Sean Kelly is pleased with the experience his young An Post-Sean Kelly riders will have gained as a result of competing in the Tour of Qatar. The Irish Continental team were very visible throughout the week, and travel to the Tour of Oman with growing confidence. Kelly also revealed that his squad is open to stepping up to ProContinental level if sufficient sponsorship can be found.
“It was great to have an invitation and just to get into these races for a team like us because this level of racing is a huge advantage at the beginning of year season,” Kelly told Cyclingnews. “It’s a great opportunity for us. We had our name in and they recognised that we’re trying to build a team and we’re trying to do the best possible with the budget we have.
“If there are breaks going that look like they’re going to be out there for a long time we try and get somebody into them.”
While veteran Belgian Niko Eeckhout led the line in that regard in Qatar with some aggressive racing off the front, Kelly was also happy to see some of his younger charges get a taste of riding in the echelons that marked the race, which augurs well for the team’s aspirations of moving on to ProContinental level.
Kelly explained that the possibility had even been floated ahead of the 2011 season, but that the team would require a bigger budget in order to so.
“Last year some sponsors approached us looking to know what our ambitions were for this year and we had some meetings, but the budgets of the people we talked with weren’t big enough to go ProContinental,” Kelly said. “But we’re always open. If a sponsor comes forward and we can put a good budget together early enough so that we can build a nice ProContinental team, then we will do that because I think the riders we have would be ready to go ProContinental.”
After returning from the Arabian Peninsula, Kelly’s men will follow a largely Belgium-based programme through March and April, before tackling the week-long An Post Rás in May. With a rich 58-year history, it is Ireland’s most prestigious race, and a key target in An Post-Sean Kelly’s calendar.
“The Belgian races are the next ones we do. We do all the semi-classics and the Three Days of De Panne,” Kelly said. “It’s possible that we’ll do the Tour of Belgium again, although the problem is that it’s on at the same time as the Rás in Ireland, which is a very important race for us and that might dilute our team too much, as we always want to send a really good team to the Rás.”
A compromise solution on earpieces?
The UCI’s moves to prohibit the use of radio earpieces during races continue to polarize opinion, but Kelly offers a balanced view of the situation. He is bemused by how reliant riders have become on radios from a tactical standpoint but is equally concerned that a complete ban will have a serious impact on rider safety.
“I did say in the beginning that we had to stop juniors from using them because you had guys coming up who had never ridden a race without an earpiece,” Kelly told Cyclingnews. “You have guys who are already pro who never rode a race without them and for them it’s a shock. They don’t know what to do because they were always told by their directeur sportif.
“But there’s also the safety issue. If there’s a pothole here at the race, we hear it over the race radio, so the drivers of the cars know to avoid it, but there’s no way of passing that information on to the riders.”
While the wide roads of the Tour of Qatar meant that rider security was rarely an issue, Kelly warned that the cobbled classics are an altogether different proposition.
“Here it’s not a big problem because we’re on big straight roads, but when you go to Belgium to the classics and semi-classics, you’re on laneways the whole time that are only the width of a jeep,” he said. “It’s left and right, and you can’t get up with the car to give riders instructions about tactics or safety.”
Kelly believes that a compromise solution might be to allow riders to wear earpieces that give them access to race radio, but that don’t allow them to communicate with their managers.
“Maybe the riders could have something that allows them to hear warnings to cover the safety aspect,” he said. “The argument is that the radios are destroying racing, that it’s very negative and all controlled, so if you can do something to cover the safety aspect then I think you’re halfway there. That would be a big problem solved for me.”
One of the few high profile riders who has declared himself unconcerned by the radio ban is Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Kelly acknowledged that the Belgian’s experience and strength make it less of an issue for him than for others.
“If you’re strong enough to ride the race up front, then it’s a bit safer, but if you’re a rider who’s going to get left behind in the Tour of Flanders of the Three Days of De Panne and you’re in the third or fourth group, then it’s always a danger,” Kelly said.
“Some riders can get away without them. If you have the experience, you don’t even need to see it, you can smell the dangers that are coming. That’s the case with Gilbert as he’s very experienced now, but for the young guys it can be dangerous."