THE PINK sheep are already famous and yesterday, as the Giro d’Italia spent its second day in Northern Ireland, they were joined by pink horses, pink pubs, pink houses, pink villages, pink towns and pink people, dressed in pink T-shirts, trousers and hats, quite a few of them sheltering under pink umbrellas.
Pink everywhere. At least it is a colour that, unlike some, seems to unite people. And yet it might have been so different, and more problematic. The colour of the Giro leader’s jersey – by extension the colour of the race – is pink because the pages of the organising newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, are pink, in much the same way that the pages of the founding newspaper of the Tour de France were yellow.
But originally Gazzetta’s pages were green. They switched to pink after three years, in 1896, and 12 years later the Giro d’Italia was born.
Pink, with no troublesome political or religious connotations, has been embraced by Belfast to an extent that the Giro organisers and city fathers (including the Lord Mayor, Mairtin O’Muelleoir, who has dyed his hair pink) could never have imagined, and it has been both impressive and inspiring to witness.
The Irish excursion by the world’s second greatest stage race is part of the Giro’s drive to increase its global profile – because it has to; because it’s not the Tour de France – starting in recent years in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. But this year’s has been the most ambitious and audacious Grande Partenza (‘big start’) yet, as well as the most northerly, and perhaps already, even before today’s third stage to Dublin, it can be hailed as the most successful.
Yesterday, on a 219km loop that took the riders north from Belfast to the Bushmills Distillery, then back to Belfast down the coast, alongside the Giant’s Causeway, the gloom descended.
It was grey and wet, and the television pictures were not as spectacular as they might have been, but spirits remained high among the spectators, if not all the riders.
A bunch sprint was always on the cards, even as a four-man breakaway carved out a lead of six minutes, and the big favourite was always Marcel Kittel, the German sprinter who proved faster than Mark Cavendish as he won four stages at last year’s Tour de France.
As the peloton swept up the break on the approach to Belfast and gingerly tackled the corners, it was Kittel’s Giant-Shimano team who emerged at the front, their man tucked in and poised to jump. When he did nobody had much of a response, and Kittel finished over a length clear of Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni. Britain’s Ben Swift, riding for Team Sky, was seventh.
Back in eighth, meanwhile, was Michael Matthews, the 23-year-old Australian who became the new race leader, deposing his team-mate Svein Tuft. The Orica-GreenEdge director, Matt White, had forecast this in the morning, pointing out that all Matthews had to do was finish in front of Tuft to claim the pink jersey. “Michael should have the jersey this evening,” White had said. “That’s the plan.”
Much of the talk yesterday was still of Dan Martin, the Irish favourite whose Giro lasted only about 15 minutes. Martin slid on a wet manhole cover during Friday evening’s team time trial, going down heavily and taking three team-mates with him. A broken collarbone was diagnosed and Martin was due to have an operation in Dublin last night. He expects to be back on his bike in two weeks and could be fit for the Tour de France.
But after winning a stage of the Tour last year, this year was supposed to be all about the Giro for Martin. To crash out so early was heartbreaking, and devastating for his Garmin-Sharp team. Charly Wegelius, the team’s British director, said they would take a few days to recover: “I think in a situation like this it’s important to allow the riders a bit of time to be disappointed. Because that’s OK – they’re entitled to be disappointed.”
Martin was released from hospital and returned to the team hotel at 11pm on Friday. “Dan is good at putting things to one side,” said Wegelius. “He’s obviously disappointed, because we’re in Ireland, he had worked very hard for this and he’s been going extremely well. But he’s capable of picking other objectives and looking forward.”
As for his depleted team, which includes 2012 Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal, “This is the Giro,” said Wegelius. “There can be opportunities around every corner.”