North West 200: I'm gutted to miss racing, says Maria Costello
The only female racer to sign up for this year's North West 200 has spoken of her deep disappointment after being forced to withdraw after crashing in practice.
Maria Costello told the Belfast Telegraph she was "absolutely gutted" after the crash on Thursday left her with a broken bone in her leg, ruling her out of today's main event.
"I love the North West and I love racing here because everyone always makes me so welcome," said the Northampton woman.
"I'm having to return home for medical treatment so that I can get back racing as soon as possible, and it's a real kick in the teeth not to be on the bike this weekend."
Maria, who counts herself as a quarter Irish because her grandmother hailed from Cookstown in Co Tyrone, said that the North West competed with some of the world's biggest biking meetings.
"The crowds here are awesome and there's a real passion for the sport; I'm completely blown away by it every time I race in Northern Ireland," she added.
Despite Maria having to pull out, race fans across the province will be swapping their pink Lycra and pushbikes for something with a bit more oomph today as Giro fever switches to North West fever.
Up to 80,000 people are expected to travel to the roads around Portrush, Coleraine and Portstewart for today's racing.
As temperatures are forecast to soar for a third day, organisers of Ireland's largest outdoor sporting event will be hoping for a controversy-free day after heavy criticism in recent years.
Last year torrential rain led to the event being cancelled for the second time in three years, with 2011 seeing heavy rain, a hoax bomb alert and an oil spill overshadowing the famous international road race.
Supporters will line the 8.9-mile circuit to see experienced names such as Michael and William Dunlop take on hot shot Alastair Seeley, while 42-year-old Michael Rutter will be looking to go one step closer to the late Robert Dunlop's all-time record of 15 victories at the seaside venue.
This year's event started with a blow for organisers after French rider Franck Petricola had to be airlifted to hospital in a critical condition after a crash during practice on Tuesday night.
The 31-year-old, competing in the event for the first time, crashed close to the start/finish area just four minutes before the session was due to end.
Last year race director Mervyn White hit out at what he called the "pittance" the event received from the Government compared to other big events in Northern Ireland.
He called for a more flexible road closing order to adjust for bad weather and race accidents.