One of the world’s top cyclists has said he feels safe in Northern Ireland despite its troubled history.
Cadel Evans is expected to shine for Australia during the Giro D’Italia, which starts in Belfast tomorrow.
The arrest of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams last week threw the spotlight once more onto the country’s violent history, with the 42-year-old murder of Jean McConville placed at the forefront in international coverage of the Province (Mr Adams denies involvement and was released without charge).
The contest also comes against the backdrop of a wave of racist attacks in Belfast. plus increased dissident activity and intercommunal tension in recent times.
Mr Evans said: “We understand all countries have had their troubles over the past. I hope by the number of police we see around we are going to be safe, aren’t we?
“I can’t imagine the Giro organisers would think to have the race if it was going to be unsafe. I feel safe, and not every country we race in the world is that safe”.
He added: “That is part of the job, we have to race here, we don’t have much choice on that anyway”.
Evans became the first Australian (and, at 34, the oldest man in 88 years) to win the Tour de France in 2011 – and is hoping to repeat the feat and become a victor at the Giro.
Evans is one of the leading contenders for the crown in the contest, which is the world’s second-most important cycling race.
The event’s initial stages are being held over three days in Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent in the Republic.
A tradition of the event is often holding its beginning outside Italy.
Much of Northern Ireland has been coloured pink for the occasion – with pink being the colour worn by the leading rider.
Tomorrow’s opening event will be a time trial, setting off from the docks where the Titanic was launched and taking in Stormont as well.
On Saturday the action takes in the north coast before the elite cyclists depart from Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital, Armagh, on Sunday, heading for Dublin.
Meanwhile, as well as showing the Province in what it is hoped will be a positive light on the international stage, the contest is also expected to bring heavy travel disruption for locals.
Yesterday, the Department for Regional Development (which controls the Roads Service) reminded travellers to plan their journeys well in the days ahead.
Road closures will be in place during the three days of the Giro, and anyone wishing to watch the riders or attend any of the associated events is being advised to use public transport, walk – or to cycle themselves.
Road closures will take place on Friday May 9 across parts of Belfast and up to Stormont from 9.30am to noon, and again at 4pm to 8.30pm.
On Saturday May 10, there will be road closures in Belfast and along the Causeway Coast at various times from 8am to 5pm.
On Sunday May 11 the race will travel from Armagh to Dublin, with road closures from 7pm the previous evening through until 2pm.
In a statement yesterday, transport minister Danny Kennedy said: “There is only one day to go until the world’s cycling elite arrive in Belfast and there is an incredible buzz across the country.
“Along the route, local businesses and the public have made a huge effort to dress their towns and streets in pink to welcome the cyclists.
“I want to urge the public to plan their journeys carefully and use public transport, walk or cycle regardless of whether they are going to watch the race or go to work, to school or shopping”
Public transport services will be expanded, and there will be about an extra 28 spaces at the Black’s Road Park and Ride, bringing the total to 250.
“Black’s Road has been operating at capacity on a regular basis over the past few months and these additional spaces are part of my Department’s ongoing commitment to encourage sustainable travel.”
The PSNI’s assistant chief constable Alan Todd said: “For the safety of riders and spectators it is essential that all roads are clear from vehicles and that no one parks on any of the planned routes.
“To ensure that safety, any car found parked on the route will be moved by police”.
Full details of route maps and road closures are available on www.trafficwatchni.com .
For public transport information go to www.translink.co.uk/giro .
To reach Translink’s call centre, ring: (028)90 666 630.