Now I’m going to throw it out there right from the start, and bet a handsome amount of gold coins in the process, that when Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the mothership that is known to one and all as Google back in 1998 they wouldn’t have predicted today that typing “Cycling Ireland” into their little search box of all knowledge would spit out such a mind boggling number of results, 102 million to be precise! Despite never having the pleasure of visiting before it took all of 0.2 seconds to realise, as pages of content unfold before me, that this historic country paddling amidst the Atlantic may well be a trick I’ve been missing, especially with the spectacular Giro d’Italia poised and ready to roll into town at the start of next month, now is clearly the time to put that right.
It’s one thing for a city to host a single stage of a three week Grand Tour, that in itself is an honour, but for a country to unveil the race to the world is a whole other level altogether, and one that just a handful of countries outside of Italy can claim across the entire 97 year history of the Giro. While official business for the professionals will start on Friday May 9th, with a 21.7km time trial around historic Belfast, despite putting in a special request with Outdoor Fitness Editor, Jonathan Manning, to pull some strings and have the roads closed on our arrival (so that we could replicate the route in all its glory) some excuse about having to finish a magazine or something meant we had to settle for a whistle stop tour through rush hour traffic. Even without the carnival atmosphere and buzz of the Giro to engulf our surrounds you immediately get a sense that this is going to be an incredible setting for the big start or ‘Grande Partenza‘ as the Italian’s say. I could’ve spent all night jaw dropped in awe at the sheer size of the foot print that the RMS Titanic occupied as it was built or the unbelievable girth of ‘Samson’ and ‘Goliath’, the two aptly named yellow Harland and Wolff cranes that are now listed as historic monuments, both induce vertigo at a single glance whilst dominating the dramatic city skyline. Factor in an abundance of pubs, cafés and restaurants and, even without the draw of the world on two wheels, you have a city steeped in heritage and genuine hospitality that’s ready to share its charm with all. The fact that Belfast is staging both the first and second stages of the race is an even bigger coup, allowing possibly one of the best ever opportunities to see the race multiple times in close proximity and from a number of perspectives – from the presentation of each team, to the individual time-trial, the wash of colour and noise before the start all the way through to the the unequivocal speed of the peloton as they thunder towards the City Hall in what could be an all out elbow-to-elbow bunch sprint at the end of the second stage.
Beyond the Docks
If the story finished there then I’m sure few would argue that it’d already be a fairytale ending but in a way that’s simply testament to just how much Ireland has to offer beyond its city walls which, as we all know, is where a cyclist really yearns to soothe their soul amongst the fantasy land of history and nature at a pace that life was originally intended. With panoramic ocean views towards Scotland and the Donegal hills the Giro swings east to join the spectacular Coastal Causeway Route at Portrush where a seemingly endless road weaves itself between the high cliffs and sea, like a needle and thread through a tapestry of coloured silk, with a unique air of enchantment and mystique that goes beyond anything I’d experienced before. With the chilly winter wind on my back I sense the road willing me to push a little harder but to do so would be unwise when such an experience should be savoured and appreciated in equal measure not smashed in an attempt to set a new Strava segment. It’s as if every twist and turn holds the key to a story of a heroic past amidst the countless castles and forts, many of which are now ruins, that adorn the road complimented by outstanding areas of natural beauty like the Giant’s Causeway, an unusual ancient volcanic formation of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, or hidden coves and picturesque harbours that cling to the craggy shoreline as the tarmac rolls and rises beyond the horizon.
While the pro’s work together, in a blur of syncronised sound and motion, towards a laser guided trajectory aimed at the finish line I couldn’t help but explore this wonderland a little further, heading inland by the draw of an eerie avenue of beech trees planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century to impress visitors as they approach the entrance to their home, Gracehill House. Well, they clearly didn’t do things by half back then! I’d have been impressed by a lick of paint on the cast iron gate and a new door-knocker let alone the creation of one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland that’s become known as ‘The Dark Hedges’. Testament to that claim we bump into a local photographer who is camping out in his car in anticipation of getting the money shot that he so much desires. I naively ask if he’s been there long to which he replies “only 20 years, but I’m in no rush, I’ll get it one day”, before going on to tell us about a spectral ‘Grey Lady’ who appears at dusk and silently glides along the roadside before disappearing into the evening air. With that in mind, and realising that time is getting on, we decide our shots will do just fine and promptly head back towards the coast with a wee bit more canter than before.
As the clouds start to form, adding to an already more than impressive windswept backdrop, it’s clear to see why the Coastal Causeway Route is highly regarded as one of the most spectacular roads in the world and with the enchanted landscape used for three seasons of filming for the fantasy TV series ‘The Game of Thrones’ I wouldn’t bet against there being a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow on these shores.
The Cathedral City
Although just 45 minutes from Belfast, the Stage 3 host city of Armagh offers a considerable contrast with its Georgian architecture and naval influences, whilst being the only city in the world with both a Catholic and Protestant cathedral dedicated to the same saint – St Patrick. I feel blessed that the weather gods appear to be on our side as I roll out under a rich blue sky and straight into the serenity of peaceful roads flanked by an abundance of striking fruitless apple orchards that come May will be in full bloom. The distinct difference in character of the landscape compared to The Causeway Coastal Route is immediately apparent. Surrounding you with gently rolling countryside and the type of scenery that could quickly ease your mind and put energy back into your body after a particularly tiring day at work. It’s unlikely that the Giro will have quite such a relaxed start to the day with the first King of the Mountains sprint coming after just 32km at Markethill Summit followed swiftly by the second mountain sprint just 19km later at the 315m Fews Forest peak – a vast conifer plantation spanning over 1,000 hectares with inspiring panoramic views across the south Amargh countryside towards Dundalk and County Louth at the lookout point. No doubt both will be popular spots to soak up the atmosphere and watch the race pass on by.
As the road undulates for a time it feels as though I have the whole world to myself. Roaming free and into the wilderness gives me a chance to reflect on my first encounter of the Emerald Isle. Whilst it may not have the Dolomites to capture the imagination what it lacks in pure mountains it more than makes up for with its rich history, epic landscapes, outstanding natural beauty and unique Irish charm. In just a few weeks the world’s most beautiful bike race will be spread across the road jostling all the way towards Dublin. Despite trying, we’re out of time and have to head straight to the airport as opposed to the Guinness Storehouse in the centre of town as hoped. Oh well, every cloud has a silver lining, I needed an excuse to return and if one of the biggest spectacles in world cycling wasn’t enough of a draw, that certainly is.
Box Outs The Pride of Ireland In a special event held at The Causeway Hotel in late February former professional Stephen Roche was inducted into the Giro Hall of Fame, becoming only the third rider in history, after Belgian Eddy Merckx (2012) and Italian Felice Gimondi (2013), to join the roll of honour. Arguably Roche’s finest year in the sport was in 1987 when he won the prestigious triple crown of victories in the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and World Championships all in the same season. A remarkable feat that has only ever been accomplished twice, the other time being by the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx. Eating Out The Barking Dog – Belfast Set in the University Quarter, The Barking Dog combines first-class cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere. The rustic setting, vintage decor and excellent Irish hospitality provides the perfect backdrop for a fabulous meal, with the herb gnocchi coming highly recommended after a day on the bike. barkingdogbelfast.com The Moody Boar – Armagh Located in the stables of ‘The Palace’ in central Armagh, The Moody Boar prides itself on serving dishes that have been prepared from fresh, locally sourced, ingredients. Glass walls overlook the perfectly kept stable courtyard. The superbly stylish decor and relaxed atmosphere make this restaurant a must-do dining experience when in town. themoodyboar.com Make A Week Of It Celebrating the arrival of the Giro d’Italia to their home town of Belfast, Chain Reaction Cycles will be hosting ‘The Big Italian Bike Ride’, a sportive on May 4th, which will journey along parts of the Grande Partenza route as well as some of the most iconic landscapes in Northern Ireland. With three courses to choose from (87km, 135km or the full 225km route of Stage 2) to cater for all abilities more information can be found at chainreactionhub.com. With Belfast hosting three days of events prior to the start of the Giro why not make a week of it and enjoy this once in a lifetime experience. The Schedule May 6-8th: Giro entourage arrivals May 8th: Team presentation in Belfast (public event) May 9th: Stage 1 Belfast – Belfast 21.7km Individual Time Trial Start Titanic Quarter Finish Belfast City Hall May 10th: Stage 2 Belfast – Belfast 218km Road Race Start Titanic Quarter Finish Belfast City Hall May 9th: Stage 3 Armagh – Dublin 187km Road Race Start The Mall Finish Dublin City Centre Special Thanks To Nigel Elder at Chain Reaction Cycles for his local knowledge. For More Information Visit girostart2014.com discovernorthernireland.com