By Gerard Cromwell
Sean Kelly's Irish registered An Post / M. Donnelly / Grant Thornton squad has pulled off a big name signing for 2009, with the news that former Belgian champion Niko Eeckhout has signed for the green clad squad.
The 38 year-old Classics rider will provide valuable experience and leadership for the Merchtem based squad, made up of mostly young Irish and Belgian riders. Eeckhout has been a consistent winner on the professional scene since turning professional with Collstrop in 1992. Among others, "Rambo" has two victories at Dwars door Vlaanderen and wins at Etoile de Besseges, GP Rik Van Steenberegen as well as three Flemish championships to his name.
"Niko is a very strong classics rider, with a lot of very good wins on his palmarés," said team manager Kurt Bogaerts. "He will be a very good addition to the team. It's going to be his last year and he is really ambitious for the early season races. We have ridden all of those races before, but you need a bit of experience to get results.
"Races like Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Niko has won those type of races before. He's the guy who can make the difference between starting the race to get experience or starting the race to try and win or get on the podium.
"We won some races in France and Spain last year, but it was because we had very good form. In the semi-classics, you need good form and good experience of these races. To bring a former winner like Niko to the start in the team will bring the morale of the whole team up and the motivation to do well in these races. I'm not saying we are going to win, but we will definitely be trying and hope to get on a few podiums next year.
"Our main objectives will be the semi classics in the early season, and signing Niko was the next step up for the team."
The An Post / M. Donnelly / Grant Thornton team had a good season last year, claiming three major stage wins, with Daniel Fleeman winning the Tour of the Pyrenees, Daniel Lloyd winning the Vuelta Extremadura and Stephen Gallagher taking the FBD Insurance Ras. The team also won the team time trial at Extremadura. Lloyd and Fleeman's efforts did not go unnoticed and both will ride for the new Cervelo Test Team in 2009 alongside Tour De France winner Carlos Sastre, while Gallagher is expected to rejoin the Kelly team alongside fellow Irish riders Mark Cassidy, Paidi O'Brien and Ronan McLaughlin.