DUBLIN, Ireland (VN) — After three spectacular days of racing across Ireland, a rain-weary peloton is more than happy about the prospect of warmer climes at the southern tip of Italy.
Although the three-day “big start” was a boon for a reborn Belfast after decades of political strife, and equally buoyant for Orica-GreenEdge and Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), most of the Giro peloton will be content to leave the Emerald Isle in the rearview mirror.
“I cannot wait to see the Italian sun,” said Spanish rider Joaquim Rodríguez, whose Katusha squad lost 1:38 in the team time trial Friday. “This Giro didn’t start the way we wanted, but now the real race will begin. We’ll go fighting to the end.”
The peloton packs up and flies back to Italy on Monday morning, minus Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), who slipped on a manhole cover in Friday’s team time trial and underwent surgery Sunday for a broken clavicle. He’s hoping to rebound in time for the Tour de France.
Irish favorite Martin wasn’t the only casualty in the three stages that linked Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in its first grand-tour racing since Dublin hosted the departure of the scandal-plagued 1998 Tour de France.
Some GC favorites bled time in Friday’s TTT. In addition to Rodríguez, 2012 Giro champ Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) lost more than three minutes to his direct rivals. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) lost nearly one minute.
The Giro is a different kind of race. It’s more explosive and wide open than the tightly controlled Tour de France. Hesjedal’s 3:26 loss, if it occurred at the Tour, would be fatal to GC ambitions, but Garmin DS Charly Wegelius shrugged off the suggestion that the Canadian’s Giro was over even before it started.
“The Giro is not the Tour. This race is just starting,” Wegelius said. “I remember [David] Arroyo finished second in the 2010 Giro when he took time in a big breakaway, and no one predicted that. The real race will begin in Italy.”
Despite a few grumbles about the weather, no one was complaining about the Giro’s decision to go to Northern Ireland for just its 10th international departure in race history.
Perhaps no city has completely embraced a grand tour as Belfast did. The entire city was done up in pink. Nearly every shop had some sort of Giro-related display and city buildings were bathed in pink lights at night. No one spotted a pink Guinness beer, but horses, cows, sheep, and dogs were spray-painted pink along the route by over-zealous fans.
“This start in Ireland has been a big surprise. There are so many people along the roadsides, it’s like the Tour de France,” said Kittel, who won the opening road stages in an emphatic manner. “You can see the fans really love cycling here.”
The Giro fed off the cycling boom across the United Kingdom, thanks in large part to the smashing success of British cycling over the past decade. With the Tour de France set to start in Yorkshire in July, fans poured out in droves to watch the race.
Tourism officials from Northern Ireland ponied up the majority of the estimated $5 million fee to host the Giro start, but officials said it was money well spent, especially for Belfast, a city torn by strife during the “Troubles” that have now largely faded into the history books.
Belfast has been spruced up, with trendy shops, restaurants and bars replacing a once-divided city. The multimillion-dollar Titanic Belfast museum, which opened in 2010 in the refurbished shipyards, was the backdrop for the start of the first two stages.
“Belfast wanted to show off to the world how the city has changed in its post-troubled phase,” said Darach McQuaid, who was the lead organizer. “It was extremely important to them to show off the city.”
McQuaid is also hoping to use the momentum of the successful Giro start to reboot the Tour of Ireland, which ran during 2007-09 before succumbing to the economic crisis that swept Ireland.
With the Irish economy starting to rev up once again, McQuaid stopped short of announcing that the race will be back for 2015, but confirmed talks are under way with several sponsors to back a new edition of the race.
“The Irish public have a serious appetite for cycling. We’ve seen that the past few days with huge crowds everywhere,” McQuaid said. “Both governments, north and south, want to see the [Ireland tour] return.”
Riders universally hailed the enthusiasm of Irish fans, who lined the route five deep in some places, evoking comparisons to the Tour.
“Everyone was shouting for me. I still can’t believe it after wearing [the maglia rosa] all day and I’ll be so happy to wear it in Italy the day after tomorrow,” said race leader Michael Matthews, who brushed off a crash in stage 3 to defend pink.
“Some of the guys don’t really realize it’s really happening, as if this doesn’t happen to teams like ours. But it is happening, and we’re really living the dream at the moment.”
And finally, cycling officials are hoping events like the Giro start will inspire future generations to take up racing.
Phil Deignan (Sky) recounted how the 1998 Tour in Dublin fed his imagination to begin racing his bike.
“I remember I took the bus down to Dublin to watch the big stars at the Tour. After that, I decided I wanted to become a professional bike racer,” Deignan said. “I hope there are some kids watching us race here and do the same thing, and in maybe 10 years we can be talking about them.”
Giro officials echoed their pleasure about the Belfast start, and rumors are flying that Dubai could host the start of the 2016 Giro. If that’s the case, no one will be complaining about the rain.
Time to get serious
Away from the glad-handing of race officials and politicians, the very real business of racing the Giro is poised to change gears with Monday’s rest day transfer to Italy.
Even riders and teams who came out of Ireland in relative good position seemed relieved to be bound for Italy.
“Overall, I am happy to get through Ireland without any big problems,” said BMC’s Cadel Evans, who is in very good position in 14th at 21 seconds back.
“We lost a couple of seconds in the final in the past few days, which is a little bit unusual, but the way the finishes were, it made it a little bit difficult to be safe and be in the front. But that’s the way it goes.”
Evans and Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Rigoberto Urán were the big “winners” from the three-day romp across Ireland. Both took important gains in the team time trial, and neither suffered any setbacks in the road stages.
With Orica-GreenEdge racing without a serious GC contender, Urán, who was second overall last year, is the virtual leader.
Omega Pharma is completely backing Urán’s bid for pink, so much so they’ve put on the brakes for sprinter Alessandro Petacchi in the opening days.
“We are very happy with how we are leaving Ireland,” said Omega Pharma’s Rolf Aldag. “I hear the other teams saying the differences in the team time trial are not so important, but I say they are very important. It’s always much better to have an advantage than to be behind.”
Indeed, both Urán and Evans will not be under pressure to attack too early in the Giro, and can mark inevitable accelerations that will come from Rodríguez and Quintana. Behind the scenes, Rodríguez was steamed that Katusha lost so much time in the TTT, because he knows he will be coerced to attack.
“There are some favorable stages for me, even in the coming week when we’re back in Italy,” Rodríguez said. “It’s clear I have to attack if I want to win this Giro.”
Another blow for Rodríguez is an injury to Italian worker Giampaolo Caruso, who suffered a fractured wrist in a spill Saturday.
Quintana, too, is a bit on the back foot, but Movistar was more than pleased to be leaving Ireland with its young Colombian leader in one piece.
“These could have been very dangerous stages, with the wind, the rain, the nerves,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “We could have gone a little better in the team time trial, but the important thing is to have no setbacks. The real fight is still yet to come.”
The Giro is always highly unpredictable, and no one could have forecast that the Irish start would have been so successful, at least from an organizational and fan-base perspective. This Giro is just warming up.