By Shane Stokes, Irishcycling.com
Nicolas Roche, the son of the 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche, has declared for France, thus ending several years representing Ireland in major international competitions.
The 20 year old was one of Irish cycling's most promising young talents and was the only Irish professional on a ProTour team, the new super-league in the sport. He finished third in the Irish road race championships last year and also rode well in many events in France, leading to his pro debut with the Cofidis squad last month.
Roche's mother Lydia is French and he has held dual nationality for several years. However, he says that last Autumn he was told by French administration officials that dual citizenship was not possible. He could remain Irish but would then have to surrender his French passport. As he now lives in France with his family and is set to remain there after his career ends, he has reluctantly opted for French nationality.
"The problem is really relating to citizenship, rather than the French federation's end of things," he explained this week. "When you're 16 in France, you have to go to the local town Hall and to sign a paper saying that you are French. I did that, as I was obliged. I have had my French passports since I was born, because I was born in France. I only got my Irish passport more recently. If I was still living in Ireland, I probably would never have found out about it. If I had signed for foreign team, it would be possible that I never found out about it. Anyway, the woman that I was dealing with said I could have been disqualified from any race if I had continued with two. As long as I am on the French list, for them I am not allowed to be anything else.
"I am sad to give up my Irish passport. But I feel that this is the only option. It is different for the other Irish guys racing here because most of them have a background in Ireland, with their families and everything else there. If cycling doesn't work for them, they are going to go back to Ireland to live and work there. But for me, if cycling doesn't work out, I am going to stay in France as my family are here. We are not supposed to admit it, but it is definitely easier to get work here if you are French."
Frank Campbell, who managed Nicolas on several Irish teams including last year's Under 23 world championship squad in Verona, says Roche did not take the decision lightly. "He has been weighing things up the past three or four months. I have looked at it from our side and basically given him all the information he needs. Ireland is in a situation where we do allow dual nationality, but the French don't appear to accept that. And Nicolas is in a peculiar situation with a French mother and having been born in France.
"It is very disappointing to lose such a talented young rider, who has worked very hard and been part of a very successful system over the past two or three years. He was one of the major players for the future when you started to look at future Olympics and those type of events. Personally I am very, very disappointed. I got on very well with him and found him very easy to work with. He is very professional in his outlook, which I suppose is only to be expected coming from his background."
Campbell points out that Roche looks set to lose his chance of going forward for carding, something he would have been assured of given the ProTour classification of his Cofidis team. Roche also says that he has little to gain in cycling terms from the decision.
"I want people to know that I'm not doing it for any financial reasons," he states. "I would have had a lot more opportunities for funding if I remained Irish. There are so many pro riders in France that it is different there. On the other hand, Ireland has so few that I think the country is making a great effort to help those it has at that level.
"To be realistic, it is going to be harder to get onto world championship teams, and who does not dream about going to the Olympics? The World's is every year but the Olympic Games comes just every four years. I am just going to have to accept that unless in four years I become Superman, I am going to miss the Olympics. Going to the games is every athlete's dream in any sport.
"It has been a hard decision. At the beginning, it took me a lot of time to get over it. But now it is done. Between November and February, I was not so happy, because I was leaving behind a lot of stuff that I like. There was a big Cycling Ireland family of riders that I was part of.
"I'm disappointed the way things have turned out. I would like to thank Ireland for what they are doing in the sport and what they did for me as an amateur. Even though my nationality is French and I will be riding for that national team, in the heart I still consider myself more Irish. I am closer to Ireland in my education and in the way I think. I will always be French on the paper but Irish on the bike, even though I'm not going to be able to wear a green jersey," Roche concluded.
Ireland has several other professionals. However riders such as Mark Scanlon and Philip Deignan (Ag2R Prevoyance) and the Navigators Insurance duo Ciarán Power and David O'Loughlin are all in the continental professional division, one rung below the ProTour status of Roche's Cofidis team. They therefore must depend on wild card places to get into major events such as the Tour de France, the Tour of Spain and the Tour of Italy. Although Roche is young and will be eased into top-rank professional life by his team, he is pencilled in to ride the ProTour Tour of Romandie and, possibly, the Tour of Germany in the next three months. Irish cycling fans will undoubtedly still follow his career with interest, but the days of supporting a green jersey-clad Roche in the world championships have come to an end.
Related story: Nicolas Roche interview