Belfast in the pink as crowds flock to Giro d’Italia launch
Irish cyclists hoping to take their chance to impress on their home ground first
The race will officially start today with a 21.7km team time trial in the city, and the three Irish riders in the race, a fourth with Irish connections, plus the rest of the main field will set out aiming for the best performance possible.
Dan Martin (Garmin- Sharp), Philip Deignan (Sky), Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) and his Irish-born team-mate Chris Juul Jensen will all start knowing victories by any one of their teams could put them in the famed Maglia Rosa, or pink jersey of race leader.
Irishman in pink
Should Tinkoff-Saxo go fast enough to contend for the stage victory, they will likely be led home by Roche rather than Jensen; having an Irishman in pink would be a massive plus for the fans and the team, and would also ensure substantial media publicity here.
Each of the Irish riders is psyched to chase that goal, but have also accepted squads such as Orica GreenEdge have selected riders specialising in the team race against the clock.
Sky, Garmin-Sharp and Tinkoff-Saxo have each picked more rounded line-ups; for the latter two, the general classification, with riders such as Martin and Roche, is a big goal.
As for Sky, the overall classification was originally a goal with Richie Porte as the leader; with the Australian withdrawn due to poor form, it continues to be an all-rounder lineup, and they will chase stages throughout the three weeks ahead.
Many other riders will have the final podium on their minds. Perhaps the race favourite is the Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar), second last year in his first Tour de France. If he is in the same form it will be very difficult to stop him in the mountains.
Other contenders include 2011 Tour de France champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), 2012 Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin Sharp), last year’s runner-up Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Michele Scarponi (Astana), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Ivan Basso (Cannondale) and Julian Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing).
Each will start the race hoping for success but, in truth, the Giro always brings disappointment to some while throwing up surprises. The weeks ahead will reveal the true state of each rider’s form, with the mountains and time trials rewarding the strong and exposing the weak.
After today’s team time trial, the next test of form will be the rolling roads and gusting winds on the Antrim coastline on tomorrow’s second stage.
Many are tipping the outcome will come down to a bunch sprint but even if that is the case, the riders in the bunch will each have to dig deep along the way, discovering a little more about their condition as they fight for position.
That 219km stage starts and finishes in Belfast, while Sunday’s 187km stage begins in Armagh and travels south to Dublin’s Merrion Street.
After that the riders will fly to Italy, while race officials, team staff and others will undertake the biggest ever logistical challenge for the event, transporting vehicles, equipment and bikes on Monday’s rest day.
This will ensure the race is ready to restart in Giovinazzo, southern Italy on Tuesday.
The following day sees a number of climbs rear up; the finishing drag is 7.5km long and will likely see gaps open up in the general classification.
These will be exacerbated as the race continues, with serious summit finishes at Oropa, Montecampione, Val Martello, Rifugio Panarotta, Monte Grappa and Monte Zoncolan all coming in the second half of the race.
If Roche, Martin, Deignan and, yes, Jensen have all got their form right, they should get stronger as the race continues.
If so, the increase in their condition will coincide with the harder stages.
Before then, they will try to shine over the next three days, appreciating this is a once in a lifetime chance to compete in the Giro on Irish roads.