A truly stunning setting for Giro d'Italia spectacle: Rugged Antrim shines in the rain
Published 12/05/2014 | 09:00
They tuned in from across the world with the intention of watching cycling's elite in action.
But hundreds of millions of race fans could be forgiven for being distracted by Northern Ireland's spectacular scenery instead as it provided the stunning backdrop for one of sport's best-loved events.
The north Antrim coastline was awash with a sea of pink as tens of thousands turned out to welcome Stage Two of the thrilling Giro d'Italia as millions more looked on from home on Saturday.
From sheep to shopfronts, towns and villages were given a colourful makeover in honour of the jersey coveted by riders in the 200-strong racing pack.
And despite atrocious weather conditions, there were smiles aplenty as a fanfare welcome was rolled out to the cream of the sport's stars.
Crowds lined the entire route, from its early morning starting point in Belfast and onwards to Antrim, Ballymena and Ballymoney.
The market towns' most famous sons made their names on two wheels, although Joey and Robert Dunlop's hulking engines took the strain during their legendary exploits.
A short distance away, Bushmills, famed for its world-renowned distillery, provided a thundering welcome, courtesy of Lambeg drum-banging fans.
Some of those looking on tucked into a Giro-themed lunch while a local takeway served up pink fish and chips for the day.
Another traditional favourite was given the pink treatment too, with yellowman turning pink in Ballycastle.
Crowds in the town thronged its seafront hours before the riders passed through, with spectators six or seven deep as the leaders arrived to a carnival atmosphere.
Within minutes the main body of racers whooshed past, cheered loudly by their new legion of adoring fans.
Their rear wheels were out of sight within seconds, but for many in Ballycastle, and across Northern Ireland, the fleeting presence of the stars and the attention of a global audience was reward enough for bearing the sodden conditions.
"When you're wet, you're wet," laughed one fan.
Another, Darren Boyd – there with six-year-old son Ryan– said it had been a fantastic day.
"We're loving it," said Darren.
"We never watch cycling and I haven't been on a bike since I was his age but it's a super day out. Bit wet, but sure."
A German couple, sporting pink ponchos, were also impressed.
"We have seen the racing in Italy before but this is fantastic.
"Northern Ireland should be very proud. We will definitely come here again."
The Marine Hotel, like many businesses, did a roaring trade.
General manager Michael Yates said: "This shows that Ballycastle is a seaside town that can compete with the best of them."
From there it was both an uphill and downhill struggle for riders as they weaved their way through the stunning Glens.
As the race moved through Carnlough, riders were given a run for their money by a group of horse riders, with the animals galloping along the beach just yards from the competitors.
A number of those on two wheels smiled and waved at those travelling on four legs.
A young fan in Cushendall gave the visitors a north Antrim welcome, holding a placard which read: "Keep her lit, lads!"
More cheers and whistles rang out in Ballygally, Larne and Whitehead.
Carrickfergus Castle has faced down countless foreign invasions over the centuries. But the mighty structure provided the backdrop for the most welcome of visitors as the race reached the latter stages.
A bride and groom were given a police escort along the route to their wedding reception in the town, the proud groom later joking that the cheering crowds waving at them as they travelled through provided their day with the atmosphere of a regal celebration.
After a slog of more than 200km, fans gathered at the finish line in Belfast may have been expecting the riders to approach somewhat wearily.
How wrong they would have been. A fantastic day for Northern Ireland ended in suitably stunning fashion with riders sprinting towards the line to rapturous applause – and Marcel Kittel taking the stage win in a thrilling end after more than five wet hours in the saddle.