Massive Giro d'Italia investment will pay dividends
They call it the Grand Partenza in this part of the world. It means 'Big Start' in Italian. And the emphasis is certainly on the Big.
Look no further than the stunning Palazzo del Ghiaccio in Milan, the scene of yesterday's official launch of the 2014 Giro d'Italia. It was lavish, ostentatious, dripping with atmosphere.
It was magnificent, and it had to be. The Italians are religious about their cycling and this is their cathedral, heaving with people and anticipation.
The Giro often ends in this city but it's next year's start, the Grand Partenza, that has caused extra ripples of excitement.
You didn't have to be fluent in Italian to realise that glamorous presenter Alessia Ventura, one of the country's biggest television stars, was talking about Belfast, about Northern Ireland – and about Ireland in general.
It's not very often the Giro, second only to the Tour de France at the summit of cycling, begins outside these shores. But, next May 9, the wheels of this huge global event will start to turn at Titanic Belfast with Bradley Wiggins the first confirmed big name.
Riders must choose from two of the Big Three, the tours of France, Spain and Italy, and with Olympic champion Wiggins opting out of the Tour de France he won last year, Belfast will gladly welcome him to the Giro party.
Northern Ireland's Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster was beaming with pride as hundreds of foreign journalists pored over maps of the province.
She had that "now I believe it" look upon her face.
Just over a week ago, however, she had a few doubts. Race director Michele Acquarone was suspended pending an investigation into financial affairs; was the dream suddenly over?
One phone call to the event's owners RCS erased any anxiety. The Giro would start in Belfast – and Northern Ireland would get to host the biggest event in its history.
You couldn't underplay the magnitude; Ms Foster confidently expects a staggering 150,000 visitors throughout the three days of a race that will take in the likes of Parliament Buildings, the Giant's Causeway, the north coast road and Armagh.
This event – the first time in the Giro's 114-year history it has been held outside continental Europe – dwarfs the World Police and Fire Games, the Irish Open, the MTV Awards ... even the G8 summit.
It will be watched by an estimated 775 million people in 165 countries; what an opportunity to showcase the best of Northern Ireland.
It's costing something like £4.2m to stage but nobody doubts that the funds, from a range of tourism stakeholders and sponsors, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Belfast City Council and Tourism Ireland, will be a winning investment.
Indeed, it emerged yesterday that Northern Ireland's bid for the Giro d'Italia wasn't actually the biggest on the table but, as far as the RCS is concerned, it was the most impressive.
And that's why over 200 of the world's leading cycling stars from over 30 different countries, along with their technical teams and sponsors – and fans – will descend on Belfast come May of next year for the event won this year by Italy's Vincenzo Nibali.
"RCS has designed exceptional opening stage routes in Northern Ireland and I am sure they will challenge the riders, entertain the thousands of spectators and showcase our tourism assets to millions," said Ms Foster, who added that she was feeling right at home in Milan as torrential rain fell outside.
The Northern Ireland leg of the race is in three stages – a 22 km time trial around Belfast, a loop around the north coast and a cross border final stage.
After the off at Titanic Belfast on May 9, the cyclists will take in the Newtownards Road, Stormont, Queen's Bridge, the Ormeau Road, Stranmillis and Belfast city centre.
The next day's 218 km cycle starts on Belfast's Antrim Road and goes to Antrim, Ballymena, Bushmills and the Giant's Causeway, taking in the coastline from Cushendall to Larne on to Whitehead and Carrickfergus and back to Belfast.
Sunday brings the final stage of the Ireland leg, courtesy of a 187km cross border section.
The riders will leave Armagh and head south via Richhill and Newtownhamilton, crossing the border at Forkhill en route to Dublin.
"I've been directly involved with the G8 and the World Police and Fire Games, but nothing matches this," said Northern Ireland Tourist Board member Duncan McCausland.
"You really couldn't wish for a better advert for the country, and I've no doubt we'll put on a show for the world next May."
Remarkably, the Giro d'Italia will be the first of two cycling Grand Tours to visit the UK next year, with the Tour de France holding its Grand Depart in Yorkshire.
Could there ever be a Grand Depart from Northern Ireland? A confident Arlene Foster isn't ruling it out.
"If we do this well, and this is the second biggest cycle race in the world, then there is no reason why we can't go for the big one," she said.
"It says a lot about Northern Ireland – and where we want to be."
Roll on the Grand Partenza.