The Giro d'Italia, the second most prestigious bicycle race on Earth, kicks off this weekend roughly 1,200 miles from Rome. For the first time its history, the race has made a detour from mainland Europe. This year's race starts in Northern Ireland, the troubled republic turned adventure destination. For 2014, the race's famous Grande Partenza opening is the "Big Start."
The epic began on Friday with teams time-trialling across the capital city of Belfast, a city stilling reeling from the riots set off last year by the hoisting of the Union Jack at City Hall. Out on the 13-mile course, a mix of blustery Ulster weather and sharp turns tested the riders' mettle as they whipped their way from the city's revamped Titanic Quarter to the Stormont Parliament Buildings. With human missile and British favorite Mark Cavendish bowing out this year, German Marcel Kittel is tipped to be the early pace-setter, but any one of the 22 teams participating could pull away, especially given the unpredictable role of the weather swooping in off the Irish Sea.
Saturday's Stage two sees the beginning of the race proper, with a 135-mile loop circumnavigating County Antrim's coasts. Some of the prime real estate viewing spots can be bagged at the Giant's Causeway, a UNESCO-heralded wonder of basalt rocks, step-stoning into the North Atlantic, as well as Dunluce Castle, famed for its panoramic views of Scotland and more recently - Game of Thrones-themed parties.
Sunday's final stage sees the pelotons push south to Dublin along the invisible UK/Irish border – once marked by military checkpoints, now signalled by a subtle switch in cell-phone operators. The 116-mile leg along Ireland's east coast is a flat-race affair, bringing riders through the kitesurfing haven of Dollymount Strand and the Google and Twitter techville of Dublin's Docklands, before sprinting to the downtown finishing line at Merrion Square. As those 22 teams will be packing up their base paddocks for a long transfer back to Italy, Dublin's Giro party should be hitting top gear.
More info: The Giro d'Italia takes place in Ireland from May 9th-11th with the tour then leaping-frogging back to Italy for a further 18 stages. Beginning in heel province of Apulia the route will traverse regions from Lazio to Lombardy before ending up in Trieste on June 1st , 2143 miles and a few wheel-changes later.