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Politician slams “cop out” as Ireland’s cross-border Tour de France bid scrapped amid funding issues and political uncertainty at Stormont

The Grand Départ bid, which was criticised by active travel campaigners in Northern Ireland, has been withdrawn due to the lack of a functioning government – but one MLA says the project should still go ahead to leave a “lasting cycling legacy”

Northern Ireland’s joint bid with the Republic of Ireland to host the Tour de France’s Grand Départ, which aimed to bring cycling’s biggest race to the island for three stages in either 2026 or 2027, has become the latest casualty of the ongoing political impasse that has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government for almost two years, as Irish ministers confirmed that the project has been scrapped amid concerns over funding.

However, the decision to withdraw the cross-border bid – made months ago but only formally announced this week – has been branded a “cop out” by one Stormont MLA, who criticised claims made by Irish politicians concerning the apparent lack of funding for the project, pointing to other major sporting events that are still going ahead in Northern Ireland over the next few years.

The MLA also told that both the Irish government and Northern Ireland’s civil service should “just get on with” delivering a bid – which, when it was first announced, attracted criticism from active travel campaigners – that he says would leave a “real lasting cycling legacy” on both sides of the border.

The news that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were preparing to co-host the Tour de France was first reported in late 2022, after the DUP’s Gordon Lyons and the Green Party’s Catherine Martin submitted a joint expression of interest to race organisers ASO.

> Ireland bids for cross-border Tour de France Grand Départ

The bid, which aimed to stage the 2026 or 2027 Grand Départ at an estimated cost of around €30 million, would have resulted in the Tour’s first visit to Ireland since 1998, when the sporting euphoria of the race’s Dublin start was soon overshadowed by the opening salvos of what became the Festina Affair, at that point the sport’s biggest ever doping scandal.

The cross-border aspect of the bid also built upon the precedent set during the 2014 Giro d’Italia’s ‘Big Start’, which saw a Belfast bedecked in pink host an opening team time trial and road stage, before the race moved south from Armagh to Dublin for another Marcel Kittel-dominant sprint finish.

“It simply can’t happen, it can’t get off the ground”

However, hopes of rekindling the spirit of that Giro start on an even larger scale were dashed this week, when Irish Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sports, and Media, Thomas Byrne, told the Dail in a written answer that Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy had stopped working on the bid last summer.

“The Tour de France is the biggest cycling race in the world and, during 2022, Minister Martin engaged with her counterpart in Northern Ireland, the then-Minister for the Economy, regarding a potential joint bid to co-host the opening three stages of the race, the Grand Départ,” Byrne said yesterday.

“Departmental officials engaged with counterparts in Northern Ireland and established a project group to scope out the details of a possible bid. In July 2023 the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland wrote to my Department to advise that it had decided to cease work on the potential for a joint bid.

“As any hosting bid was envisaged as a north-south all-island initiative, my Department is no longer pursuing a bid and this has been communicated to the event organisers.

“Should the opportunity arise again to consider a bid to host the Grand Départ, whether jointly or singly, the experience gained in the process outlined above will be of use to any such future consideration.”

Giro 2014 Stage 2 start in Belfast - picture credit LaPresse

(Credit: LaPresse)

Speaking to RTÉ Radio today, Byrne confirmed that the bid had been shelved due to the continuing uncertainty surrounding Northern Ireland’s government.

The DUP, the second largest party in the Stormont Assembly behind Sinn Féin, has been blocking a return to Northern Ireland’s power sharing executive since February 2022 over its opposition to post-Brexit trade rules, with Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris today extending the deadline for an election to be held if there is no executive formed in the coming weeks.

“The bid was just about on the table in that there was genuine interest between Catherine Martin and Gordon Lyons at the time to do this from an economic, touristic, and sporting perspective,” Byrne said.

“But quite frankly with the lack of an elected political government in Northern Ireland, the civil servants who are effectively running the show aren’t able to proceed with this. They simply don’t have the funding.

“It simply can’t happen, it can’t get off the ground. It’s a real pity actually. We would have loved to have done it.”

> “Could build an indoor velodrome for that money”: Tour de France Grand Départ in Ireland projected to cost over €30 million

Byrne added that it was never intended that the Republic of Ireland would step up to host the Tour on its own if Northern Ireland’s plans fell through, and that the scrapping of the project at a very early stage meant limited costs were incurred.

“It was always envisaged as a cross-border initiative and indeed some of my engagements with counterparts in France in recent months, it was very much advertised as a cross-border initiative and something we would do together as an all-island bid, bringing both sides together, and it makes obvious sense geographically. This was the entire basis of it,” the minister continued.

“The position now is we have had to tell the Tour de France and French authorities that we are not in a position to go ahead with it. It is something we would like to do and the engagement we have had up to now with colleagues in France including Tour de France organisers and the embassies will be useful if we do decide to do it.

“We are very, very willing to step up to the plate with counterparts in the North to do it or at least to look at it because all of these projects have to go through a rigorous cost benefit analysis in the departments.

“We would like to get it to that stage and I don’t think the work we have done is wasted but it will depend on political leadership in the North deciding this is something they would like to do. I think it would be of benefit to us all.”

“Just get on and do it”

However, Byrne’s claim that the future of Ireland’s Tour de France bid rests on Stormont returning to some form of political normality has been condemned by one elected member of Northern Ireland’s Assembly, who told that funding is available to host major sporting events like the Tour.

“It’s just a cop out,” the MLA, who wished to remain anonymous, told “Other events, like the Open golf tournament [the 153rd Open Championship will take place at Royal Portrush in 2025], are still proceeding without an elected government.

“Surely this would be a project that would be beneficial to all of Ireland’s economy? So, I think they should be cracking on. Maybe now is the time for the Republic of Ireland to dig deeper, with just a small financial contribution, and keep this Tour de France bid going.”

Chris Boardman, 1998 Tour de France

Chris Boardman rides through Dublin in yellow at the ill-fated 1998 Tour

He continued: “The Irish government can’t be hiding behind the fact that Northern Ireland doesn’t have an executive. If they see this as a prize worth having, they could put forward the money to make sure it happens, without a shadow of a doubt. They’re constantly telling us about cross-border projects – well, there’s one that they could fund.

“And our civil servants shouldn’t be saying that they can’t proceed because there’s no elected government. That is false, and a cop out. Other projects are going ahead, just get on and do it.”

A lasting legacy for active travel and Irish cycling?

When it was first announced in October 2022, the cross-border bid prompted some Irish cyclists and active travel campaigners to question whether the investment would be better spent on safe cycling infrastructure, or even on the sport at a grassroots level, such as developing the domestic scene in Ireland or building a state-of-the-art velodrome.

Cycling UK, for instance, described the joint bid as “baffling”, especially when everyday safety policy in Northern Ireland is still deemed to be putting cyclists “at risk”, while omitting recent Highway Code changes introduced in the rest of the UK.

The charity’s spokesperson in Northern Ireland, Andrew McClean, stressed at the time that whilst Cycling UK would “love” to see the race return to the island of Ireland, “a real lasting legacy for cycling would be for Northern Ireland to stop ignoring the essential work required to help people travel cheaply, sustainably, and safely by bike”.

> Cycling UK slams Northern Ireland's "baffling" Tour de France bid when active travel strategy puts cyclists "at risk"

However, when asked whether Northern Ireland’s limited funding would be better spent on ensuring the safety of local cyclists through active travel projects, the MLA told that a Tour Grand Départ could be key to encouraging the introduction of dedicated cycling infrastructure and “transforming” the country’s cycling culture.

“You can’t separate the two. It’s not a vanity project,” he said. “The Giro d’Italia had a transformational impact on Northern Ireland. There can be no doubt that hosting the Tour de France on the island of Ireland, and in Northern Ireland, would have the same massive transformational impact on cycling.

“We would have more people taking up cycling, and therefore more engagement in conversations about safety and infrastructure. We really should be then pushing on with a project that would leave a lasting cycling legacy in Northern Ireland.”

Giro 2014 Stage 2 Marcel Kittel wins in Belfast - picture credit LaPresse

Marcel Kittel wins stage two of the 2014 Giro in Belfast (Credit: LaPresse)

Meanwhile, one of those responsible for the transformative impact of the Giro, current Team Jayco AlUla chairman Darach McQuaid, say he’s disappointed by the bid’s withdrawal, arguing that a Tour visit would have been “huge” for Irish cycling.

“It is sad that the continuing political uncertainty and lack of Stormont Executive likely led to this bid to bring the Tour de France to the island of Ireland being withdrawn,” McQuaid, whose sports consultancy ShadeTree Sports helped bring the Giro to Belfast in 2014, told today.

“Irish riders are competing at the highest level of world cycling and if the success of the 2014 Giro d'Italia visit is anything to go by, a Tour de France Grand Départ would have been huge.

“I do hope the bid can be rebooted at some stage in the future.”

Ryan joined in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.

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Velophaart_95 | 21 hours ago

This sounds familiar; there were attempts to bring the WRC to Northern Ireland, but no functioning government (and the prohibitive cost) put the kibosh on it. However, if it was golf, I'm sure they'd work it out.

Might have to rely on a Ireland only bid.....

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