Tuesday, 13 May 2014
THE Giro d'Italia was a magnificent success as the world-renowned bike race came to these shores at the weekend.
The colour pink was everywhere and if there were any misgivings about the decision to leave mainland Europe for the first time, these doubts were blown out of the water with the absolutely amazing reception the riders got everywhere they went.
From Belfast to Ballycastle, from Dundalk to Dublin and especially from our own south Armagh countryside (Newtownhamilton to Forkhill), the crowds came out in their thousands to cheer on every turn of the pedals.
The Giro organisers must have been hugely pleased and impressed by the reception their race got. Indeed the only slight hiccup was the rain - but the weather is an occupational hazard for bike riders and it's just a matter of getting on with the job.
Top local triathlete Sean Featherstone, who was marshalling in Armagh on Sunday, said: "It was simply unbelievable. Next stop the Tour De France."
Newry Wheeler Featherstone continued: "I was speaking to people who didn't know anything about bike racing and they were just blown away by it all - the atmosphere, the spectacle and the enthusiasm of the crowds."
Indeed massive crowds lines the streets of Belfast on Friday evening as the 22 Giro teams sought to grab the best time over a 21.7 kilometre course. The team winners were Orica GreenEdge but the evening took a serious turn with Irish rider Dan Martin crashing out of the race with a broken collarbone, leaving just two other home riders, Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan in the Peloton.
Saturday's stage was a long one of 218 kilometres along the Giant's Causeway route and the irony here was that the winner was a Giant (Shimano) rider Marcel Kittel who superbly won a bunch sprint at Belfast's city hall. On the third day, in the 187-kilometre Armagh to Dublin route, Kittel was again successful with an even better sprint to the line.
Spectators in the south Armagh countryside from Newtownhamilton, through Belleek, Lislea and Forkhill matched any others in their fervour.
Sunday was more than a sporting event, along south Armagh it was the coming together of people, sharing a unique experience and enjoying the sense of community.
The people of south Armagh totally embraced the Giro as Newtownhamilton, Keady, Belleek, The Mountain House, Lislea and Forkhill was awash with anything and everything pink. Craftsmen such as Slieve Gullion Wheeler Gabby Murphy, who has an excellent display at the side of the Mountain House Pub, ensured that everything can look good in pink.
People lined the sides of the streets and country roads from 8am, and typically the rain poured down just as the breakaway cyclists approached the Mountain House, but there was no dampened spirits.
True, the cyclists sped past in the blink of an eye, but everyone will remember where they were when the Giro passed through.
Newry Wheelers members were everywhere and it was especially refreshing to see the likes of legendary bike men Brian Monaghan and John McSherry watching the race at the Mountain House. Brian Monaghan was surely the best ever local rider and one who raced on the continent too. Brian along with his faithful bike pal, the so-gritty John McSherry, must have been so envious at seeing the vast crowds thronging the route as back in their racing days cycling was a minority sport. By the way Brian and John, now in their seventies, are still riding their bikes - and riding them well too.
And after the success of the Giro in these shores surely the popularity of the sport will rise like the proverbial meteorite.
And as Sean Featherstone says: "Next stop the Tour de France."
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