Gran Fondo: Kane leads from front to claim victory
The Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia's first visit to Northern Ireland was hailed as a huge success after more than 3,000 cyclists took to Northern Ireland's roads yesterday.
The amateur sportive, linked to the Grand Tour event that held its Big Start in Belfast last year, saw 1987 Triple Crown winner Stephen Roche and Team Sky's Richie Porte tackle the 173km route alongside a host of enthusiastic riders.
After finishing, Roche was quick to praise Northern Ireland's cycling fans after they once again lined a route that travelled as far south as Rostrevor before making its way back to Belfast.
"I'm sure it will have disrupted people's normal Sunday's goings on but to have people clapping you on your way, standing all the way along the road with balloons in the gardens and things, it just reminded you of the Giro last year," he said of the event that will return in 2016 and 2017.
"It was great to see, especially on the closed roads, and people will really have enjoyed it.
"What the organisers have done with the Italian village type of thing has just made it a real festival which is exactly what you want.
"For the first year, to have over 3,000 people taking part, it has been really been amazing."
The race was won by Mark Kane, a cyclist who represented Ireland at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Crossing the line in a time of 5 hours and 11 minutes, the Belfast man was riding solo for the final 40km after pulling clear of his nearest challengers and he eventually finished five minutes clear of the chasing pack despite suffering a fall in the final moments.
Speaking of his training regimen in the build up to the race, Kane joked that it had matched the intensity of his Olympic build-up.
"With something this distance, you need to do some big long rides in preparation so I've been stepping up the miles recently," he said.
"I had a little bit of a tumble near the end but I was still able to get in with a good time that I'm happy with.
"We seemed to go over every hill there was in Co Down so, with the wind and the rain coming in as well, it was a very testing route.
"It was a good challenge though and that's what it's all about, to get everybody out doing something a little bit different from their usual club runs."
It proved to be a family affair as brother Dave finished second with Chris Richardson rounding out the podium.
A shorter race, a loop that also left from Titanic Belfast but took in Moneyreagh, Ballygowan, Whiterock and Comber, was won by Chris McKeown in a time of one hour, 51 minutes.
And while the performance of the Kane family was impressive, they were not the only noteworthy siblings on show after Milton and John McKeag, aged 93 and 98, completed the 58km.
Darach McQuaid of Shadetree Sports, who will play an integral role in the bid to bring the Giro d'Italia back to Northern Ireland in the coming years, was thrilled that the province once again displayed such enthusiasm for the sport and said that the sight of the sizeable peloton taking off from Titanic Belfast was one that will live long in the memory.
"We had a target initially of 2,500 and we've gone well over that," he said.
"We've had people from Australia, Italy, France and Germany coming to race.
"There's media from Spain, Italy, Germany here as well.
"There's been really great rider participation and really great international media attention as well. The site that we have here is magic.
"The iconic view, to have that Titanic museum in the frame of our start/finish line as everyone took off, is going to be really memorable.
"It was pretty impressive to see that many cyclists all in good humour at that time in the morning and just loving being part of the race."
With a Street Velodrome, Giro expo, a host of traders and a 'pasta party' for all riders, organisers delivered the promised 'festival of cycling' and McQuaid was thrilled by the tone of the event.
"The atmosphere was wonderful," added McQuaid
"The Street Velodrome, the pasta party, the expo, they were all busy the whole weekend.
"The vibe was magic and the event side has been spectacular. That has to be down to the people."