Sean Kelly interview20/05/2010 - 14:32:35
Sean Kelly interview
By Brian Canty
Sean Kelly is a living legend of cycling in Ireland and around the world, but he’s not resting on his laurels.
The 53-year-old Irishman has been throwing his weight behind efforts to make sure that the next generation of Irish professionals find it a lot easier in Europe than he did when he came to the continent in the 1970s.
Six years ago, he founded the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Belgium to nurture young talent. And from that effort grew the continental team racing under this name, this year as An Post-Sean Kelly. I chatted with Kelly about the team recently.
Brian Canty: Tell me how the team initially came about and why Belgium?
Sean Kelly: It came through Cycling Ireland. They wanted to have an academy and wanted to set up a base for young Irish riders on the continent. They contacted me about where to go and I said Belgium is the place where I have a lot of contacts if you wanted to do it there. For cycling it’s a great place because you have plenty of races for all categories. Maybe not the best country climate-wise but it’s easy to get to from Ireland and it’s a very small country so to travel to races is always short distance whereas if you go to France or Italy the races would be 500-600 kilometres away, so that was one of the main reasons.
Brian Canty: How important was it to have a team and what benefit does it serve Irish cycling?
Sean Kelly: It’s a great facility to have out there, to be able to go and do a number of weeks training and racing with no distractions. There have been some riders out there for four and five months and maybe others for the full season. So it was a great facility to set up to expose riders to the top level and see if they had the motivation for it.
Brian Canty: What are the ambitions and goals behind the team?
Sean Kelly: We’re at continental level now four years. We started six years ago in Belgium with the Sean Kelly Academy to develop riders, and we built the team from that. The team is growing slowly every year. It’s really about taking some of the young Irish guys, the very few that are coming through, to see if they have the talent and motivation to try to go on to a bigger team.
From a sponsorship perspective, at the moment we’ve been approaching sponsors and sponsors have come to us and made approaches about what our objectives are for next year in terms of what level we’ll be racing at. We’ve had some talks with sponsors for next year and about going up a level to continental pro, but we had that last year as well. This year again we have contacts and other sponsors which we’re going to talk to in the next number of weeks so at the moment we don’t know what way we’ll we be moving; up a level or staying at the same. We’ll have to see what way the sponsors balance out and what interest there is because it’s a huge financial burden.
Staying at the level we’re at now, that’d be the least we’d be hoping to do. We do have a few riders like Sam Bennett, Philip Lavery and Sean Downey that would help if they were willing to come to us. They’d be ready to do a programme something like what we’re doing this year, so we’d be hoping to attract them into the team for next year. This year they wouldn’t have been able to do the programme the team are doing; it would’ve been just a little bit too high level for them so that’s the other objective, so we’ll see what way things go, but they are the possibilities at the moment.
Brian Canty: Talk to me a little bit about the backing and financial support the team has?
Sean Kelly: The times that are in it make it very difficult to get the sponsors but we’ve been very fortunate in the past number of years with An Post and then Grant Thornton and Martin Donnelly and they are still our three sponsors at the moment. That is the name of the team-Sean Kelly-M Donnelly-Grant Thornton. They’ve been so valuable to us and that is the making of the team. We’ve some other sponsors in Belgium and we’ve had a really good team in the last two years sponsorship-wise that allowed us to be able to do a lot of good quality races all over Europe.
Brian Canty: Have you seen improvement in the last number of years?
Sean Kelly: The team have improved a lot in the last two years, every year we’re getting better results and certainly last year and the beginning of this year we’ve had some very good results. The little disappointing thing maybe is that it is the Belgian riders and maybe the foreign riders who get most of the results. We had Dan Fleeman and Steven Van Vooren and Dan Lloyd all getting wins in the past but no Irish rider. We were hoping the Irish riders would improve that bit more and be good enough to go on, get results and go on to a bigger team like a continental pro team but that hasn’t happened.
Brian Canty: Is it make-or-break for some of them this season?
Sean Kelly: Well that’s it, the opportunity is there for them, the hope is this year some of the Irish guys will get some really good results like in the Rás and the Tour of Ireland and some of the races we’re doing in Belgium. We’re doing the Tour of Britain as well so that’s another good opportunity to impress. We’ve such a big programme, we did a lot of big races with the Pro Tour teams and hopefully from now until the end of the season the Irish guys will get some results. It is a bit of a make-or-break year for them certainly.
Brian Canty: Do you hope to grow the team to a continental pro or Pro Tour level some day?
Sean Kelly: That’s always down the road. We had some contacts last year at the end of the season with some potential sponsors. We’d like to go continental pro, but it didn’t really come about because the budgets were a little too tight to go continental pro, so we decided to stay continental this year. For the Irish guys as well, the continental program is a perfect program for them to take for another year to see what capabilities and what talents they have. The possibility of moving up is always out there. If there’s a sponsor ready to come on board, I think we’re in a better position to do that now. The team has been developing over the years and I think the guys are ready to move on.
Brian Canty: How are things looking at the grassroots level for Irish cycling?
Sean Kelly: It’s getting better very, very slowly for the last couple of years. The Sports Council is putting a bit of money into it and we are seeing some athletes coming through. There are very few right now. As I said, at the moment right now, the number of them coming through to the pro ranks isn’t that great. At the junior ranks, we have six or eight potentially good riders coming through. It’s a tiny number to get somebody good out of it. We have some of the U23 riders this year, they look good. We will try to take them along and hopefully we get some good ones out of that.
That’s what we need badly and we’ve been really missing in the past ten years that we haven’t got guys there in the big races like the Tour de France, the classics, flying the flag. We lost that when (Stephen) Roche, (Martin) Earley, (Paul) Kimmage and myself finished. We had down time for a lot of years and we paid the price for that big time and it’s only in the past number of years that we’re starting to get back with some good young guys and the academy was also a big opportunity for a lot of people. I think it’s getting healthy in Ireland because the grassroots, the leisure cycling is getting so popular and there have to be guys going into those and just get hooked on the sport and follow on. Recently I did the cycle up in Sligo for the An Post series, there were 1,400 people taking part so there is definitely going to be a spin-off for some of the younger people that go into the sport.
Brian Canty: There are some good riders now with Roche and Deignan, how does that help?
Sean Kelly: With Deignan, Roche and Martin, it’s good for us, because that’s giving good promotion and good exposure to Ireland. And it gives some of the younger riders someone to look up to, something we haven’t had in the past 15-20 years since the time of (Stephen) Roche, (Martin) Early and myself were around.
Brian Canty: How does it compare for younger riders today to your time 25 years ago?
Sean Kelly: It’s easier for them to come through now, because we have the academy in Belgium and the team now if they’re at the level they can handle the racing and we can take them. We can look after them. That was a problem 20 years ago, they went to a team in Italy and France, they got too much racing one month and then not enough the next month. We have the structure there to look after the Irish guys. The opportunities are there more for them now. There are just not enough numbers coming through.
Brian Canty: You’re still working on race commentary with EuroSport as well as contributing regularly to cycling in Ireland by promoting the sport, what is your role with the team?
Sean Kelly: I am a general manager of the team. I look after the sponsors and some of the race program to help get the team into some events. Most of my work comes in August, September, October, working to line up any new sponsors, suppliers, new riders. Then once the season starts, I don’t have a lot to do. It’s run from Belgium by the staff. The team is based there, and all the Irish riders are based there, because it’s much easier to work from there.