Northern Ireland

Giro d'Italia: Northern Ireland stage begins in Belfast

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Media captionGiro d'Italia is helping Belfast show off its softer side as Chris Buckler reports

The world's second-largest bike race, the Giro d'Italia, has begun in Belfast.

Road closures have been in place for much of the day in many parts of the city and thousands of fans have been attending the international event.

Northern Ireland is hosting the initial stages of the competition over the next three days, which will see about 200 cyclists race through the streets.

A total of 22 teams are competing for the prestigious title.

'Absolutely incredible'

Cycling fans lined the city centre streets on Friday morning to get a glimpse of some of the world's best racers in action, as a practice session got under way.

The athletes were welcomed to Northern Ireland on Thursday evening at the official opening ceremony in Belfast.

About 5,500 members of the public gathered at Belfast City Hall as the teams were introduced on stage.

Some of the loudest cheers were given to Irish professional cyclist Nicolas Roche.

His father, Stephen Roche, won the Giro D'Italia 27 years ago.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Irish cyclist Nicolas Roche, whose father won the race in 1987, was left speechless by the welcome

Acknowledging the applause, Nicolas Roche said: "I am so happy and so proud to be here among you guys."

He added: "Thanks everyone for being here tonight, I am speechless."

Another Irish cyclist, Philip Deignan from Team Sky, was also given a loud welcome.

The County Donegal native said: "I never thought I would see the day when I would be able to start the race in my own country so it is amazing."

Belfast City Council's events manager, Gerry Copeland, said the atmosphere at the opening ceremony was "absolutely incredible".

'Glorious pink'

"Despite mother nature depositing a sizable amount of rain on top of the people, it really was fantastic."

Mr Copeland said there was "glorious pink everywhere" as the city embraced the traditional colour of the 97-year-old race.

Image copyright BBC Mark Simpson
Image caption One Giro d'Italia spectator was in the pink at Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly

The events manager added that hosting such a high-profile competition would boost Belfast's reputation on the international stage.

"About 775m people will actually view this event, they will see this city in its shining glory, so it's an amazing event to have."

Full details of road closures can be found at: www.trafficwatchni.com/giro.

From 09:30 BST to 12:30 BST on Friday, several streets in east Belfast, south Belfast, and the city centre were closed for the practice session.

The actual race has begun in the east of the city.

Image copyright BBC Mervyn Jess
Image caption The time trial has begun at Titanic Belfast in the east of the city

Stage one of the competition is a team time trial from Titanic Quarter to Stormont and on to Belfast City Hall.

The cyclists will travel to Stormont via the Newtownards Road then make their way through south Belfast to the city centre.

About 20 roads will be closed from 16:00 BST to 20:30 BST for the time trial.

Motorists have been warned to expect disruption in the city on Friday and to use alternative routes.

Image caption CS Lewis. Belfast-born author of the Narnia Chronicles, wraps up well courtesy of the Holywood Arches Library Knit and Natter Group

Spectators have been advised to walk, cycle or use public transport to get to the event.

On Saturday, the race moves on to the north coast, travelling along one of Northern Ireland's most scenic routes.

The third and final stage begins in Armagh on Sunday, as the competitors race over the border for a sprint finish in Dublin.

Image caption People in the village of Richhill, County Armagh, have painted their lambeg drums pink to welcome the Giro

The Giro d'Italia is the biggest sporting event ever staged in Northern Ireland, with competitors from more than 30 countries taking part.

The competitors are not the only group of cyclists taking to the streets in Belfast on Friday.

The Cycle Against Suicide campaign, which involves about 800 cyclists, is travelling from the City Life Centre in Northumberland Street to Portadown, County Armagh.

Image copyright Cycle Against Suicide
Image caption The Cycle Against Suicide campaign group is also travelling through Belfast on Friday

It is the first time the group have got back on their bikes since their campaign was hit by tragedy earlier this week.

Their 14-day tour around the island of Ireland was halted on Wednesday, when one of their motorcycle marshals, Brenawn O'Connell, was killed in a collision in County Donegal.

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