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Gran Fondo 2016: Tickled pink by 2015’s everlasting memories

Exhilarating ride through Northern Ireland's breathtaking scenery will never be forgotten by thousands of participants

By Declan Bogue

Those who took part were smiling about the thought of it for months afterwards.

It was deemed a huge success when years before people would never have dreamt something like this could have happened.

We’re talking about the Gran Fondo Northern Ireland 2015.

It was the first year Northern Ireland had hosted the Gran Fondo – a legacy event coming from the Giro d’Italia which started here in 2014.

Expect more joy and happy memories for riders in 2016 and with its future secure, there will be further events in 2017 and 2018.

It was the 2015 Gran Fondo that helped lay firm foundations for years to come.

For enthusiasts of the Velo, the Gran Fondo is the chance to live the experience. On closed roads, riders could tuck in and begin a thrilling descent, keeping their eyes on the road and feeling the extreme excitement that being at one with your balance brings.

More: Gran Fondo 2016: Road closures for routes through Belfast to Strangford and the Mournes

Or they could take it easy and ride in packs, enjoying scenery that mountains carved out of ice caps, millennia ago.

Riders had two choices in 2015; a 173 kilometre (cycling is always measured in the continental kilometres, it’s a question of style and chic) trek taking in the majesty of ‘where the Mourne mountains sweep down to the sea’ as Percy French put it, or the 58 kilometre circuit that takes in the different, but equally as visually stunning, Strangford Lough.

The big event was claimed by former Irish international star Mark Kane, a man immersed in the sport since growing up in his family’s bike shop. In tough weather conditions, his brother Paul drifted in behind him, second by a couple of minutes.

Speaking afterwards, Mark said he hoped the Giro d’Italia spin-off event, which organisers said was the largest ever mass participation sporting event to be staged in Northern Ireland, would help cycling grow.

“It’s great for cycling in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“I’m really pleased, after having to leave Northern Ireland and go to the continent to race, to come back here and have such a big event. It’s just fantastic for me as a former international cyclist and an Olympian.”

More: Gran Fondo 2016: Thousands get set for Titanic Belfast start

It’s hard to believe now, but Kane took part in the Barcelona Olympics of 1992.

With over 3,000 amateurs taking part, they were able to bomb along through towns and villages with crowds two or three deep, cheering and encouraging them all the way to the finishing line at the Titanic Quarter in east Belfast.

One such amateur was Lisburn’s Joelene Bunting (38), who enthused afterwards: “I’ve been involved in cycling for about 20 years and it’s just great to keep fit. Watching the Giro last year and then being able to be part of this has been so enjoyable. The atmosphere has been fantastic. The guys at the side had all the pink out and had their bells out ringing them.

“Going through Strangford and going through Comber there were so many people out. The working hard, and digging deep up the hills... I think that is where you get the buzz from. It has been amazing.”

Another, Alex McGreevy (43), a well-known Belfast PR man behind the success of the ‘Match for Anto Finnegan’ Gaelic football match at Kingspan Stadium and who was raising funds for the NI Hospice, recalls: “We went out as a big group and mixed with other cycling clubs — the etiquette in cycling is second to none. People are so friendly and supportive.

“The atmosphere was just brilliant. In 2014 we were all fans of the Giro and last year we were actually taking part.

More: Clergyman vents his frustration as Gran Fondo road closures force church to cancel children's service

“The support along Ballygowan and right around the route was just brilliant and to have so many people out that early in the morning was fantastic. It was great to be part of it.”

And think of this special tale from the peloton. Norman Kane, an engineer from Ballymoney, was over 22 stone just a year before the big event.

He caught the cycling bug and was amazed that the weight began to fall, and fall, and fall off him.

By the time he took his place for La Grand Depart, he was down to a mere 10 stone and looking sensational on his stylish black, red and white Giant bike, with powerful thighs and prominent cheekbones.

“I hadn’t realised I was 22 stone until I was weighed at the doctors last May and I just came home and said to my wife Jennifer that I was going to do something about it,” the dad-of-two told the Belfast Telegraph.

“I first went on the pharmacy liquid diet plan Lipotrim for 11 weeks but I knew I had to exercise as well.

“So as I don’t like swimming or running, it was time to get my mountain bike out again.

More: Gran Fondo Northern Ireland: Take a ride of the 2016 Strangford route

“The first time I went out and did five miles. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, but I do about 150 miles each week now.

“I lost 10-and-a-half stone by eight months on a strict diet and on the bike. People tell me it’s amazing, but I don’t really see it as that.

“It was just something that had to be done.”

A facet of the 2015 event was that a fifth of those taking part, actually hailed from outside of Northern Ireland. As Martyn Irvine, the former cycling World Champion from Newtownards says elsewhere in this supplement, “Build it and they will come.”

With the renowned hospitality and easy friendliness of people in this corner of the world, the potential for further cycling extravaganzas is whatever you want it to be.

Imagine a week-long event, taking in the sights of Northern Ireland. A route through Cushendall, taking in Torr Head. Perhaps a day of climbing around the Sperrins. Or a time-trial doing a lap of Lough Erne in Fermanagh.

For those taking part this year, we salute you.

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