By Shane Stokes, Irishcycling.com
Irish cycling took a big step forward on Tuesday with the launch of the Sean Kelly Academy in Belgium. The project is a significant expansion of the current Cycling Ireland set-up in Merchtem, with the federation effectively moving their high performance element overseas.
Belgium will function as the new base for almost all international competition, with physiological testing, coaching and race support all part of the setup. The location near Brussels offers a large choice of events to riders of all levels, from youth competitors right up to seasoned internationals.
The initiative, which is believed to be the first of its kind in Irish sport, is one which Cycling Ireland hope will lead to greater success and more professional contracts in the future. Participation in the Academy is subsidised via Irish Sports Council grants given to CI, with riders paying a small amount each week for food, accommodation, transport and support at races by a soigneur and mechanic.
First impressions were certainly good. Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey was very positive about what he saw at the launch. "I am absolutely thrilled with the project," he said. "I think it is extremely professional and it is showing the lead to a lot of sports in Ireland as to what should be done. For example, I believe my own sport of judo should be doing something this in Paris, as France is the strongest country in Europe in that sport. They should be looking at something similar.
"I think this is going to be great for the athletes. They seem extremely happy, and from what I understand the location means they have a choice of up to six races in a day. So it couldn't be better for them."
Sean Kelly, who spent much of his career in the area and has lent his name to the Academy, is confident that it will boost the prospects of Irish cyclists competing at a high level in the future. "It is a great opportunity for riders, people of all categories can come here and race as part of an Irish community abroad. There is a big choice of competitions and a good support structure," he said.
"I think we will get a crop of young riders coming through over the next few seasons because of the Academy. We had a few lean years, but we are definitely on the right track now. I think this will help the Irish scene go from strength to strength."
(A full feature on the Sean Kelly Academy coming soon)