By Shane Stokes
Former world number one cyclist Sean Kelly is continuing his efforts to boost the prospects for young Irish riders competing abroad through the establishment of the Sean Kelly Racing Team. The Continental squad will begin competing in 2006, working out of the cycling academy which Kelly previously helped set up in Merchtem, Belgium.
Riders on the team will have the opportunity to race against big professional squads, helping their development and increasing the chances that they too can land pro deals. A total of seven Irish riders have signed up for the 2006 season, this number including the promising young Dubliner Tim Cassidy who took a number of strong results this year including third place in the 1.2 ranked La Roue Tourangelle.
Cassidy will be joined by FBD Insurance Rás stage winner Roger Aiken and Irish under 23 champion Paídi O'Brien, both of whom who were based at the Sean Kelly Academy in 2005. Also returning is Ciarán Kelly, who won a number of high-level junior races this season in Belgium.
The Irish contingent is completed by Eoin and Miceal Concannon plus Andrew McQuaid, son of UCI President Pat McQuaid.
Although the team will be registered in Ireland and is designed to nurture talent from there, the first season will also see a number of Belgian riders compete in its colours. This line-up will include former Vlaanderen pro Jehudi Schoonacker, who finished third on a stage of the 2004 Peace Race and twelfth overall in the 2003 Tour of Denmark.
Another of those Belgians, Kurt Bogaerts, has run the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy and will act as general manager to the new team. He feels that the squad will have an important part to play in the future of Irish cycling.
"This is a big step forward, and should help build upon the success of the Academy," he said. "The aim for year one is to have 10 Irish riders on the team. I have a choice of a lot of people to fill in the last three places but I don't think I am going to do that yet. I am going to stick with these seven riders at first and then fill these last three places in May or June."
Besides Shoonacker and Bogaerts, the Belgian wing includes Rieno Stofferis, Peter Schoonjans, Stijn Minne, Dwight Desaever, Bart Cosyn and Harm Vandekerckhove. Kelly will fill the role of managing director, overseeing the development of the team and giving his advice to the riders.
Bogaerts is aiming for a strong race programme in 2006, with events such as the Tour de Langkawi and the Tour of California on his early wish-list.
The team has built up a solid list of backers, with equipment deals with bike companies such as Merlin, Mavic, Continental Tires, Time and Ovalt Concepts. Other sponsors include ACLVB - Liberale Vakbond and XP Power.
The Sean Kelly Racing Team is due to be launched in mid January. More information on the team will follow then.