By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland turned pink on Friday to welcome the Giro d'Italia to the streets of a province known more for its years of sectarian conflict than as a host of major sporting events.
Some 200 of the world's top cyclists will set off in Belfast and race for three days across a province beset by three decades of violence that cost the lives of 3,600 people before a peace deal largely ended the bloodshed 16 years ago.
Long starved of such spectacle, thousands packed the streets to cheer on the riders, swapping the traditional orange and green of Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant communities for a route awash with pink - the signature color of the Giro, road cycling's second-most prestigious race after the Tour de France.
"I never, ever, thought I would see something like this pass within feet of my house," local Billy Ewart said before of the opening team time trial that takes in the Newtownards Road in east Belfast where annual marches have turned into full-blown riots in recent years.
"There is a real buzz in the city today - long may it continue."
Belfast Mayor Mairtin O'Muilleoir set the trend by dying his hair pink to welcome the riders on Thursday and took to twitter to post a "selfie" with Northern Ireland's First and Deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who were wearing pink ties for the occasion.
Hardly a building along the route, which runs from the shipyard slipway where the Titanic was launched, to the grounds of the Stormont Parliament Building and Belfast City Hall, had been left out as the city went pink.
Even the head of the Orange Order - the Protestant organization whose summer parades often lead to tensions and violence - got in on the act, decking out its headquarters in the colors of the Giro.
When the riders head out into the countryside on Saturday the color scheme will continue. Along the north coast and past the Giant's Causeway - Northern Ireland's only World Heritage Site - farmers have dyed their flocks of sheep pink.
Politicians see the Giro as a massive advertisement for a region still seeking to build a thriving tourism industry after the tit-for-tat killings by Irish Catholic nationalists and mostly Protestant pro-British loyalists made ghost towns out cities like Belfast.
Once blacklisted next to Baghdad and Beirut as a tourism no-go zone, Belfast is becoming one of Europe's must-see destinations thanks to its troubled past, great golfing present and the recent anniversary of the Titanic disaster.
Northern Ireland's tourist board expects 100,000 people to watch on as riders make their way to Dublin for Sunday's Irish finale, while the Giro's television reach is claimed to extend to 125 million households across 174 countries.
First Minister Robinson said it was a "tangible sign" of the British province's growing reputation abroad while McGuinness, once an Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander during Northern Ireland's "Troubles", hoped the region would reap the benefits.
"This exceptional opportunity to host the Giro offers us a platform to showcase the best of what we have to offer as an attractive place to do business, visit, study and live," McGuinness said.
The team time trial is due to start at 1630 GMT (12:30EDT) on Friday while the riders will return to Italy on Monday, start racing again on Tuesday and conclude in Trieste on June 1.
(Editing by Padraic Halpin and Ed Osmond)