I have the requisite stickers on the car, and the accreditation around my neck but the younger lady volunteer isn’t sure if I can drive on the corsa. “I don’t know, dear. The police blocked that road,” she says, beckoning an older representative.
“Sure, we’re in charge of the cones now, not the police,” says the very friendly elderly lady as she removes the obstacles. “On you go now!” We’re on track and the sun is shining. It’s six miles to Ballymena, we have a full tank of gas, Il Garibaldi, chocolate and some bottled water. Let’s go!
A two-stop strategy was in place for the day with an initial photo-op in Ballymena as the Giro headed north, and then a careful cross-country clip to Cushendall to catch it going south back to Belfast. Today was the big opportunity for Northern Ireland’s stunning coastal highway to be displayed to the world, but the weather didn’t quite play ball.
By the time we park up on the A43 out of Ballymena and wander back into town, the rain has become a steady drizzle, but the fans are already in place. My partner Valerie points out the difference between the Irish and the Continentals. Here, when it rains, people just stand waiting unconcerned, rather than react as though someone’s opened the heavens and poured acid down on Earth.
Kayla the black labrador has been persuaded into a pink jumper for the day, and her owners are also sporting the right colours. We have a chat with her ‘daddy’, who discusses what the Giro’s visit means for the country. It’s the biggest event to come, and it means more big events will follow. People are tired of bitterness and fighting. Here, for the Giro, they’re uniting behind something instead of looking for problems.
In fact, we’d spoken to a Polish family who’ve been in Ballymena for ten years and felt right at home here. The old lady huddled under an umbrella next them smiled and said they were as local as could be.
The breakaway is coming: Belkin, Lotto-Belisol, Neri Sottoli and Colombia come squishing through. On the front is big Martin Tjallingii, powering the escape.
Across the road, the cycling club start timing the gap to the main field as the weather brightens and the sun’s rays start to bounce off the road.
It’s about six minutes by the time Orica-GreenEdge reach us, but it’s hard to pick out individuals as most riders are in full rain gear.
Once the field has passed, the police outriders roll by, exchanging high fives with young fans. It’s another little sign of progress, because the police have had a fractious historical relationship with the communities here.
We set out across country, rolling through beautiful, rain-nurtured fields and valleys, avenues of green-leaved trees and stunning views all around. We’re heading for the east coast, where Antrim shakes hands with the sea.
We start to drop down towards the water, along twisting roads lined with picture-book houses. We know we’re in the right place when a giant mural of a hurling player looms into view, painted on a building’s gable end. This is Cushendall, one of many scenic villages along the route.
It seemed like the ideal place to hang out, coming just after a King of the Mountains sprint. The village is in full cry, despite the weather which has now turned from gloomy to Stygian, as the rain comes clattering down.
Kearney’s, the butchers, have a stall set up selling burgers and the aroma is fabulous. Every shop front has made an effort, from pubs to hair and beauty salons. The Lurgin Inn has pairs of pink hurley sticks (one is called a camán in Irish Gaeilge) mounted on the walls. The Glens Hotel has a maglia rosa-clad donkey on the roof.
Our breakaway is still clear, as I balance on a wall outside the police station. Around me, as I’ve been contemplating the raindrops, the crowd numbers have swelled. It’s hard to pick the riders from the fans at the bottom of the hill.
Pink wigs abound, a fellow in Pink Panther costume climbs and descends the hill out of the village, and when the marshals have to get him off the road as the race approaches, the crowd boos good-naturedly.
The lead is now down to about four minutes and change, as the gruppo steams through. It’s one long, miserable looking procession, and gaps are appearing between wheels. It’s a hard start to this Giro.
All the sprinters are being protected by their teams as the rain eases … a little. It’s been absolutely tipping it, ramrods straight down. My no-longer-waterproof jacket is leaking at the shoulders, rain beads the brim of my cap but apart from my backpack and the tips of my boots, everything else is dry. It’s flat calm so the rain has been from the utter vertical. And the fans stood through the whole deluge waiting … the guys across the road have their front door open, but never once go for shelter. Hard core.
The end of race vehicle rolls by, red flags fluttering on the roof. A pair of ancient Irish gentlemen exchange glances and, as they trudge back down the hill in front of me, one says to his pal: “Ah well. That’s it for another hundred years!”
We duck into a shop to shelter and meet Lorraine, the lady who served us our breakfast yesterday in the guesthouse back in Crumlin! Small world. She and her friend had had a ball, dressed to the nines in pink, and were both in favor of the Giro.
Overheard on the way back to the car, a father to his child, a snippet that nailed what a big deal the Giro d’Italia’s visit really is: “You’ve just seen the second-biggest bike race in the world … here! In Northern Ireland! Isn’t that incredible?”
We head back towards the beautiful Lough Neagh, a huge inland lake, and the weather continues its high-speed shuffle selection with dramatic sunlit grey pulled out for a moment. It’s the perfect full stop on the day.
Tomorrow the race, moves from Armagh to Dublin, and we’ll be there. Oíche mhaith!