News feature, February 10, 2006
The January 23 launch of the Sean Kelly Racing Team was an interesting moment for cycling. It's not often that a former champion lends his name and services so directly to a squad, in the hope of helping the development of young riders from his country. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes was at the launch and reports on the story behind the new continental team.
It's two decades since the heights of the Kelly-Roche era but things are once again starting to look up for Irish cycling. Former world junior champion Mark Scanlon and his AG2R teammate Philip Deignan, plus Stephen Roche's son Nicolas (Cofidis) each have ProTour contracts, while others such as Ciarán Power, David O'Loughlin (Navigators Insurance), David McCann, Paul Griffin and Stephen Gallagher (Giant Asia) are signed to continental Professional and continental teams.
As the 2006 season dawns, there is another reason for optimism. On Monday, January 23 a new project was launched which Cycling Ireland and all of those involved in the sport there hope will guarantee a bright future. The Sean Kelly Racing Team marks the first time the country has had a UCI-registered international team and, thanks to the involvement of the former world number one, interest is high in the squad.
Kelly had an incredible career, reigning as world number one for over four years, taking a then-record four green jerseys in the Tour de France, winning the 1988 Tour of Spain and landing wins in major classics, national tours plus many other events. Although he's largely limited his involvement in the sport in the years since his retirement to some TV commentary, he has been working with young Irish riders for several years. He helped set up a base for them in Belgium, which last year was relaunched as the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy; now, almost twelve months on, the house in Merchtem has led on to a fully-fledged international team.
The aim of the project is to take the country's best unsigned young riders and place them within a structure whereby they have the opportunity to compete against some of the world's big professional teams in UCI ranked events. It's clearly a gradual process; you don't throw newcomers to the lions, after all, but through careful planning, those involved with the team hope that the riders concerned have the best possible environment in which to prosper.
Given the high regard in which he is held, Kelly's involvement has been a big boost. He'll help the riders out, of course, but in the short term, having him as general manager of the new squad meant that it was easier to get sponsors on board than might otherwise have been the case. Work started on the team just four months ago, but things have come together well in that time. A good level of backing has been secured and all systems are go for 2006.
"To be honest, returning to the sport and running a team was never something I really dreamed about," Kelly admitted at the launch in Dublin's Old Jameson Distillery. "Now that I am here, though, it is magnificent to be involved in it.
"In cycling, of course, it takes a number of years to get riders up to a standard. It all started off when Cycling Ireland decided to set up the Cycling Academy with the support of the Irish Sports Council, which has been heavily involved since the beginning.
"The Academy has now been going for three years. Myself and the people looking after the riders out there in Belgium felt that it was the time to take it to the next level, to form something like this. We were thinking about it last year and we decided at a late moment to go for it. The past four months have been very busy, running around and trying to get everything organised...as I said, the decision was a bit late and we were wondering if we should wait another year, but ultimately I think the best thing was to do it now."
The plan of Kelly and team manager Kurt Bogaerts is that the squad will feature up to ten Irish riders in 2006, plus several Belgians. Eight of the former have been selected thus far, this number including such riders as Irish under 23 champion Paídi O'Brien, promising first-year senior Ciarán Kelly, and the talented 22 year old Tim Cassidy, who has taken several important results over the years but who has also been unlucky with injury. FBD Insurance Rás stage winner Roger Aiken, Mark Cassidy, Andrew McQuaid and the Concannon brothers Eoin and Miceal complete the Irish contingent.
As for the Belgians, the idea is that they will create a good balance between youth and experience on the team, helping the Irish riders to learn the ropes and also taking the pressure off somewhat by chasing results themselves during the season. Former Chocolade Jacques rider Jehudi Schoonacker, ex-Quick.Step youth team members Dwight Desaever and Stijn Minne are amongst those signed up, as are GP Etienne de Wilde and GP Roger de Vlaeminck winner Peter Schoonjans, sprinter Rieno Stofferis, Bart Cosyn, Harm Van de Kerckhove and Bogaerts.
The latter has been running the Sean Kelly Academy and will take a rider/manager role in 2006. He is excited by what is in store. "I think this team is very important for Irish cycling, it is the future," he states. "I feel that it is the most important thing that is happening now.
"The plan for the year is that we are definitely going to do UCI 1.1 and 1.2 ranked events. As Sean has said, we need to make a decision from the start. Perhaps aiming to ride the big classics like Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne is a little much for now, perhaps we will enter those sort of races later in the year. But it is definitely the team's ambition to do the UCI calendar. We are getting a lot of invitations at the moment, I have a full list."
When asked what he is expecting from 2006, Bogaerts has an idea of who might do well. "I am expecting something from every rider. On the highest level, I am expecting a lot of Tim Cassidy, Paídi O'Brien and Roger Aiken. Then you have a few guys just under that level who will help the team, and some day they will get their own chance. Of course, I also expect the Belgian riders to do well...they have an important part to play, both in terms of helping the others learn and also getting results."
Cycling Ireland's Tamara O'Driscoll is very positive about what the team represents. "I think this is incredibly important for Irish cycling and to sport in Ireland as a whole," she states. "This is a sign that we are going forward, we are developing and we are doing what is right to put our cyclists on a level with everyone else. I think this is great progress for us."
Both O'Driscoll and Bogaerts agree that Kelly's involvement made it a lot easier to get the project off the ground. "If you have Sean's name, that carries a lot of weight," she says. "It was all done quite late in the year, so there was a lot of rushing. It probably would have been easier to get sponsors on board if we started earlier, but we still did quite well. So in that sense, it did help."
"It definitely makes the job easier, the most important thing is his name," agrees Bogaerts. "There are many continental teams, but people say to me that with the name of Sean Kelly, it opens many doors and gives us a step in front of the other continental teams. And for sponsors, it is a big help too."
Former Ireland manager Frank Campbell also helped out in the chasing of sponsors, helping to bring Merlin on board as the official team frame. He says that the team has a very important role to play, vis-à-vis the securing of world ranking points.
"To a certain extent, it is one of the only vehicles Ireland has now to gain UCI points, which are important for selection to the world championships," he explained at the launch. "With Deignan, Scanlon and Roche now going ProTour, we have lost over 300 points [from the continental ranking system]. If we drop that amount of points next year, we fall five or six places in the rankings, so we would only have one guy in the world's and only one guy in the Olympics. So it is very, very important that we hit the ground running and gain UCI points.
"David McCann, Paul Griffin and Stephen Gallagher are going to do that in Asia, and that is great. But we have to do it here, now. The calendar is based around 1.2 and 2.2 UCI events so we have a chance to do that.
"Personally, I am delighted that the team has finally happened. We have been rushing to get it through for the last three or four months. It is a natural progression - we have had three years of the Academy and now we have a full racing team.
"It is a development team, let's not forget that. We are not going to go out and win any huge races but hopefully at the end of another three years, we will be the position whereby we will have a top-class Irish professional cycling team. The ultimate aim is to bring it on. Whether we move riders on to bigger teams or whether we make the team better, it depends very much on the money.
"Anyway, in the first year, the goal is to improve the riders. I think we have a good setup, we have been very lucky with some of our sponsors, both here in Ireland and in Belgium, and we have got a good mix of youth from Ireland and some experienced Belgians to help the team get off the ground. So hopefully the Belgians can take the pressure of us as far as results are concerned."
Campbell says that a number of other riders are being considered for the team. Brian Keane and Ryan Connor are two that he mentions; they will have trials in Belgium later this spring.
Although the Irish riders on the team will be based in the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy, it will fortunately remain open for use for others from Ireland. Kelly feels that this is important, and that sharing space with those on the continental team will act as a good inspiration.
"It is a huge opportunity for everyone coming up," he stated. "For the women, the juniors, for the under 16s, for the under 14s – they can all head over and spend a few days, a week, three weeks there. The team will be there in the house as well, so it gives a magnificent opportunity for the riders to over there and see how it works. Take, for example, the under 14 or the under 16 riders; when they go over with their club for the weekend, they can see the riders such as Paídi O'Brien, Tim Cassidy and all of those. That gives them a great incentive to continue on, to stay stuck in.
"That can be a problem in cycling, when guys get to 16 or 17 we lose a lot of riders...we have seen that over the years. So these things help, racing in Belgium and seeing the guys on the continental team. All these things help keep the riders motivated and keep interested."
When asked about the team's goals for the first year, Kelly believes that it is important to take things gradually. There is little point in rushing into big races such as Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, he explains. "I think we are better to start off and do things an notch under that, standard-wise, because the season is long and there are huge number of races. The first thing is that we need to make sure that we get the lads working as a team, getting to know each other, getting them into races where they can perform and get some results. That is going to be the important thing. It will help them build confidence and once they get that, they can do great things then."
Of course, being an Irish-registered team means that events such as the FBD Insurance RÁS should be on the schedule. Providing they ride, Kelly feels that the team could perform strongly in the 2.2 ranked national tour.
"There would be a number of lads who would be capable of winning a Rás," he said. "I certainly feel that they are in that league at the moment and that they should be able to do that. Of course, the Rás is a very difficult one to win because the team is quite small...to control the race is therefore a very difficult thing to do. Anyone who has been involved in the race over the years knows that. So you have to play many cards to try and get things to work, tactically. But providing we take part, that would certainly be one of our targets for the year."
And so to the season. Following the launch, the team headed out to Benidorm for a week of warm weather training, topping up their winter kilometres and bonding as a squad. They are due to undergo physiological testing while away, then will return to Belgium and start racing in February. It's a new squad, but with a name like Sean Kelly's so closely attached, it will be attracting a strong level of attention.
The aim is certainly a good one. As US comedian and actor George Carlin once remarked, "there's no present. There's only the immediate future and the recent past." The team's goal is to link the two, working with a former champion to help ensure the creation of new ones.
As we said at the outset, it's been two full decades since the height of the Kelly-Roche era. It's high time for the wheel to come full circle.
Team website: www.seankellycyclingacademy.com