By Shane Stokes
The Irish-registered, Belgium-based Sean Kelly squad is moving forward with plans for 2008 after a trio of backers was announced on Thursday for the Continental team. Ireland's national postage service An Post will come in as the main sponsor on a one year deal, with an option to continue after that. Accounting and consulting firm Grant Thornton and powertool distributor M. Donnelly will be secondary backers.
"We have a one year deal with An Post, with the possibility of it extending afterwards," said manager Kurt Bogaerts to Cyclingnews. "We are in the process of finalising the team and should be signing more riders this week."
Four Irish riders have been retained from this year's Murphy and Gunn/Newlyn Group/M. Donnelly lineup. Paídi O'Brien, Mark Cassidy, Isaac Speirs and Stephen Gallagher signed contracts on Wednesday and will be once again based at the Sean Kelly Academy in Merchtem, Belgium. Bogaerts said that there is a possibility of taking another Irish rider on the 12-man squad, which will also include cyclists from Belgium, Germany and Sweden next season. The team will also have a development wing that will enable younger Irish competitors to race abroad and to aim for professional careers.
"In our view it is crucial that young Irish cyclists have access to international competition and training," said An Post Chief Executive Donal Connell on Thursday. "This is an essential element of their career development and an integral part of the development of this sport across the country. We will be announcing a number of other sponsorship initiatives in cycling in the coming months."
The future of the team had been uncertain after the decision of 2007 sponsors Murphy and Gunn and The Newlyn Group not to extend their backing. However, the new arrangement means that the budget will be similar in the coming season.
Kelly emphasised the importance of the setup. "One of the big advantages of basing our team at the academy in Belgium, is the access it gives our Irish cyclists to top European races. It provides them with the opportunities that we did not have as cyclists back in the 1980's.
"It also raises the profile of the Irish cyclists in Europe. If you were to send athletes or teams over from Ireland, the cost can be prohibitive. Basing ourselves in Belgium, we can have a team in a race with all the necessary back up without an issue," he said. The An Post/M. Donnelly/Grant Thornton Sean Kelly squad will compete in a range of international races in 2008, with the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, the Etoile des Bessèges in France and the Portuguese Tour of Algarve on their early programme in January and February. It is also set to compete again in the Tour of Ireland later in the year, of which An Post is a co-sponsor.
Ireland will have two Continental teams in 2008. National road race champion David O'Loughlin and Ciarán Power head the Pezula squad, which was launched earlier this autumn.