In a few weeks time, with the start of the Giro d'Italia, Belfast is set to be the focus for world cycle sport as the race flashes past the Hatfield Bar on the Ormeau Rd.
It won't be the first time that this part of Belfast has been at the centre of world cycling. On the 18th of May 1889, an event took place at the Queen's College Sports, on the grass track of the North of Ireland Cricket ground, which changed not only the face of competitive cycling, but the nature of transport throughout the world. A bicycle ridden by Willie Hume, captain of the Belfast Cruisers Cycling Club, fitted with 2inch diameter "pneumatic" tyres won all four major races. Cycling was huge at the time with crowds at track races exceding those at the F.A.Cup Final. The times, dates and locations of road races were kept secret till the last minute, rather in the manner of cock and dog fights, to stop large, unruly crowds blocking other forms of transport. Cycle design was in a state of flux and each new development in technology was noted and discussed by the "tifosi". The race at which the new tyres had been due to make their debut at Easter, was confined to "ordinaries", later known as "penny farthings". The Queen's College event was a free for all with chain driven "safeties" and the towering direct drive "ordinaries" competing wheel to wheel on the same track. Scottish vetinary surgeon John Boyd Dunlop, who made the tyres for Humes machine, chose A specially designed "safety" built by R.W.Edlin and Finlay Sinclair in Belfast. Two months after the Belfast event, Hume's bicycle was displayed in the window of a shop in Lime Street, Liverpool. Enthusiastic spectators piled in around the shop, blocked the road and police were called to disperse what was now a huge excited mob.
The Pneumatic tyre was invented not by Dunlop, but by another Scot, Robert Thompson in 1846. A mere 23 year old at the time he had it fully patented both in Europe and America by 1847 more than 40 years before the Belfast race. Dunlop's tyre was the first practical application of the pneumatic idea. His awareness or otherwise of Thompson's invention is a moot point which continues to be fiercely debated.
Illustration: Ian Knox