Giro d'Italia: Cathedral city embraces festival mood as thousands enjoy partying in pink
The cathedral city of Armagh said 'arrividerci Giro' as it sent the world's toughest cycle race on its final leg through Northern Ireland.
In the shadow of St Patrick's Cathedral, thousands crammed into the traditional market area known as the Shambles Yard as 22 teams signed up for stage three of the Grande Partenza.
A sea of pink balloons was released to mark the start of the morning's festivities, and 6,000 giant foam hands were waved in the air. Thankfully, the pink raincoats only made brief appearances in what was a largely sunny day. Embracing the giro fever, local fans got into the dress code, and there were everything from pink pigs to pink Celts from the nearby Navan Fort getting into the spirit of the day.
Stage three of one of the world's top cycle races saw the 22 teams journey the 187km from Armagh city through Loughgall, Richhill, Hamiltonsbawn, Markethill and Keady, before crossing the border into Dundalk for the journey on to Dublin.
And while the Northern Irish public may not have been overly familiar with some of cycling's international stars before the Giro, headliners such as Svein Tuft and Michael Matthews got the biggest cheers as they were signed in – alongside Irish riders Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan – while starstruck children reached across the barriers to touch their new sporting heroes.
Onstage at The Shambles to officially open proceedings yesterday morning were Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster and Lord Mayor of Armagh Robert Turner.
"Once again Northern Ireland has proved that, in rain or shine, we can host top-class major events," said Mrs Foster.
Cardinal Sean Brady was also on stage to say 'bonjourno' and pray for the cyclists' safety, while the Archbishop of Armagh Richard Clarke prayed for "sportsmanship at its very best".
One of those making the effort to dress for the occasion was roller rink owner Stephen Lynch, from Armagh, who was in a woolly pink pig suit with six-month-old baby Hayley in a handy pouch.
"I wasn't that excited about the Giro until I saw the build-up, and I wanted to be a part of it," he said. "This is really cool."
Stephen's wife Caroline, from Canada, added: "I watched the big cycling competitions in Montreal so it is nice to get something similar here."
Another standing out in the crowd was Armagh's Noel Flynn, who turned out in his pink Mexican hat, adorned it with a model bike on on top, and dyed his paint overalls pink.
"It is great for Armagh and Northern Ireland, for everybody," he said of the Giro. "I was surprised when I heard it was coming here, it is a big event.
"There was a concert in the Mall on Friday night and a fireworks display. The atmosphere was fantastic."
Cycling enthusiast Kyle Nelson from Lisburn biked it into the host city for the day.
"I have been cycling for 10 years and the biggest distance I have done is a lap of Lough Neagh," he said. "I do not know how the riders do it. They make it look too easy, especially on some of the hills. I hope more people will get involved now in cycling."
Armagh business owner Ivy Hughes-Brennan said trade had been booming in the town.
"This has been the most amazing experience that we have ever seen around Armagh and it has been fantastic to see so many tourists," she said. "I cycled around the local route on Friday. It was 25 miles. I had not been on a bike in 20 years.
"I have had such fun. It was also lovely to see the police coming through and everybody waving. That is what really struck me. This is what I want my children to see."
Her son Luke (14) added: "It has been the best experience of my life. We've all got bikes and have been out every day since we heard of it."