BELFAST (Reuters) - German Marcel Kittel made a well-timed attack in the closing sprint to take a rain-soaked second stage of the Giro d'Italia on Saturday, as Orica-GreenEdge rider Michael Matthews claimed the pink jersey from team mate Svein Tuft.
Team Giant-Shimano sprinter Kittel made his move after the final hard bend to hit the front 150 metres from the line, taking his first Giro stage as some of the world's top cyclists took a tour through Northern Ireland's troubled past in a 219km-long ride that left Belfast and swept through County Antrim before finishing back in the capital.
Australian Matthews finished eighth in the final bunch sprint but leads the general classification after his Orica team won Friday's team time trial around the streets of Belfast.
A small group consisting of Sander Armee, Andrea Fedi, Jeffrey Romero Corredor and Maarten Tjallingii broke away early but as the race made its way back towards Belfast the peloton caught up, overtaking Tjallingii with 3.5km left after the Dutchman had made a short-lived break.
A peace deal 16 years ago largely ended three decades of tit-for-tat killings between mainly Catholic Irish militants seeking a union with Ireland and mainly protestant Loyalists, seeking to remain part of Britain.
But signs of sporadic violence between groups opposed to that deal were visible along the route of the race, second only to the Tour De France in global cycling.
After leaving Belfast, where they passed murals honouring pro-British loyalist militants, cyclists passed through Ballymoney where overnight attacks with improvised bombs damaged two houses.
Such attacks are often associated with sectarian tensions, but police did not give a motive.
Earlier they passed through Antrim where last week dozens of journalists from around the world stood watch as police questioned Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, the highest profile figure in Northern Ireland's nationalist leadership, about the IRA murder of mother of ten Jean McConville who was shot dead in 1972.
Adams, who denies any part in the killing, was released after four days so prosecutors could decide whether to press charges in a case that has rocked the power sharing government.
On Sunday the riders will move on to the cathedral city of Armagh and race a 187-km cross-border route to Dublin passing through a series of South Armagh villages whose names are synonymous with the violence of more than three decades of troubles in which 3,600 died and tens of thousands were injured.
But the province's leaders and tens of thousands who lined the route focused instead on the opportunities from hosting what is considered one of the world's leading road races.
Tractors painted pink and matching dyed sheep and goats greeted riders along Saturday's sweep through County Antrim, taking in some of Northern Ireland's most picturesque scenery.
The highlight of Saturday's route was the Giant's Causeway a spectacular volcanic formation that is the region's only World Heritage site. Riders then peddled along the wild Atlantic north coast of Co Antrim before turning southwards towards Belfast and riding down the Irish Sea coast road.
After arriving in Dublin on Sunday, the cyclists will return to Italy for three weeks of stage races ending in Trieste on June 1.
Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said he had been "gobsmacked" by the crowds
Once blacklisted next to Baghdad and Beirut as a tourism no-go zone, Northern Ireland is selling itself using 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.
(Reporting by Terry Daley; editing by Josh Reich)