Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Giro in Ireland- 2 years on...

*NB while many of the links go elsewhere, some will take you to my photos of the Giro in NI- so don't feel the need to click on those if you don't want to! The important links are those at the end.

I headed out on a wee solo run last Sunday, with the intention of getting some hills fitted in since it has been too long since I swore on the sabbath. 2hours 48 mins later I was back, feeling sorry for myself and hoping that it hadn't gone as bad as my body was telling me it had. However the Garmin Edge 200 doesn't believe in white lies or sugar coating things. Strava told me that there were hundreds of people ahead of me on my particular climbs (Map My Ride just told me I had gone up them). I'm not that competitive (since I'm too crap a rider to justify it!) but it was a bit disheartening that I seemed so off the pace. That was until I looked at many of the names of those ahead of me- Iljo Keisse, Thomas De Gendt, Jetse Bol, Jussi Veikkanen, Daniele Colli.... not traditional Armagh names I think you will agree! This had been one of the GPM points on the Giro when it visited Ireland 2 years ago, so I didn't feel so badly done by when I remembered almost 200 of those names belonged to that surging mass of humanity who had sped past the spot where I had waited since early morning as they headed to Dublin the long way.

The GPM point Windy Gap, Markethill
 More by accident than design I had followed this route almost 2 years to the day when I had ridden out to bid a ciao to the Giro after 4 days that I still have a difficult  time processing. Despite having been there, despite having the photos from the team presentation, despite photos of me at various points of the three stages, despite Erik Zabel walking less than 10 metres away from me on Wellington Place, despite watching Marcel Kittel sprint to victory in front of City Hall, despite the lack of Mc's and O's in the surnames of the Strava KoM list- it is still such a surreal assault on the senses that my limited brain power is still struggling to come to terms with it.

My journey into existential angst began a couple of years previously when I picked up on whispers and random, isolated articles online that Belfast council was in negotiations to host the Grande Partenza. After checking the date and making sure it wasn't April 1st, I shared this info to a largely uninterested group on my social media outlets. In my head I had written this off as wishful thinking since this wasn't the sort of thing that comes to Norn Iron...
Some gabshite standing in front of the GPM point...

 Things went quiet for a while until further whispers built to a crescendo that culminated in an official announcement. Route maps were produced and suddenly places like Markethill and Carnlough appeared alongside Montecampione and Zoncolan. Part of the time I spent trying to come to terms with what was happening for myself but the majority was dedicated to impressing on anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn't) about what a massive deal this was.

As soon as it was possible I made sure to book the time off- 18 months in advance in fact! It was clearly spelled out to anyone I worked with- my diary was to stay free that week. Then more news- tickets for the team presentation would be available online. It was only a few weeks ago that my Timehop app reminded me what a day I had put in waiting for those tickets- the tweets sent as I sat in front of my laptop for four solid hours in a queue that didn't seem to move. Eventually the cyber gods smiled and I got my wristbands for the presentation.

So I found myself standing in the grounds of Belfast City Hall as Quintana, Purito, Nico Roche, Dan Martin, Uran, Hoogerland, Matthews, Scarponi, Cunego, Keisse et al made their way to the stage in the rain that was to typify the Giro's visit. This was followed by a quick hot foot to Queen's Film Theatre were the premiere of James Erskine's "Pantani- The Accidential Death of a Cyclist" was taking place. The first person I saw was Matt Rendell, whose book had been an inspiration for the documentary but who hadn't been announced as attending. Suddenly all these people I was used to seeing on a TV screen were right there in front of me and again I still couldn't really come to terms with the reality of it.

 Even after the fanfare associated with the team presentation, it didn't seem real. Walking down the Ormeau Road to see the Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela bus drive past or arriving at Titanic Quarter to see the Trek and Orica-Greenedge buses parked with the Harland and Wolff cranes in the background added a surreal edge.

Matt White (rightly!) calling a local cyclist a "dickhead" for racing onto the TTT route during the practice runs or standing at the corner where the Ormeau Rd meets the Stranmilis Embankment as a depleted Garmin team took the corner in the TTT- Dan Martin's fate had not reached us at this stage. Listening to some fella try and impress his female companions by wrongly explaining how the TTT and Giro overall worked (I did fight the temptation to correct him).  Being very annoyed by iPad waving gabshites who on both stage 2 and stage 3 stuck their infernal contraptions right in front of my face as riders approached blocking my view, almost negating the many hours I had been there before them. Descending the still closed hill into Markethill without worrying about cars coming up after the stage had passed. And coming off my bike on down the road after crossing a junction because some eejit in baggy soccer shorts stopped suddenly right in the middle of the road because he was unable to clip in- resulting in a twisted shifter and a new rear mech. These experiences and more all contributed to four days that I will always hold dear. Maybe my confusion is simply down to the fact that even to this day many of those who embraced the Pink and came out in some stinking weather to take part in the festivities still don't seem to recognise just what a massive deal it was to have the Giro on the island. Even today chatting to people at work it is clear there is confusion as to the difference between the fight for the maglia rosa and the Gran Fondo that has been part of the legacy.

So speaking of the legacy of the visit- what has it been, obviously apart from Strava KOMs and the Gran Fondo? Did numbers of people cycling increase? Many would say they had but this answer isn't as clear cut as it seems. For example this report on the BBC site promoting the Gran Fondo's is missing any specific numbers and deals in generalisations. My own club saw a slight increase in members but how much of this was to do with the Giro and how much with the 2012 effect? This debate in Stormont was high in platitudes and good intentions but very little in relation to numbers- note at one stage it is mentioned that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board had not made their legacy report available publically. This report, again from the NITB- it is unclear if this is the unreleased report referred to by Trevor Clarke MLA- does touch on some legacy though some of the stats have been used to give the impression of bigger successes than they actually prove on closer examination. For example on page nine it says that "62% of spectators who currently cycle and 26% who never cycle said they would likely cycle more because of the event". That seems quite positive until you unpack it- does that mean the 38% who currently cycle are going to stop because of the Giro?! Now I am being faecetous but having being interviewed over the phone for these stats (due to having recieved tickets to the team presentation) but I don't cycle just because of the Giro, and seeing it had no real impact on why I have continued to do so (in fact the  wait to try and obtain presentation tickets online actually reduced my cycling since that day's planned ride was cancelled due to it taking  so long!).

This summary on seems to back up my opinions on the Giro legacy. Please don't get me wrong- it was awesome and I would have it back in a shot. But we need to be careful about attributing effects that are not necessarily there. The key is the difference between commuting cyclists and recreational/sport riders. The Belfast Marathon isn't tasked with encouraging more people to walk to the shops rather than drive so why would the Giro be expected to directly decrease car journeys?  Most new participants are taking part in sportives and even racing but still drive to work. It never enters their heads to ride instead of drive (the rural nature of Northern Ireland doesn't really contribute to commuting outside of Belfast since so many of us live so far aware from work). The best example of this kind of disjointed thinking was illustrated this weekend when some cyclists I know reposted a pic of some dickhead with an umbrella playing the hero by standing right in front of a speed camera as if this was some sort of admirable act. If they truly saw cycling as alternative transport surely they would think this man was as big an attention seeking imbecile as I do, since any attempt to improve road safety should be welcomed by cyclists.

So please bring the Giro back. It would be great to see the TdF starting in NI as well but since the opening week of the Tour tends to coincide with the trouble associated with marching session here, that is less likely. I would especially love to see the Vuelta make a rare foreign soujourn to start here as well. Furthermore, judging by the roads condition I have riden on lately we would also be a shoe-in to host the first edition of Paris-Roubaix to be held outside of France! But let's keep things in perspective and stop expecting such events to deliver a legacy they are not really able to do. Let's enjoy the Gran Fondos (and introduce a medium route for God's sake) and revisit our memories but remember that the lasting impact will be encouraging tourists to come ride our roads and spend their euros and dollars, and not to disuade Johnny or Mary from driving when they could be cycling or walking-that requires a much different and long term approach.

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