By Shane Stokes
Former world number one, multiple Classics winner and 1988 Vuelta a Espana champion Sean Kelly has put his name and full backing behind a new Continental team, which was launched on Monday in the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin.
The Sean Kelly Racing Team has been set up through the efforts of the Irish champion, the Belgian Kurt Bogaerts of the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy, Cycling Ireland, plus several others. The goal of the team is to act as a development squad, taking the best Irish unsigned talent, exposing them to a good range of racing - including UCI ranked events - throughout Belgium, Europe and further afield and, in doing so, boost the chances of the country's riders making it as successful professionals.
Encouraged no doubt by Kelly's endorsement of the squad, a considerable number of backers have thrown their weight behind the new project, which is the first ever Irish Continental level team. Irish-registered but based at the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Merchtem, Belgium, the squad hopes to compete alongside some of the world's top professional outfits in 2006. The team is the next step in the Academy project started several years ago by Cycling Ireland in Belgium, and Kelly feels it is an important development.
"I think it is going to play a very important role," Kelly said. "It takes a number of years to get riders up to a high standard. We started off with the Cycling Academy in Belgium and, after three years of that, we decided to take things a step further and set up a team. We have been working hard at it for the past four months and it has come together well in that time.
"It will have an important part to play for Irish cycling. The goal is to take on some lads, look after them well and ultimately help them on to what will hopefully be careers with the very top pro squads."
Kelly and Bogaert's plan is that the squad will feature up to ten Irish riders in 2006, plus several Belgians. Eight of the former have been selected thus far, this number including such riders as Irish under 23 champion Paídi O'Brien, promising first-year senior Ciaran Kelly and the talented 22 year old Tim Cassidy, who has taken several important results over the years but who has also been unlucky with injury.
FBD Insurance Rás stage winner Roger Aiken, Mark Cassidy, Andrew McQuaid and the Concannon brothers Eoin and Miceal complete the Irish contingent.
On the Belgian side, former Chocolade Jacques rider Jehudi Schoonacker, ex QuickStep youth team members Dwight Desaever and Stijn Minne, GP Etienne de Wilde and GP Roger de Vlaeminck winner Peter Schoonjans, sprinter Rieno Stofferis, Bart Cosyn, Harm Van de Kerckhove and Bogaerts have all been confirmed.
Irish hope Tim Cassidy said on Monday that he is excited about the setup. "It is great for Irish cycling, it is a real opportunity for us all," he said. "I am looking forward to getting started. My form is very good at the moment, I have got in a very good winter. I'm pretty excited by that as I got some nice results at the start of last season on very little training. So hopefully a strong year is in store."
Of course, having Kelly's name so prominently attached to the team brings benefits. "It made it easier when we were looking for sponsors, and also has led to some interest from race organisers," said Bogaerts. Kelly's position as team director is also a big plus. "Sean will be helping out by giving advice to the riders and providing guidance to the team. His input will be very important."