COMMENT: Giro d’Italia a major milestone for Belfast

Darren Kidd / ''Giro d'Italia 'Big Start' opening event at Belfast City Hall
Darren Kidd / ''Giro d'Italia 'Big Start' opening event at Belfast City Hall
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Saturday was a spectacular milestone for Belfast’s beautifully laid out city centre, which is a natural venue for events that attract large crowds of people, with its wide grid streets around the City Hall.

Major celebrations were held there at the end of World War Two; a huge protest gathered there after the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement; and, a decade after that, tens of thousands of well-wishers watched President Bill Clinton there at Christmas time.

The MTV awards in 2011 were a colourful new chapter in the 108-year history of the City Hall and its surroundings.

But this morning and this afternoon was another first for central Belfast - thousands of people ignoring the drizzly conditions to watch some of the world’s most outstanding endurance athletes begin and finish a 219-km (136 mile) round-trip cycle from right outside the building that marks the heart of the city.

The ending was over in seconds, yet the crowd loved it.

The video screen in the grounds of City Hall and commentary on speakers along the route added greatly to the drama: we kept hearing how close the lead racers were to the end.

The kilometres tumbled away at a rate of almost one a minute, as the world’s best cyclists closed in on the finish at a pace that was at or above the 30mph speed limit that normally applies on those streets.

After PSNI sirens and advance vehicles, the lead pack of cyclists was suddenly at the 400-metre mark, and within the vision of me and the hundreds of other people standing at the corner of Millfield and Wellington Place.

The cyclists were cheered round the corner to the finish line and the race was over.

The scale of the human achievement that we had just witnessed was apparent, when, three or so minutes later, the crowd roared along a bunch of slower cyclists.

They looked like stragglers, but had averaged 25.8mph non-stop for more than five hours, the whole way to the top of Northern Ireland and back, fractionally under the 26.1mph pace of the winners, all of them powered by their own thighs.