Bellows of encouragement were heard along the whole stretch of Stormont’s Royal Mile yesterday as thousands took to the streets for the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia.
Waving everything from national flags to floppy foam fingers, spectators flanked the 22 teams as they pelted past on the uphill stretch of the course towards Parliament Buildings.
The elite athletes were taking part in team time trials – the first leg of the Giro, before they set off on a gruelling trek from Belfast towards the north coast and back today.
As bright sunshine beat down at around 6pm, the first squad – Team Colombia – sailed into view at the gates of Stormont and made their way towards the statue of Edward Carson as part of a 13-mile speed course.
As they were slowed by the hill, onlookers whipped out mobile phones and cameras to snap the stars; and before long, the Colombians were followed by Australian, Russian, French squads and more, each going by at intervals of five minutes.
Arguably some of the biggest cheers heard were for the unfortunate stragglers in the various teams, who had fallen badly behind their comrades but were nonetheless applauded warmly by the spectators.
The crowds thinned as the clear skies gave way to heavy drizzle, but the bulk of spectators stuck around.
While there were large numbers of lycra-clad bike enthusiasts lining the route, many others said they did not really follow cycling and instead had come just for the sheer thrill of such a vast spectacle.
Among them was retired electrician Lenny Farrow, 71.
Lighting up a cigarette as he spoke to this reporter, he said the only cycling he had ever done was to and from work.
Asked why he had come, he said: “It’s never been here before, has it? It’s a one-off. Everybody’s put in a lot of effort to have this thing on the go.”
His wife Doreen, 71, chimed in: “We’re proud of our Northern Irish people, coming out and supporting this. It’s a spectacular occasion – it’d be a pity to miss it.”
Chris Logan, 42-year-old principal of Comber Primary School, living in Dundonald, described himself as a “recreational biker”, and had brought his two young children along too.
“World class events don’t happen that often. You have to come out to support them,” he said. “Today it’s all ages, colours, creeds – whatever you like. It wouldn’t be my number one sport, but the event is the main thing. It’s the event people go for – the crowd, the spectacle, the atmosphere.”
This was echoed by 28-year-old Gillian Thomson from Killinchy, who works for the charity SOS Bus: “I worked at the World Police and Fire Games last year. It was fantastic. For one day, this is huge in comparison.”
Much of the city’s road network had been shut down to accommodate the time trials, but re-opened at 8.30pm.