Even 19 months on from the Giro d’Italia’s Big Start in Belfast and Dublin and the impact is still being felt in the cycling landscape.
Maybe in the same way that the 2007 Tour de France Grand Depart in London seemed to act as a catalyst for cycling there, there’s still a buzz felt in NI and not just by bike shops but also event companies who have used the event as a starting point.
Shadetree Sports hosted the 2014 Giro Big Start after putting in the winning bid with organiser RCS Sport. “Our working relationship with RCS Sport was very good indeed,” explains Shadetree Sports co-founder Darach McQuaid. “One element we were aware of was their ambition to bring the Giro brand around the world and their expansion of the Giro-branded Gran Fondo series was a big part of this. We attended a Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia event in Miami in 2012 and immediately saw the potential for an event in Northern Ireland.”
When the Big Start came around the local reception was enthusiastic, giving Shadetree the confidence to start laying the groundwork for a NI-set Gran Fondo.
“When we saw how strong the ‘buy in’ was progressing in NI and how big the welcome was going to be, we engaged with our partners in the NI Executive and Tourism NI to look at an official legacy event of the Giro’s start and the natural fit was the Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia. Minister Arlene Foster gave us a verbal commitment during the Giro’s Big Start, and we worked hard to turn that into a multi-year commitment, which we were able to announce early in 2015.”
And so the first Giro d’Italia Gran Fondo took place in June this year and surpassed expectations, with over 3,200 riders taking part in the two routes (the 173km Mourne Route and 58km Strangford Route).
It took place on closed roads, achievable thanks to a working relationship with key local partners like PSNI, first forged for the Giro Big Start. The stage venue of Titanic Belfast was the start and finish site and “the perfect location for the weekend’s activities”, says McQuaid. Institutional partners like Tourism NI and Newry, Mourne & Down Council, were on board like sponsors including Farnese Vini (every rider received a bottle of their Italian wine in their goody bag), Menabrea Italian beer, DeCecco pasta and Moy Park chicken so after finishing riders could enjoy an authentic Italian dinner party. “The atmosphere was really fantastic,” McQuaid says.
The event wisely catered for families too, with plenty to keep kids occupied like a Street Velodrome at Titanic Belfast and a Sustrans NI-organised ‘piccolo fondo’. McQuaid adds: “We were also lucky enough to have Stephen Roche and Richie Porte with us for the weekend. Setanta Sports Television broadcast a 30 minute show on the event and we had a full colour supplement in The Belfast Telegraph, so media interest was quite high.”
After a strong debut, the organisers have big aspirations: “We are very ambitious. Clearly there has been an upsurge in cycle sportives so the need to stand out is key to attracting serious numbers of riders. With the Giro d’Italia DNA, fully policed closed roads, Irish hospitality mixed with Italian food and wine –- we feel this Gran Fondo will grow and become one of the ‘must do’ events on the cycle sportif calendar.”
Reaching out to riders from England, Scotland and Wales is part of the strategy: “We have ambitions to bring this series to markets in GB and are currently speaking with venues. We also have a strong desire to bring the Giro d’Italia back to NI.”
The Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia 2016 will take place June 5th.
This article was originally published in December's BikeBiz mag as part of our Regional Spotlight on Ireland and Northern Ireland. You can read the whole issue online, for free. If you're in the bicycle trade then you can get BikeBiz magazine through the post for free.