Forget Chianti, pasta or pizza. If you want a taste of Italy over the next few days, it will be found on Irish roads via the opening stages of the Giro d'Italia. As the world's second biggest bicycle race, the three-week event blends that odd mix of sport, spectacle and circus that draws a massive international audience to top level cycling; and, remarkably, continued to do so during the bad years when rampant cheating destroyed its credibility.
Hosting the first three stages of the 2014 Giro on a cross-border basis is primarily a commercial arrangement with the tourism industry hoping to display its best to television audiences in more than 100 countries. This preliminary phase is very much a curtain raiser: the final Maglia Rosa (pink jersey of race leader/victor) can’t be won in Ireland though it could be lost through a mistake or mishap.
Ireland has travelled this road before when the first stages of the Tour de France, the only race to trump the Giro in stature, took place here in 1998. The hope was that it would help seed a new generation of cyclists in the tradition of Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Earley (from the 1980s) and Shay Elliot (from the 1960s). Instead the Tour that year descended into a drug-tainted farce. It would be foolish to suggest professional cycling is clean now but new controls have made it cleaner.
At the same time, domestic engagement with the sport is soaring as is membership of Cycling Ireland, the Irish governing body. The Giro has the potential to inspire others to follow in the wheels of Dan Martin, Nicholas Roche and Philip Deignan (and Sam Bennett, Martyn Irvine and Caroline Ryan) so that there is no interregnum between Irish success. Yet that outcome can only be assured if talent is nurtured through much greater State investment, matched by equal professionalism, organisation and ambition on the part of Cycling Ireland and other relevant administrators. Britain has shown how this approach can reap rich rewards. Implementing it here could leave Irish cycling in the pink.