Giro d’Italia: why it's heading for Irlanda

The Grand Tour cycle race – starting in Belfast on Friday, travelling to Dublin next weekend – is one of the biggest sporting events to take place in Ireland. How did it come about?

Pretty in pink: Italian cyclist Vincenzo Nibali opens a champagne bottle as he celebrates victory on the podium at the end of the 96th Giro d’Italia in  2013. Photograph: LUK BENIES/AFP/Getty Images

Pretty in pink: Italian cyclist Vincenzo Nibali opens a champagne bottle as he celebrates victory on the podium at the end of the 96th Giro d’Italia in 2013. Photograph: LUK BENIES/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00

When the Giro d’Italia begins next Friday, with a team time trial around the streets of Belfast, it will be the first time in the cycle race’s 105-year-history that its Grande Partenza – or Big Start – will have taken place outside mainland Europe.

The race’s organiser, RCS Sport, became interested in opening the race in Ireland after the United States tried to host the 2012 event. Although that project was scrapped, it made the idea of moving the Grande Partenza here seem more realistic.

The former cyclist Darach McQuaid, who had been involved in running the Tour of Ireland, approached RCS Sport. “In December 2009 I went to Milan to meet with the chief bosses, to discuss whether they would be open to a bid. They were very positive,” he says. “At the time there was musings about a Washington DC start. I said that before they go to Washington DC they can certainly go to Ireland.”

In 2010, when he was a guest at the White House on St Patrick’s Day, McQuaid mentioned the possibility to Enda Kenny, a keen cyclist. “He had only been in office a week at that stage, and he said the condition of the country was not great . . . and to make sure that I spoke to those in the North. As it turned out, the North had much more of a financial appetite. That is how it swung more to there. We got the bid rolling; we got the finances in place.”

McQuaid learned that two other venues were bidding for the Grande Partenza, one in Italy, one elsewhere in mainland Europe. Neither faced the logistical challenges that Ireland did; he had to convince RCS Sport that these could be overcome.

In Northern Ireland, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster supported the bid, and her fellow MLA Alastair Ross and Susie McCullough of the Northern Irish Tourist Board (NITB) both attended the Giro d’Italia in 2012.

McQuaid met the three of them at Stormont with David Stirling, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s permanent secretary. “That really tight crew were the critically important ones in saying it would go ahead. Frankly, Northern Ireland would probably have gone for the whole thing if there was no interest from the south.

“We had a large delegation from RCS Sport visit Belfast. Via the Minister, NITB organised helicopter rides up the coast: RCS were really impressed.”

In the south, McQuaid was working on attracting Fáilte Ireland’s interest. He contacted the Taoiseach again, who in turn put him in touch with Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring, the Ministers at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. A proposal to Fáilte Ireland followed.

Ciara Sugrue, its head of consumer engagement and international publicity, says several aspects were of interest, including the chance to reach a global audience and show again that Ireland is capable of hosting world-class events. It was also a chance to promote cycling holidays in Ireland.

Fáilte Ireland committed to give €225,000 and to run a marketing campaign. That still left a shortfall to be covered, so Dublin City Council and the Dublin-based Italian bank Banca Mediolanum have stepped in to finance the remainder.

Next Friday is both the start of the race and the end of a long journey.

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