Gran Fondo 2016: Thousands pedal off from Titanic Belfast start
After spectacular introduction in 2015, the Gran Fondo is back in Northern Ireland and bigger than ever before
The Gran Fondo is back in Northern Ireland.
First time around it was a big success and 12 months on this wonderful sporting event promises to be even better.
On Sunday June 5, almost 4,000 cyclists will ride around Northern Ireland enjoying the stunning routes and savouring the feelgood atmosphere.
There will be some who will be keen to win the race, others will want to post fast times and then there will be those who just want to go out in the open air, get on their bike and have lots of fun.
It’s that mix of the elite and amateur riders pedalling over the same roads that makes the Gran Fondo so special.
In 2015, around 3,000 people took part when this celebration of cycling was first staged in Northern Ireland.
Many of them will be involved again, but there will also be rookies ready to give it a try.
The beauty about the Gran Fondo is that it is a mass participation cycling event, where everyone is welcomed; from the battle hardened rider to new kids racing round the block.
The Gran Fondo experience has been popular for years across Europe and in North America.
Now the Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia Northern Ireland is making its mark amongst the cycling fraternity, so much so that competitors are travelling here from countries such as Australia, Spain, Sweden, Canada, France, Germany, Lithuania, Malaysia, Norway and the USA to take part.
Think about that for a second. From all over the globe people will make their way to our wee country for this special occasion.
Expect an Italian flavour too.
After all, the Gran Fondo was invented in Italy. The idea to bring it to Northern Ireland flourished on the back of the announcement that the world renowned Giro d’Italia cycling race would be coming to the place we call home in 2014.
Back then when people thought about sports connected with Northern Ireland, cycling would not have been uppermost in most minds, but the monumental success of the Giro two years ago changed that.
For three days, thousands and thousands of spectators lined our roads and streets to cheer on the world’s top riders as the Giro’s ‘Big Start’ in Northern Ireland became one of the Giro’s biggest hits.
I recall talking to cycling heroes like Nairo Quintana and Marcel Kittel about how enthused they were to race in front of so many excited and supportive people as Northern Ireland turned pink, the colour associated with the Giro.
Following the glory of the Giro in Belfast and beyond, there was an increase in cyclists whizzing around our roads.
The Gran Fondo has enhanced a growing legacy with plans to continue for years to come.
If organisers were overwhelmed by the response to last year’s event — the first of its kind in Northern Ireland — they have been hugely encouraged that numbers have risen for the 2016 showpiece.
This year’s Gran Fondo on Sunday, June 5 promises to give participants a truly authentic Giro experience with fully policed closed roads.
Just like last year there are two routes, one long at 175km called the Mourne Route and the other not so long, the Strangford Route at 58km with both beginning and ending at the Titanic Belfast building.
The Mourne Route will challenge the fittest riders by providing tough climbs and take them through some breathtaking scenery including the Spelga Dam and Slieve Croob with views over Lough Neagh.
The Strangford Route is a loop achievable for beginner and novice cyclists covering a route around North Down with the beauty of Strangford Lough to keep them company for much of the way.
Participants will enjoy mechanical support, fully stocked food and hydration stations on both routes.
Come the finish there will be huge pride for all the riders as they complete the respective courses and deservedly receive their medals.
And consider this, Giro d’Italia Winners, World Cycling Champions and legends of the sport Stephen Roche and Gianni Bugno will also be riding on June 5.
That’s like going out for a run and having Lord Sebastian Coe or Dame Kelly Holmes jogging alongside you!
The Gran Fondo truly is an event for all. And it won’t be over when riders cross the line.
There will be opportunities to have photographs taken with the iconic Giro Trophy at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, here a post ride pasta party and a closing ceremony will take place.
There will also be loads of family activities as part of the Northern Ireland Festival of Cycling, which will include a televised round of Street Velodrome, the UK pop up track series.
It’s worth noting that the Gran Fondo here is not only for cycling lovers — it is for all the country.
It is a major boost for the economy with hotels, restaurants and shops among those reaping the benefits of having so many visitors and locals spending money.
And let’s not forget about the inspiration factor for our children to see thousands of people involved in such a healthy pursuit.
Maybe your child will get on their bike and join in the fun and who knows perhaps on the back of the Gran Fondo, Northern Ireland could find another world champion like Martyn Irvine from Newtownards or Wendy Houvenaghel from Upperlands.
Either way, we should all be overjoyed that the Gran Fondo is in Northern Ireland again.
Here’s to another brilliant event.
If you are competing on June 5 have a great time and even if you aren’t give the riders a cheer if you see them.
It may have been made in Italy, but come Sunday, Northern Ireland will make the Gran Fondo its own.