The second edition of the Gran Fondo Giro d'Italia Northern Ireland took place on Sunday 5th June 2016. It was set up as a legacy event following the "Big Start", Ireland's hosting of the first three stages of the Giro d'Italia back in 2014.
Like last year, two routes were on offer: the gruelling 175km Mourne route which included almost 2,400 metres of climbing through the stunning Mourne Mountains, and the more straightforward Strangford route at a modest 58km.
I got an opportunity to ride this year's event at the last minute, and despite the temptation to ride the longer course I chose the smaller route.
This was a good decision. Having grown up at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, and having ridden that section of the course many times over the years, I was well aware of the long day ahead for any brave soul tackling this route.
I had ridden in sportives in the past organised by local cycling clubs, but an event of this scale this was a first for me and prior to the event, I had not ridden on closed roads.
Riders were required to pre-register the day before the event at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast's Titanic Quarter adjacent to the start line.
I arrived at the registration centre on Saturday afternoon. The organisers had put together a full programme of events over the weekend, including a "Piccolo Fondo" for families to ride together, a street velodrome and an opportunity to pose with the actual Giro d'Italia trophy. There was plenty of food and drink on offer and many riders chose to use the registration as a family day out.
Each rider had been pre-assigned a bib number. 14 volunteer stations divided into sequential numbers were set up in a row along the back of the centre. Pre-prepared rider packs were handed out at the desk corresponding to your bib number. The process was efficient and straightforward.
The rider pack contained a bib number, a bike number incorporating a timing chip, and a very nice Castelli jersey commemorating the event. Also in the pack were some goodies including high protein porridge, energy gels and some information leaflets.
On the morning itself, riders arrived at the iconic Titanic visitor centre and signs clearly indicated where to go for the start of each route.
There was a fantastic atmosphere and I had to remind myself that it was still only 7.30am. I felt a mixture of nerves and excitement and for a brief moment, the cyclist in me wished I had trained for the longer route.
Groups of riders big and small posed for photos with the Titanic building in the background.
I joined four riders from "The Rossi", a local group of cyclists who all enjoy both road and MTB and arrange rides on a semi-frequent basis via a Facebook group.
One of the riders joined a 20 minute queue for the Portaloo, leaving us at the very back of the pack. When start was called, it was a further four minutes before we crossed the start line.
A marshal, who didn't look like much of a cyclist, hollered over his loudhailer to ensure we eat little and often. Someone joked that this guy obviously only did one of these things, much to the amusement of the cyclists in earshot.
We left the Titanic Quarter, passing through the Short Strand area heading out of the city towards Ballygowan. We caught sight of the first rider to suffer a puncture after only 500 metres. He certainly wasn't the last.
It was strange resisting my instinct to stop at the first red light and powering through the first junction without looking both ways!
Over the first 5km we barely got above 15kph due to the heavy volumes of riders on the route, and coming from the back of the group we were keen to pass those riders who were there to admire the scenery. Due to the volume of cyclists in close proximity there were a few spills in the first few kilometres, but nothing too nasty.
The first climb, the biggest of the route, arrived after 6km. 110 metres of elevation over the course of 1.5 km sorted the wheat from the chaff. The wide stretch of road allowed the stronger cyclists to gain some rhythm and speed to push past the slower riders as they progressed up the hill.
At least half a dozen riders were pushing at this point, and one rider was being sick at the side of the road.
The four Rossi riders I was with had all donned the white and pink commemorative Castelli jersey, as had at least three quarters of the other riders. We were separated on the first climb and it was like "Where's Wally" trying to pick them out of the crowd. Our initial game plan was to stick together and work as a group but this went out the window at this point.
I made the decision to go it alone, keep up the tempo and see if I could find a bunch of riders at my level.
We passed Moneyreagh, former home to golfer Rory McIlroy, and on towards Ballygowan. The short, sharp peaks kept on coming over the next 20km. The organisers had not undersold the "rolling hills of the County Down countryside" mentioned in the pack... These were testing cycling roads and it was a pleasure to be riding on them.
After Ballygowan we had a downhill 90 degree left turn. At this point I was cycling so well that I felt like I was on the Giro itself, as I took out 40-50 riders on the descent and executed a clean racing turn at speed.
Shortly thereafter, approaching the village of Whiterock the beautiful sight that is Strangford Lough came into view.
At this point I slowed down to take a few photos and enjoy the stunning scenery. Unfortunately I put my phone down the back of my bib number rather than my back pocket. I realised I had done it just as I let go of the phone but it was too late. My phone crashed against the road.
Like any cyclist my first thought was about my Strava, followed of course by all the nice family pictures on the phone.
I dismounted, threw my bike against the ditch and went into full duathlon mode for 50 metres, running up the road into oncoming cyclists to retrieve my phone.
Amazingly it was still in one piece, and more importantly Strava was still working! The riders I had overtaken in the last few hills before Ballygowan all whizzed past.
Back on the bike, I kept my head down with embarrassment for the next 300 metres and before I realised it, the feed stop was on the left. I had read bad reports about last year's feed stops and had arrived to the event fully self-sufficient for this one. I took the decision to push for home at that point.
This coastal part of the route provided 13km of relatively flat roads, but they were heavy on the legs. A large "25km to go" sign provided a welcome boost. I was more than halfway there.
At this point I took a trusty Nature Valley peanut butter bar and a swig from my bidon and increased the cadence. I caught up with a bunch of 10 or so riders and we were together for the fast descent into Comber village.
We were welcomed by a clapping policeman, offering encouragement along with some spectators. At the last minute, a spectator, recognising that we had no idea that we had to take the sharp left-hand turn ahead, shouted "LEFT!" A number of riders missed the turn but I made it.
I steadied myself and looked up to be greeted by sight of an almighty hill. I eventually found my gear and began the steady climb that was the beginning of 12km of hills to complete the loop back around to re-join the outward route back into Belfast.
It was all downhill from here. I positioned my hands on the drops, went full aero and pedalled like the clappers, not having to worry about traffic or pedestrians.
This was right up there with my best moments in the saddle.
It was almost 10am at this point and the people of Belfast were out cheering the riders home.
Before I realised, I was making the turn back into the Titanic Quarter and across the finish line in 2hrs, 2mins, 34 seconds as per my chip time. An average just over 28.5 kph. I was happy with that, and I'm sure I would have gone under 2 hours had I not got caught in the chaos at the start line.
All finishers were presented with a beautiful medal, something I felt I didn't really deserve as it was the same medal for both routes.
The Rossi riders were 15 minutes behind me having stopped at the feed station. They assured me that there was plenty of food and each of them had their pockets bulging with free energy gels!
We proceeded back to the exhibition centre for the post-ride pasta party for a large helping of penne and chicken washed down with a cold beer!
The Gran Fondo comes highly recommended. It was well organised and, bar one or two points, the route was clearly marked.
Ideally, the shorter route would have been slightly longer, perhaps 80km, as I felt I was only getting going when the finish line arrived. I have set myself the goal of training for the longer route next year.
As I drove to work the next morning, the phone-ins on the radio were jammed with people inconvenienced by the closed roads.
My advice to those people, get a bike and join in the fun next year.