SUPERSTAR Sir Bradley Wiggins has said he rates the Giro d'Italia – which starts in Belfast in May – as the world's greatest cycling race.
Praise indeed from a man who won the rival Tour de France in 2012 – the first British rider to achieve the feat – and has yet to triumph in the Giro, which he used to follow as a child growing up in London.
Some of cycling's biggest stars will compete in the glamour race – won last year by home favourite Vincenzo Nibali – with the first three days of action taking place around Northern Ireland, on May 9, 10 and 11.
It will be the biggest sporting event ever to take place here and organisers are hoping Wiggins will compete with the four-time Olympic gold medallist also including the Tour of California in his May schedule.
Wiggins is still keen to contest Grand Tours – Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana.
"Grand Tours are still very much on my radar, maybe not for the overall, but certainly as being part of a successful team and contributing to that success," the Team Sky rider said.
To celebrate the arrival of this year's Giro d'Italia, 'The Big Italian Bike Ride' will be held on May 4, taking in parts of the Grand Depart route as well as some of Ulster's most iconic landscapes.
Starting at the world-famous Titanic Quarter, there will be three distances on offer, catering for first time riders all the way up to the mile munching experts.
Chain Reaction Cycles are behind the sportive and have included timed sections on each of the distances, with the fastest rider over each winning a special commemorative jersey – a nice record of achievement.
There aims to be a real party atmosphere during the weekend of the sportive as Ulster gears up for what's set to be one of the highlights of the sporting calendar.
There will be a pasta party the night before The Big Italian Bike Ride along with Q&A sessions as well as special appearances from guest celebrities.
The routes will be Corto (87km, 790m of climbing), Medio (135km, 1050m of climbing) and Gran Fondo (225km, 1840m of climbing).
The Corto route includes a section of the Antrim Coast Road near Larne before moving on to Carrickfergus.
Medio takes in the descent of Munie Road down into Glenarm before the ride towards Larne and Carrickfergus.
Grand Fondo includes all the beautiful and popular highlights of the North Coast including Giant's Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and Dunluce Castle, then the climb from Ballycastle – the Giro's King of the Mountains equivalent – Cushendall and the Antrim Coast Road through Glenarm, Larne, Carrickfergus and back to Belfast.
Initial entry has been capped at 1,000 riders with a view to extending entry numbers based on demand.
The three routes have been constructed to cater for the beginner, intermediate and advanced cyclist with timed sections designed for the more competitive and competent riders.
Entry fee will be £40 which includes finisher's medal, t-shirt, goodie bag, entry to win a Vitus Vitesse bike, bike check, pasta party and Q&A entry plus professional marshal, mechanical and medical support.
Several celebrity guests – to be revealed soon – will ride the event.
So excitement is building as the legendary Giro d'Italia's first ever start in Northern Ireland is approaching fast. To see the likes of star names Wiggins and Nibali going head to head on Ulster roads will be something special.
Thrilling times indeed for Northern Ireland sports fans and cycling fans in particular.