Northern Ireland waved a fond farewell to the Giro d’Italia on Sundday - an event that seems to have turned the entire region pink - as the world’s top cyclists headed south to Dublin.
The ecclesiastical city of Armagh hosted the start of the third and final Irish stage of this year’s race, and again thousands turned out for a fleeting glimpse of the peloton.
The Giro appears to have captured the imagination of the Northern Ireland public like few others, and organisers and riders alike have expressed amazement at the reception they have received as supporters, bedecked in the race’s emblematic pink, have thronged the roadsides, often in driving rain.
Ahead of the start of the latest leg, race leader and holder of the pink jersey Michael Matthews paid tribute to the fans.
“You are all incredible,” said the Australian cyclist. “I was so cold yesterday and you were five deep the whole course. I am truly honoured to be part of this whole event and you guys have done amazing.”
Marketing manager for the event, Giovanni Nipoti, told the News Letter that the reception they had received here had been “incredible”.
He added: “In Northern Ireland we have met an entire country that got involved and engaged in the Giro so well that it left us so excited and happy.”
The Shambles market in Armagh, which sits in the shadow of the city’s towering Catholic cathedral, was an explosion of colour as the third leg got under way.
A carnival atmosphere pervaded the city, with thousands entering into the spirit in all manner of pink attire.
The riders sped through the winding streets, which had people lining the route four thick in places, both in the city centre and around the mall. The race proper did not begin until the riders left the city limits, when the lead car pulled away and the official timing began.
From Armagh the riders sped through Loughgall, Richhill, Hamiltonsbawn, Markethill and Keady before continuing on through Newtownhamilton and Forkhill as they sped onwards to finish in Dublin, some 116 miles in total for this leg.
There were similar scenes in Belfast for the time trial on Friday night and around the north coast for Saturday’s stage. Even most of the well-used rain ponchos were pink.
Apart from the odd fleeting rain shower on Sunday morning, the spectators in Armagh were rewarded with some rare sunshine. Among them were pink-clad grandparents and babies - and even some dogs were dressed in the Giro colour.
Senior church figures from both sides of the region’s traditional divide gave blessings to the riders ahead of the start.
Appropriately, the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady delivered his in Italian.
He was one of the few not clad in pink but, pointing to the red belt around his robe, he later stressed: “This was the nearest I had to pink.”
The cleric added: “It’s a great joy to welcome these superb athletes here and to wish them well.
“We are delighted that they have chosen Northern Ireland to begin the Giro.”
Stormont Tourism Minister Arlene Foster said the organisers had been taken aback at how Northern Ireland had embraced the race.
“They are blown away,” she said. “They are saying it’s the best start they have ever had to the Giro d’Italia and when you get that from people who have been all over the world, it’s incredible.”
Mrs Foster said the enthusiasm had been generated in part by the novelty value.
“I think because it’s something completely different, people in Northern Ireland really haven’t seen its like before,” she explained.
“The whole country is pink - it’s been marvellous.”
Three days of trouble-free racing were also hailed by PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott.
“Look at the colour, look at the atmosphere, it’s a carnival and celebration - absolutely fabulous,” he said, after posing for photographs with one Giro fan’s baby.
“It’s been a privilege with the PSNI to be part of it all.
“Obviously a lot of detail and meticulous planning went into this and from our perspective it’s gone very, very well indeed.
“It’s evidence that Northern Ireland is still one of the safest places in world.
“Apart from the fact we occasionally have events that worry us, the world is moving on and this is exactly where the future lies - it’s in people coming together to celebrate together the great events we can have.”