Teams of athletes from as far apart as Kazakhstan and the USA were greeted with roars from a rapturous crowd on Thursday evening at the opening ceremony of the Giro d’Italia.
Each of the 22 squads of competitors trooped out from the Belfast City Hall entrance and onto an open-air podium, led by their national flag and accompanied by a pounding pop soundtrack.
But before the teams themselves stepped forward, the prize they were all eyeing was unveiled.
Shortly after 6pm, organisers beckoned onto the stage the Giro trophy itself to the sound of bombastic string music.
Meanwhile the four prized shirts of the contest – pink, red, blue and white, for the top competitors in different classifications – were also paraded out by a succession of beautiful models.
This reporter estimates many thousands were packed into the grounds, with more pressed against the fences on the outside.
Many of the country’s top politicians were seen watching from inside a VIP area, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers – clad in an extremely bright pink dress.
Sadly the initial burst of sunshine did not hold, and rain soon began to tip down.
Among the crowd was a seven-strong contingent from the tiny central American nation of Panama had come to cheer on their relative – competitor Ramon Carretero, 23, who is riding with Italian team Neri Sottoli.
Ramon Carretero Senior, 49, who works at a bicycle business in his native Panama City, said: “Belfast is very beautiful. We really like it.
“A lot of rain. It will not be a problem. The riders are used to riding in the wet, the snow – no problem. If he finishes he is going to be very, very happy. He’s 23 – a beginner in the Giro.”
Also watching was Robert Storey, 62, originally from Ballymena, but now living in Colorado, USA.
“It’s really putting Belfast on the world stage – we’ve got hundreds of thousands watching this,” he said.
John Hunter, 57 and from Bangor, is a member of the North Down Cycling Club, and was also among those looking on as the processions of riders marched forth.
“It’s excellent – this is the chance of a lifetime,” he said, adding he would usually watch such cycling stars on TV, but was now standing just 10ft away from them in the flesh.
“It’s only the second time ever that an event on this scale has ever come onto the island of Ireland. The Tour de France came in 1998, but didn’t come to the north”.
As for the vast turnout on Thursday, he said: “When you think of the weather, it’s phenomenal. This weather has been forecast for a week, so when you think of the numbers that are here, imagine if it had been scorching sunshine.”