Roche 'speechless' at welcome
Ireland's ace professional cyclist Nicolas Roche said he was left proud but almost speechless by the welcome he received at the opening of the Tour of Italy in Belfast.
His father Stephen Roche won the Giro D'Italia 27 years ago and his protege could triumph in the sport's second most important event after the Tour de France.
Roche rode his bike carefully up the pink carpet behind his team mates on to the open air stage and lifted an arm to acknowledge the warmest of welcomes from tightly-packed supporters in the shadow of Belfast City Hall.
He said: "I am so happy and so proud to be here among you guys."
The Giro's three-day Big Start is being held in Ireland this year, it is traditional to take this showcase of Italian flair and style to another country.
He was only part of a ceremonial parade of some of the greatest names in the sport - but arguably the greatest crowd pleaser.
Roche added: "Thanks everyone for being here tonight, I am speechless."
Sharing the stage was the glittering golden prize, a column of spirals in the shape of a tornado with the names of every winner etched on it. Roche has played down his chances of being added to that illustrious list.
The Irishman said: "It is just unreal...I am so happy that they let me ride the Tour of Italy."
A Babel's Tower of lycra-clad talent processed on to the stage, the favourites hailing from countries as diverse as Australia and Colombia.
The Colombians wore sunglasses as an unnecessary precaution against sunshine, skies were leaden, but their spirits were high nonetheless, throwing their baseball caps to the crowd as they followed their yellow, blue and red flag into the venue.
Team Sky from Britain also received some of the loudest applause, although much of their talent is keeping powder dry for the Tour de France.
Philip Deignan from the outfit 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."
The four jerseys up for grabs, pink for the leader, red for the competitor with best points classification, blue for the top climber and white for the most promising young rider, were paraded by models catwalk style.
Pink confetti and balloons filled the sky as the event was declared open before a crowd of many hundreds. Opera-style Italian music filled the air. Stunt riders on low-slung bicycles performed tricks while outside the grounds of the city hall many spectators rested on their pedals as they watched the ceremony.
Groups of pink shirt-clad cyclists have descended on the city from all parts while some fans wore the shirts of their favourite riders.
Buildings across Belfast are to be lit up in the rosy hue and even cocktails bear the name Maglia Rosa, the jersey worn by the lead rider.
Friday's opening event will be a time trial setting off from the docks where the Titanic was launched and including the regional parliament at Stormont.
On Saturday the action takes in the dramatic North Coast before the elite cyclists depart from Ireland's ecclesiastical capital, Armagh, on Sunday for Dublin.