| 13.5°C Belfast

The Giro d'Italia will transform Northern Ireland into an exciting festival of two-wheeled action


People across Northern Ireland, including Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir, are getting excited about the Giro

People across Northern Ireland, including Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir, are getting excited about the Giro

People across Northern Ireland, including Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir, are getting excited about the Giro

What am I going to get out of the Giro d'Italia? I am a daily cyclist. Most of my time on two wheels is spent tootling around Belfast to classes and meetings.

Occasionally, I take longer jaunts out into the countryside. I am not a fast cyclist and I am not competing with anyone.

So, those world-class sportspeople who will be zipping past us at near-impossible speeds are not going to turn me into a racer.

I might envy their incredible prowess. Maybe they should envy me the simple pleasure of a more sedate way of cycling.

We and the TV cameras will see the backdrops of the Titanic Quarter and the drumlins and the coast. The racers will see Tarmac and the backsides of the riders in front of them. A race is a good tour spoilt; that's what I think.

None of those riders would be seen dead on either of my bikes. Both have steel frames; one has low gears that would nearly get you up the side of a house and the other has no gears, or one, which makes it more fun over short distances.

Most cycling journeys in Belfast are under five miles. Some of those making them started out trying to get fit, or just trying to get to work cheaply. You see rivers of bikes going down the Ormeau Road in the mornings now, though fewer in other parts of Belfast.

Whatever the motives for starting out cycling, there are a few basic discoveries that keep you at it. One is, of course, that you are fitter. Another is that you can get across the city in rush hour faster than any car on the road. We cyclists complain about how badly the city is structured round our needs, but, at the same time, we are laughing up our sleeves. It is almost like we have worked a scam on the rest of you.

For cycling is fun. I might leave the house in a grumpy, urgent mood, but once I am actually rolling and swerving, my spirits lift, even in the rain, so long as I have my leggings on.

And though I could fulminate about the strange system of cycle lanes we have, I acknowledge that my daily routes often take me along the river and through two parks and that, so long as I am not late – which is unlikely on a bike – I am winning.

I have fresh air, I'm having fun, the view is great and I'm a bit smug, because I see you smouldering in your car, or trudging along.

So, before we start campaigning for what cyclists still need, let's pause to acknowledge that they are better off already for having made the smarter choice about how to get around. And I think the Giro will convey something of that.

Aside from the race, there will be several events promoting the joys of cycling and discussing the problems. I will be talking at the Mac; I'll be on a panel discussion at the Ulster Hall, and I'll be at the Linen Hall Library introducing Tim Moore, who has cycled the courses of the Giro and the Tour de France.

So, though the event is a race among supercyclists, Belfast has appropriated the whole thing as a chance to discuss ordinary cycling, commuting and tootling.

And there will be much to celebrate in how things are changing; the new routes and new bridges. And there will be much to argue for; old railway lines to be developed as cycling routes, relations between cyclists and pedestrians, and between cyclists and other cyclists.

For cycling is a bit chaotic. Pedestrians walk on cycle lanes, thinking – reasonably enough – that the footpaths are theirs, but they aren't anymore. Some get annoyed if you ring your bell at them, some if you don't.

Some cycle lanes go against the flow of traffic, which drives motorists crazy, especially at night. Cyclists themselves just wander where they will; many don't have any sense that they should keep to the left if meeting another cyclist coming the other way on a cycle lane.

Go any day to the Ormeau Bridge crossroads and see how bikes traverse them diagonally and watch the near misses between them.

What the Giro will do for cyclists like me is provide the context for a fuller discussion about cycling in Northern Ireland.

And this is what we need.

The rapidity of change has been surprising and the implications of it are not worked out yet. Cycling feels radical and even a bit mischievous, but the Government is behind it, wants to develop it and transform our cities. It ticks boxes for them in relation to carbon fuel cuts and reduction of obesity.

But this annoys a lot of people, too. Many motorists truly believe they have more right to road space than the biker in front of them has. They are not going to see their rights affirmed, but further eroded.

Every year there are more bikes on the road. The Executive is considering more changes to favour them.

Next week will be a celebration of biking. After that, the conversation between bikers and other road-users gets more serious.

Belfast Telegraph