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The Giro d’Italia is starting Belfast…….. Say it again.
The Giro D’italia is starting in Belfast. I still can’t quite believe or understand how this happened. I’m still not convinced it actually is happening, I’m sure it’s a big old prank. Today I’m going down to the team introduction in with some of my club mates from Apollo Cycling Team and until I see something Italian I’m not going to be convinced. A bowl of pasta will do it then I’ll go into full mental cycling fan mode. Y’know that American fella you see running alongside Nibali up the Zoncolan dressed as a moose or something, that’s going to be me in a couple of hours.
My club mates are going full pink for the occasion, we’ve printed special t-shirts, the ladies have bought pink wigs and pink sunglasses, and the irony being the sun hasn’t shone here since biblical times. I’m sure the joke won’t be lost on our tanned visitors. Over here a tan washes off in the bath.
The very idea of the Giro D’italia starting in Northern Ireland is completely insane, just like the Giro itself, so in that sense we’re a good match for one another. We’re both deeply passionate and a wee bit mad and although it at first sounds crazy that the second biggest race in the world is starting in a corner of Europe that only 20 years ago was at war with itself. The custodians of the remaining British Empire often left wondering how the hell they ever got involved in the first place. Did you ever read the Asterix books as a kid? Of course you did, well you know the Gauls that the Romans could never tame, fighting with each other and everybody else too? That’s us.
Northern Ireland is officially the rainiest part of the UK and Ireland, it also has the highest number of convertible car owners. That right there, that us. Optimistic, happy and wild. Sure it’s raining, windy and cold in May, so what. As we say here, “you’re not made of sugar”.
When I was 16 I left Northern Ireland for England firstly then onwards to sunnier places, as did so many of us, our biggest export was our youth. I hated this place, when I say hate, I mean to the pit of my stomach. I remember coming home to visit the family. I got a train from the City airport, now George Best Airport, to Lurgan, the place I called home. The train passes St. Michaels school which is the first Lurgan landmark to greet you, it’s all fields till that point. I started to cry, involuntarily at the realisation I was back, from the bottom of my feet came a bilious swell of anger and self-pity. I was back in the hole of a place that to me was the cause of all black thoughts and black things.
The murder triangle my home was known as. I didn’t identify as nationalist or unionist, republican or loyalist. My pop culture wasn’t even Irish, I loved blues music, and rock n roll. My heroes were Bruce Lee and Robert Johnson, I wasn’t prepared to kill for a flag and I certainly was not prepared to die for one. My Father told me “don’t die for your country son, live for it”. This land of hate and lies hated me and I hated it, so I left intending to never return.
Life can be cruel, it can also be funny, it can also be right when you’re wrong.
1996 I found myself having to come home to collect some money owed to me, I was heading to South Africa with a bloke I’d met in Greece to become a fisherman on the promise of well-paid work. Sure why not, that’s the sort of thing I read in Hemingway, why not me? My debtor had skipped town leaving me abandoned and penniless in this homeland I hated. The war was over and we teetered on the brink of peace, wobbling one way then the other, terrified. It was then I met my soon to be wife. We quickly became married and be-sprogged. I still hated this place then, the stain of it wouldn’t wash away that easily, even now in my new life that was full of love the ingrained memory of terror still had a grip on me.
It was around then I joined a fledgling Apollo Cycling Team and we mountain biked the country, happy, drunk and wild. This wasn’t the Northern Ireland I had left behind, this was different this Northern Ireland had hope unlike the old one. I was still checking under my car for bombs, I was still full of fear and hate, I wasn’t convinced that this wasn’t a trick, a façade readied to collapse, but it didn’t collapse and it wasn’t a façade we’d built it was a foundation we were still building and every day without bomb or bullet was another barrow of concrete poured onto the founds.
Our club was formed in 1996 as a cross community club that both Protestants and Catholics could enjoy, a sign of how far we’ve come is that now that seems trite and childish.
In recent times we’ve hosted the World Police and Fire Games, the MTV music video awards, Derry was the UK city of culture, the Paralympic Games and now the Giro D’italia. It turns out we’re actually rather good at these things. Who knew?
When the Tour D’France started in Dublin in 1998 the idea of it coming across the border into the North wasn’t even mooted. No-one asked for it and no-one was surprised it didn’t happen and now here we are readied to launch the Giro today. To say we’re excited is an understatement, but we are a rather excitable people naturally. The explosion in cycling in Ireland this past 5 years has been immense and now the Giro is only going to add to that, new clubs are forming every month, old club names retired to the archives are being re-birthed by a new generation of cyclists whose fathers used to ride in those colours, when Roche won the triple crown in the 80s the number of licenses issued by Cycling Ireland peaked at 6000, as of January this year CI has issued over 20’000 licenses’. It’s impossible to get anyone of the phone at CI these days they’re that busy.
At 2pm today I’m getting on a train in Lurgan with my mates Keith, Marty, Myles and the rest of my club and I will pass St Michaels School on the way to Belfast to join the celebrations for the Giro D’italia, I won’t cry ugly tears this time, maybe happy ones. Tomorrow I’m keeping my two daughters off school and with my wife and 100 other club mates I call friends, bedecked in pink we’re going to watch the Team Time Trial in Belfast City centre. We will be loud, half drunk and happy. I now love Northern Ireland, I can’t quite believe it sometimes, but I do.
I have travelled the world and only want to live here, because the here and now is the sort of place that can host the Giro D’italia. That’s a Northern Ireland I can be in. The Giro coming here is the sort of symbol I can identify with. The Giro will now forever hold a special place in the hearts of us all here because it was the first. No matter what happens next the Giro D’Italia came here.
The only downside is our Strava records are being decimated , seeing Franco Pellozotti or Cadel Evans destroy your KOM is surreal. I will have to live with the knowledge I will never again be KOM on that Cat 4 climb out of Richill again.
Northern Ireland is now not the place of grainy news reports, flags and bombs, it’s the sort of place that launches the Giro D’italia. It’s a natural fit and it feels good. After this, the Tour, the Vuelta, the World Cup, the Olympics, Cape Canaveral 2 for the first Paddy in space.
Sure why not? 20 years ago whodathunk we’d be hosting the Giro?
VIVA IL GIRO and UP APOLLO.
Club Sec. Apollo Cycling Team