Giro d'Italia: Stormont Castle a perfect host as thousands cheer on riders
It was festival time at Stormont Castle in east Belfast last night when the Giro d'Italia rode through.
The sun was shining from mid-afternoon as thousands of people began to line up along the Upper Newtownards Road, through Ballyhackamore village, to Stormont Park. Those living on the road tied pink ribbons and balloons on gates and railings as they got into the Giro spirit.
Gazebos were erected, beers and wine chilled and barbecues were lit while pink-painted garden benches were sited to give fans the best possible view of what is one of the greatest road races on Earth.
Stormont Presbyterian Church, well known for its quirky posters, didn't miss an opportunity with a notice proclaiming 'God Loves All Races' as it hosted a good old-fashioned fete.
The vibe was part rock concert, part street party. The good-natured atmosphere was infectious as the crowds roared and clapped the teams as they raced through, then tracked their progress along the city's streets live via TV coverage on large screens dotted along the route.
However, as the rain came on there was a noticeable delay between the teams as the poor conditions hampered speed.
The pain and exertion – and perhaps concern – of the cyclists was plain to see on their faces as they whizzed past. The biggest cheer was reserved for any of the cyclists finding the going tough and trailing behind.
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Raymond and Donna Evans, with their son Steven, hosted a barbecue party for friends at their Newtownards Road home.
"It's an absolutely wonderful day," said Mr Evans. "And the best of it is that from here we can see the teams go up the road and then passing down again."
His guest Audrey Simpson summed up the mood.
"It just goes to show you the dichotomy of Northern Ireland. Five days ago we had Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness at each other's throats and today we are hosting a world-class event with everyone just having a marvellous time," she said.
Stormont Castle was a genial host as it provided a funfair while a live band performed rock classics to put the crowd in the mood to roar their welcome for the first of the race teams.
It was also an evening when even the most macho of men could proudly wear pink. One dog walker was spotted wearing the same pink T-shirt as his impressive Great Dane was sporting.
Others happily took the opportunity to wear bubblegum pink hair wigs with a slash of pink lipstick. Even the historic street lamps dotted along the Castle road were bound in pink ribbon.
Sonia Dart from east Belfast knew exactly why she was there with her friends.
"I'm here to see 200 men in Lycra, sure why not?" she laughed.
Caroline Mayne from Dundonald was there with her daughter Alexandria (15), and her friends Errin Hodgen and Erin Reilly, both aged 15.
"It's been a great day and everyone is enjoying it. It's good to know that it shows Belfast and Northern Ireland in a positive light to the world," she said.
Up to date information on public road closures can be found at trafficwatchni.com/giro.
RESULTS AFTER DAY ONE
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97th staging of the event
During its three days in Ireland, cyclists will travel 426.7km.
Over the three weeks, they will cycle almost 3,450km.
A potential audience of 775 million people is expected across 174 countries.
Expected to generate £2.5m for the economy, with some £10m-worth of international media coverage.