Notwithstanding the glory years of the 1980s, Irish cycling owes a debt of gratitude to the late Shay Elliott. It was he who left the security and sanctuary of family life in the late 1950s, he who risked everything for a career in continental cycling. Moreover it was he, one glorious afternoon in 1960, who delivered Ireland's first Giro stage.
On the stage to Belluno, Shay's boss, maglia rosa Jacques Anquetil, gave him leave to ride for himself. With the talented Graziano Battistini up the road, he jumped out of the peloton in the company of a local named Aurelio Cestari. He was a good rider, Cestari, but when the rain came his bike-handling let him down. When he crashed Shay had no choice but to try to bridge across to Battistini alone. He did just that, then dumped him 5 kilometres from home, and would add stages of both the Tour and Vuelta. He wore the yellow jersey at the Tour as well, but died in tragic circumstances in 1971. He remains, however, a genuine Irish cycling icon.
SEE, HEAR, FEEL...
Despite a population of just 1.8 million, Northern Ireland boasts an extraordinary artistic patrimony. The writer C.S. Lewis was born into a Belfast family whilst Seamus Heaney, arguably the finest poet in the world before his death last year, grew up close to Lough Neagh. Today's stage will pass through Ballymena, home town of the actors James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson, whilst both Stephen Rea and Kenneth Branagh are Belfast boys. So too is the great Van Morrison. Is there anything remotely as ethereal and haunting as his seminal "Into the Mystic"? We very much doubt it…
MOMENT IN TIME
The first road stage of the Giro can be a real banana skin. Take 1991, for example, when the race began in Sardinia. The theory was that three ascents of the San Pantaleo climb would thin them out, but that a fast-finishing passista would prevail. All eyes, therefore, were on Silvio Martinello and Dmitri Konyshev, the new Russian star.
The problem was that the big hitters of the gruppo were so preoccupied with one another that they let a couple of foot-soldiers sneak under the radar. Two unknown Frenchmen, Didier Thueux and Perpignon's Philippe Casado, wriggled clear on the final ascent, and Casado held them off to win. Born in Morocco to a Spanish mother and a French father, he couldn't believe his luck. The odd criterium aside he hadn't won a race for three years, and his "Z" team had only sent him to keep Greg Lemond out of the wind. And yet here, on a clay-hot afternoon in Olbia, he somehow found himself… in the pink!
You look at the profile and it seems a no-brainer. It seems like a sprint, but the fact is that we're in the middle of the Atlantic. That's a very long way north, and it's also on the coast. The net result of that is that it's likely to be wet and extremely windy. If that's the case then anything can happen, and if someone loses a wheel the peloton could easily start blowing apart. Then we could see echelons, crashes and who knows what else. You're going to have 198 extremely nervous riders out there, and the last thing they will be doing is enjoying the view.
So yes, it ought to be a sprint, and if the weather is fine it will be a sprint. This isn't Southern Italy though, and that's why it's such an intriguing stage…