Grey skies over Belfast were doing their best to dim the bright pink of the Giro d’Italia’s Grande Partenza, but a wide-open field promises to light up the roads when the race gets under way this evening.
Little of this 21-stage, 3,450- kilometre race will be decided in the first three days between Belfast and Dublin, but, with no obvious favourite in the pack, everyone will be looking for some kind of sign as to who has the form.
Of the three Irishmen to take the start, two can consider themselves contenders, even if Tinkoff-Saxo rider Nicholas Roche – the son of 1987 Giro winner Stephen – seems reluctant to put himself in that bracket, insisting his only target is a top-ten finish.
“I don’t think I can win it,” he said.
But his cousin Dan Martin, who will lead the Garmin-Sharp squad alongside 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal, has made no secret of his ambitions.
“It’s all about this race. I am not thinking beyond 1 June. I am here to lead the team. Whether that means stages or GC [General Classification], we don’t know yet,” Martin said. “It’s been the goal for my season to do this Giro. We’re here to do the best possible result.”
For Martin to realise those goals, however, he may need a change of luck.
A knee injury hampered him through the Classics, forcing him to pull out of the Amstel Gold Race. He shook that off to lead the prestigious Liege- Bastogne-Liege into the final corner at the end of April, only to have his title defence ended by a crash for which the cause remains disputed.
Still, Martin begins this race as a genuine contender, albeit one ranked slightly below the likes of last year’s Tour runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar), BMC’s Cadel Evans, and Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, who claimed Wednesday’s press conference for the Giro favourites was not big enough.
“The table is too small for all the favourites here,” he said. “I don’t see it as a fight between just two riders. With this demanding course, I think it’s going to be a wide-open Giro – entertaining, and one at a very high level.”
Those issues will have to wait until next week, when the race will head back to Italy and the roads will gradually start to ramp upwards. The terrain for these first few days is altogether flatter.
The season’s first Grand Tour begins with a team time-trial around Belfast’s city centre, starting in the shadow of the Titanic centre, heading past the array of murals on the road to Stormont and then doubling back towards the city centre. Tomorrow, the riders will head out of town through Antrim and Ballymena towards the Giant’s Causeway before heading back to town along the picturesque coast road with an anticipated sprint to the finish once they arrive back in Belfast.
There is no Mark Cavendish on the starting list, with last year’s Giro points winner instead at the Tour of California, which leaves his Tour de France nemesis Marcel Kittel as the man to beat on the flat.
Team Sky, with no GC contender after the withdrawals of Richie Porte and Peter Kennaugh following illnesses while Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins keep their powder dry for the summer, will be hoping the likes of Ben Swift and Edvald Boasson Hagen can muscle in on the action too.
Sky boast the third Irishman on the starting line, but Philip Deignan is a climber who will be waiting for the challenges ahead in the Alps.
Deignan will not be alone, with wet roads likely to make a lot of riders nervous as they simply hope to survive initial tests.
“The keys to the route?” Quintana said.
“In Ireland, there’s already one to worry about, and that’s not to lose the Giro here. Then we can try and open up the gaps in the high mountain stages when the race gets back to Italy.”