit my shot, but six back just appearing in Marcel Kittel (GIA) in the Maglia Rosso (red jersey)

Here is Kittel making progress but still with a lot of work to do.

I did mange to get the Maglia Rosa who now was Tuft's team mate Michael Matthews, but can you spot him below.

All in all, like the organisers I had a great three days of the Giro in Ireland. My knees may have been suffering on Saturday night after the amount of walking that I had done over the previous two days. I've lost a little bit of weight in my active spectatoring. But I've met some interesting people along the way and am more determined that ever to one day take in some of the famous stages of the Grand Tours in their own countries.

However, I also hope that another Grand Tour will come to Northern Ireland and/or Ireland very soon as a result of the reception that we were able to give the second biggest road race of them all, because when it does I will certainly be there, hopefully this time on my bike.

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