Stephen Roche: Ireland is ready for Giro d'Italia's grand start
The cycling legend on how Belfast has geared up for May's big event
The scenes at a quiet country hotel overlooking Giant's Causeway earlier this week were not exactly where you would expect the build-up for a great summer of top cycling events in the British Isles to begin.
But as one of Northern Ireland's best-known locations, the Causeway was where Stephen Roche, as the 1987 winner of the Tour of Italy, was inducted on Tuesday into the race's Hall of Fame. Roche is just the third rider after Belgian and Italian cycling legends Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi to receive the honour.
The Dubliner's induction got the ball rolling towards the three days the Giro d'Italia will spend in Northern Ireland in early May, when Belfast will play host to the race's opening team time trial and the first bunch sprint stage. A third stage from Armagh to Dublin then follows, before the Giro transfers back to Italy for the remainder of the race.
Roche is understandably excited about the race's first foray outside mainland Europe, most of all for the way it can generate interest in a sport that has had its share of PR problems, including in 1998, when the Tour de France started in Dublin but was then hit by the Festina doping scandal.
"Cycling fans in Ireland really appreciated being able to see the sport on their own doorstep and logistically it was faultless," Roche said of the 1998 Tour. "This year now, with the Giro, the sport is seen as having done a lot to rectify its problems and its value as a marketing tool is clear."
Roche, who has double family interest in the Giro this year with his son Nicolas heading the Tinkoff-Saxo team and nephew Dan another overall contender, believes Irish and Northern Irish cycling bodies are far better equipped to capitalise on the spike in interest that a Grand Tour on people's doorsteps is likely to generate.
"I see this more like when the Tour started in London in 2007," Roche added. "That really sparked massive interest in cycling in Britain. In 1998 the Irish Cycling Federation weren't ready to benefit from the Tour's visit, and this time, with all kinds of programmes in place designed to encourage interest in the sport – bike-to-work programmes, mountain bike trails, family and schools programmes, all kinds of infrastructure – cycling has got a whole different profile.
"People are getting on bikes more here in general, the Giro's a big, big part of it all and you can sense a real positive vibe about it."
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