Giro d'Italia in Northern Ireland

Day 1- Newport to Liverpool (train)

With three stages of the Giro d'Italia promised to be in Northern Ireland in 2014, I had to go, and as luck would have it; I have a good mate who lives in Belfast, so I could visit him the same time. I was taking my bike, but was determined to have a mini holiday as well. After work on a Wednesday night I caught the train from Newport to Liverpool Lime street station. It was just getting dark, but enough light to see the magnificent arched roof, only equalled by St Pancras in London. The station was built in 1836, and is claimed to be the oldest grand terminus mainline station still in use. I stayed at the Mercure Liverpool Atlantic Tower (a short ride from the station) and had a cracking view of the Mersey.

Day 2- Liverpool to Belfast (night ferry)

The next day with the sun shining, I set off on foot aiming to see the sights of Liverpool; beginning with China town. It was a smart walk from my hotel, when I got there I was quietly disappointed. The smell was fantastic even at ten in the morning, but the whole place was quite dirty and certainly run down. The traditional Chinese architectural arch was stunning, its proper name is a Paifang, or Pailou. The inscriptions on the archways link the host society with the Chinese community and are often called "Goodwill Arches".

Walking back I came across the Merseyside Maritime museum, an old converted warehouse. It had a small Titanic exhibition, but the main display was about the slave trade. Liverpool was instrumental in the evolution and exploitation of black African people, but the City is brave to admit its sombre past. On the top floor was the café showing films, with good coffee, and did I say it the museum was free to enter.

The waterfront was a maze of docks and warehouses all converted into restaurants, hotels, and shops. I headed for the Museum of Liverpool (another free entry), unfortunately there were loads of kids there, but it was still enjoyable tracking the past of Liverpool and its docks. I found it interesting there used to be an overhead railway running the whole length of the waterfront, closing as late as 1956, now there’s virtually nothing left to see. I had dinner in one of the restaurants in Alexander docks before heading back to my hotel to pick the bike up from their storage room.

I had to cross the Mersey as the Stena line port was on the other side of the river. The ferries are very regular with the scouser’s using them like busses and cycles are well catered for (I looked up the term ‘Scouse’, apparently it was a stew made from the ship's biscuits and fish, and was frequently eaten by sailors. No one is sure why the term stuck with Liverpool and not other ports, but generally it isn’t offensive to Liverpudlians). On the other side of the Mersey was a ‘U’ boat museum which was now closed.

I headed for the port along the Wirral circular trail and booked in at the departures. I made the mistake of allowing my bike to be placed on a trailer to be taken to the ship (instead of walking it on), only discovering it was an issue when they wouldn’t allow me back into the hold to get my stuff in the panniers. After some pleading with the crew, they allowed me to get my bags. This was a night crossing, and I was advised to get a cabin and I’m glad I did, the alternative was sleeping in a public lounge chair. I booked in at the ship's reception and then took my bags to the cabin, the room was small, but had a shower and toilet. Exploring the ship, it had a bar; a real bar selling booze- excellent (but bloody expensive), a great restaurant, cinema (I watched the 'Grand Budapest Hotel' with a pint and in comfort), WiFi, duty free shop, and a games room. It had been a long day, and after the film had finished, I wobbled back to the cabin around nine o’clock with my new found sea legs.

Day 3- Whiteabbey to Larne (28 miles)

I had a great night’s sleep only awoken by the announcement we were about to dock. I went down to my bike and waited for the massive ramp to drop, the crew held me back until more or less the last vehicle left, by the time I went ashore it was nearing 0700. There on the dockside was my mate, we put the bike in his car, and we drove to my accommodation. I was staying in nursing quarters in Whiteabbey hospital just outside of Belfast, a bargin at £10 a night. My room was great, with some nice views of the hospital gardens and with the hospital restaurant near the front door, convenient too. My chum had to go to work, so we said our farewells then I had some cereal and coffee in the restaurant. I couldn't wait for the first day on the bike.

I rode north east along the coast, keeping the sea on my right side, the weather was overcast but warm. Stage 2 of the Giro d'Italia would be coming this way tomorrow, and everywhere was awash with pink. I came across Carrickfergus castle, this stronghold played an important military role until 1928 and remains one of the best preserved medieval structures in Ireland. Heading for Whitehead and then a spit of land where Blackhead lighthouse resided, the lighthouse was once the guardian of Belfast's glory days of shipping and guided many great ships on their journey, none more than the famous RMS Titanic. I retraced my steps and headed for Larne, again, keeping the water on my right and had a coffee at Café Riva at Larne harbour. I love spooky places and there was an old hospital my chum had mentioned- Cairndhu house, just a few more miles along the coast. It opened as a convalescent hospital in 1950, closing in the mid eighties, and was now derelict. I could only see as far a mesh fence would allow, but it was enough to send a shiver down my back. Time was ticking and it had gone two o'clock, tonight was the prologue of the Giro d'Italia in Belfast. I backtracked and headed for Larne Harbour station where I caught the train back to Whiteabbey.

In the night we drove to Belfast and perched in a place near the Harland and Wolff docks, here we could catch the teams going out and a street away, watch them heading back, inbetween there was enough time to have a couple of pints. Everyone was in high spirits waving huge pink foam hands, even when it started pissing down. Some of the teams didn’t take the weather into consideration and hurtled around the bends, which ended in disaster for a few.

Day 4- Stage two Giro d'Italia.

For once the weather man got it right the weather was atrocious, with the rain bouncing off every hard surface, battering car roof’s like a hail of bullets, so we drove around the circuit in the car. As my mate was a native, he knew the best places to watch the race, including a few cut across roads to see the race multiple times. The first place we watched the race was Antrim road on a hill leaving Belfast. It was cold, wet, and windy; people protected themselves in bus shelters trying to keep warm and dry. When the caravan came and went a lot of people thought it was the main spectacle and were a bit undecided whether to stay or not, and to be honest I was a bit dissatisfied with it too. If any have seen the caravan on the tour de France; it’s excellent, lasting an hour and is literally a carnival. I guess it was too expensive to ship the whole caravan from Italy and back again.

We jumped in the car and cut across country, up one of the few motorways in Northern Ireland and north to Cushendall. Here, there were enough pubs, and places selling everything from ice-cream (yes ice-cream) to hotdogs to keep the crowds happy while we waited for the soggy cyclists. When they came through I was sure they’d be lifted by the crowds, but they weren’t (and to be honest if it wasn’t for the pint in my hand I’d miserable too). Once the field had passed, the police outriders rolled by, exchanging high fives with young fans. Another little sign of progress in Northern Ireland, as the police have had a fractious historical relationship with the communities here. The party atmosphere continued unabated for the waterlogged locals, and tourists, but we were off again (after I finished my pint of course).

It was back to Whiteabbey on the shore road, now there was long straight wide roads for the run in to Belfast. The rain had stopped, and the riders had a hooley of a tailwind, they come past so fast my photos of them are blurred. It had been a holy miserable day, and even though the locals gave the impression of being a bit bewildered by the whole spectacle, they seemed to enjoy it, turning out in their hundreds filling the streets in the main towns, making a party of the whole affair.

Day 5- Whiteabbey to Belfast (cycling 15 miles with return)

My chum was in work again today, and the tour was moving south, so I was unable to follow it, so today I did the touristy bit. I had breakfast in the hospital restaurant, and set off around nine for Belfast, this time keeping the water on my left. With the weather more clement than yesterday, I headed for Crumlin road where there was a famous jail that housed prisoners during the ‘troubles’. They allowed me to keep the bike in a locked room; the gaol dated back to the Victorian times and housed both factions of the troubles, it is the only Victorian era prison remaining in Northern Ireland.

Next on the list was the Titanic exhibition housed in a purpose made building that looks like a ship. Titanic Belfast is a fantastic visitor attraction and a monument to Belfast's maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in the city's Titanic Quarter where the RMS Titanic was built. I was surprised at the cost of the museum, but once inside I was impressed by the amount of attractions, making the museum interactive, engaging, and informative. I rode back to my digs mid afternoon and had a siesta, tea time I had some grub with my mate and then he drove me back to the port to catch the ferry for Liverpool.

This was a quadruple edged trip; touristy bits, seeing my good mate, cycling a little, intertwined with a magnificent race (albeit a bit moist). I was extremely privileged to stop in the nurses quarters and had a room to myself, with great views of this old mental hospital grounds. The ferry crossing’s were dictated by my work finish times and though I could’ve flown, the night crossing ferry was an adventure not to be missed. This was a wonderful trip and the Irish are incredibly accommodating, I loved it, would I do it again? Most certainly.

  • Gallery

    gallery page Why not have a look at the gallery relating to this ride. Click the image or the title.

  • The Giro d'Italia

    The Giro d'Italia is an annual cycle stage race primarily held in Italy, and like its neighbour the ‘Tour de France’, every other year it starts in a guest Country. Apart from the two world wars it has run continuously since 1909. It took on the ‘Pink leaders jersey’ (Tour de France leaders jersey is yellow) in 1930 when the pink newspaper ‘La Gazzetta dello Sport’ promoted it, it's been pink since.

  • Liverpool slave trade

    Liverpool and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the slave trade which laid the foundations for the port's future growth. The towns ships transported half of the three million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers. The slavers used the triangular trading system, carrying slaves, cash crops, and manufactured goods between West Africa, Caribbean or American colonies, and the European colonial powers.

  • The German submarine U-534

    The German submarine U-534 is a Type IXC/40 U-boat of the Nazi Kriegsmarine, built and launched in 1942. It’s one of only four German World War II submarines in a preserved condition remaining in the world. Now displayed at the ‘U’ boat museum at the Woodside Ferry Terminal.

  • The bar or the windy deck?

    Most people stand on deck and watch the ship disembark from the dock, rather than having my wig blown off I’d rather check out the bar, and by the time the glasses on the shelf begin violently shaking, and the horn sounds a long blast, I’ve already a prime seat and a pint in my hand.

  • Whiteabbey

    White Abbey's name is derived from a Roman Catholic Premonstratensian abbey which existed in the area in the Medieval period, the monks of which are said to have worn white robes. All traces of the abbey are now gone although the site, in a field beside the grounds of Whiteabbey Hospital at Doagh Road, remains undeveloped.

  • Cairndhu house

    Reputedly one of Northern Ireland’s most haunted houses, Cairndhu has a rich history of grandeur and ruin. Throughout its long history it has been a stately home for a wealthy Scottish industrialist, a military hospital, a convalescent home. There have been numerous reports of paranormal activity over the years from ghosts appearing on the balcony to unexplained noises.

  • Stormont

    Stormont (in Belfast) is Northern Ireland’s parliamentary building and currently the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but on May 10th 2014 it played host to the turning point of the Giro d'Italia prologue.

  • La Carovana del Giro d'Italia

    La Carovana del Giro d'Italia is parade before the race, but on a scale only rivaled by the Tour De France. It’s a carnival covering thousands of kilometres, passing by millions of fans, throwing them tiny trinkets and gifts from funny shaped cars and floats, with music and dancing, keeping the crowds entertained hours before the race arrives. It's this that was missing from Northern Ireland.

  • Cushendall hurling club

    Hurling is a game where players use a wooden stick called a hurley to hit a small ball between the opponent’s goalposts either over the crossbar, or under the crossbar into a net. Cushendall’s club was founded in 1906 and won its first county senior championship in 1981, the club have since won 13 County Championships.

  • Crumlin Road Gaol

    The Crumlin road gaol has been interconnected with paranormal activity since it closed its doors in 1996, though some prison officers and prisoners would suggest these disturbances have gone on far longer. There have been sightings, noises and unexplained happenings within the walls that have seen 17 men executed over its 150 year history. The next time I’m in Belfast I’m going on one of their paranormal tours.

  • April 15th, 1912

    Just mention the name Titanic and it will bring a tear to the eye of most. The sinking of the RMS Titanic began on the night of 14 April 1912 in the North Atlantic Ocean, four days into the ship's maiden voyage. Many conspiracy theories have arisen from the tragedy, most recent on TV was about the fire raging in the coal bunkers. Go and see the ‘Titanic Belfast’ exhibition, and I dare it not humble your very sole.

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