Northern Ireland was pink. Painted bicycles adorned every roundabout, people in pink caps and t-shirts went about their weekly Asda shop and even the odd dyed sheep would totter about its enclosure, chewing grass, nonplussed in magenta splendour. The Giro d’Italia had taken over. MAMILs (Middled Aged Men in Lycra) zipped up and down the roads, bent over road-bikes as if they were competing themselves and cars were forced to take the backseat for an entire weekend.
Mark and I arrived at Carrick Fergus, just outside Belfast, an hour before the roads closed armed with deck chairs, sandwiches and over-sized umbrellas. The smell of burgers and fried onions drifted from a cluster of vans by the harbour and the squeals of children on a bouncy castle filled the air. A single halo of sun shone down on us, ominous grey clouds closing in on all sides. We perched our chairs at the side of the road, filled thermoses with tea and munched from a poke of hot chips. The entire population drifted to the roadside, like iron filings to a magnet.
As the crowds swelled, clumps of MAMILs powered down the street free from the peep of car horns. Children danced out onto the road as if it was a river on a sunny day – you never know when you’ll get the chance to play in it again. As the giant pink clock ticked the seconds away the atmosphere became electric. Fat storm clouds rolled closer, bulging with rain. Stewards in magenta tabards shouted for everyone to get back from the road as the distant wail of sirens grew louder. Dozens of police motorbikes flashed past to the hoots and cheers of the crowd. The cyclists were coming.
Mark lent forward like a kid at the zoo, yammering at me about Tour de France winners and Team Sky. Fat drops of rain plopped around me and a flurry of umbrellas to my right cut off my view, but I could hear the cheering creep towards me like a Mexican wave. The rain came down around us like shower water. Three riders bent over their bikes like hunched old men zipped past before I had time to fumble with the camera. They were gone in a moment. And then, nothing.
The cheering died down to the lone squawk of a kids’ novelty horn every now and then, rain hammering on the road. The pink clock ticked away – one minute, two, three. In the fourth minute I began to think that was it – all the other cyclists must have given up. The roar from the crowd half a mile away told me otherwise. Within seconds they were in front of me, close enough to touch. Like a school of fish hundreds of cyclists deaf to the cheers and shouting enveloped the roundabout.
It was over in seconds, and so was the rain. The clouds were following them and so was Mark. Well, until he ran out of breath.