By Shane Stokes
At the beginning of last season, Ireland's first Continental team was making news due to its close association with Sean Kelly, the former world number one lending both his name and his expertise to the Belgium-based setup.
This time round, both Kelly and Stephen Roche were present at the team launch on Tuesday in Milltown and Dublin. The 2007 team has a new look, with bright red jerseys making the squad easily identifiable, and also a new name and different composition than before. Now entitled the Murphy and Gunn/Newlyn/M. Donnelly Sean Kelly team, it comprises 13 international riders and fuses the two Irish-registered Continental teams from last season, namely Sean Kelly ACLVB M. Donnelly and Murphy & Gunn/Newlyn Group.
In 2006, having two UCI-registered squads when the country previously had none was a big boost for Irish cycling but, given that several of the nation's top riders have contracts with other teams, there probably wasn't the strength in depth to justify two totally separate entities. Hence the amalgamation over the winter, and the unveiling of what should prove to be a collectively stronger squad.
Thirteen riders are currently part of the line-up, with the possibility of more being added later in the season. The eight Irishmen are national under 23 champion Paídi O'Brien, former national champion Morgan Fox, Paul Healion, John Dempsey, Simon Kelly, Tim Cassidy, Mark Cassidy and Stephen Gallagher. The team is completed by Belgians Christophe Beddegenoodts, Tim Meussen, Rieno Stofferis and Devi Vervaecke, plus the Dane Glenn Bak.
They will be based mainly at the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Merchtem, Belgium, with two amateur development/feeder teams attached. Team Murphy & Gunn / Newlyn will race mainly in Ireland while the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy Team will enable riders of varied ages to compete in Belgium.
The Continental team got their season off to a good start in the Tour o f Qatar last week. Healion and Bak both gained valuable television time by going clear in long-distance breakaways, while Stofferis finished eighth on the final stage. The team was also sixth in that stage classification, showing that they were finishing strong.
Given a lack of racing at this level in the past, it was a respectable showing against the ProTour teams in the race and the goal now is to continue building strength and experience as the season progresses.
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