A history of the Sean Kelly cycling team20/05/2010 - 14:01:12
A history of the Sean Kelly cycling team
The An Post Sean Kelly team was sponsored and set up by the Carrick-on-Suir legend in 2006 as an extension of the academy which bears his name.
The academy was seen as the great hope of Irish cycling; a breeding ground where young and talented Irish cyclists could have a continental base from which to compete in Belgium, while the pro team which extended from that was designed with the intention of giving these young Irish riders access to a programme of top international races.
Páidí Ó Brien is one of the best examples of a rider who has excelled from this academy.
The 26-year-old Cork native came into the academy five years ago after deciding that a life in the corporate world was not for him. For Ó Brien, a career as a professional cyclist was a career he had always dreamt of and when Kelly offered him one of the few slots available in the academy he didn’t think twice. Turning his back on college he set about the long and arduous road into life as a pro cyclist.
In the academy life is tough. Much like an apprenticeship you have to learn your trade and earn respect. Something that can only be achieved by long hours daily in the saddle and monk-like dedication for 12 months of the year.
It is only through this sacrifice and dedication that results can be achieved and in a country where everyone speaks different languages, results are the universal tongue that speak louder and clearer than any other.
Gradually the former Kanturk CC rider improved and achieved some notoriety in his first few seasons to become U23 national champion at home and things looked up.
His salary as a professional cyclist is not what you might expect from a ‘professional sportsman’ but with the sport struggling to cope with sponsorship brought about by the continued bad taste left from drug scandals it will be a long time yet before it becomes 100% transparent and clean.
He remains optimistic and this year he will be in his sixth season with the team.
Some argue it could be one of his last. Sean Kelly himself admits it’s “make or break certainly for a few of them.”
The salary afforded to O’Brien from this life will not pay a mortgage.
In this sport, for every rider who makes it, there are several thousand who don’t. Each year plane loads of aspiring riders touch down at Brussels airport at the start of every season, bound for digs somewhere in the cycling-mad country.
However, all too often, 99% of them return home that same season with shattered bodies and shattered minds.
The dictum that states “to make it as a pro cyclist is akin to throwing eggs at the wall and keeping the ones that don’t break” is ever so true.
Why set up a pro team?
The team was initially titled the Sean Kelly ACLVB-M. Donnelly team and was the first ever Irish professional cycling unit.
Following two decades in the wilderness in terms of success and blockbuster names like Kelly, Roche, (Kimmage and Earley to a lesser extent) Irish cycling had reason to cheer again when, backed by the Celtic Tiger a second professional cycling team called Team Murphy & Gunn-Newlyn arrived. (A BMW dealership in Dublin).
The following year, these two teams merged to form the Murphy & Gunn-Newlyn-M. Donnelly-Sean Kelly team, and in their debut season achieved a string of fine results, most notably a second place finish in the FBD Insurance Rás for Páidi O’Brien.
At the end of that remarkable year it was announced that An Post would come on board as chief sponsor and would replace Murphy & Gunn while Grant Thornton, a UK-based chartered accounting firm, replaced the Newlyn group as a co-sponsor.
The 2008 season saw the team bring more of an international spread to it and along with the initial six Irish riders (Páidi O’Brien, Stephen Gallagher, Mark Cassidy, Isaac Spears, Ronan McLaughlin and Denis Dunworth ) they succeeded in attracting four riders from Belgium, two English, a Swede and a German.
The team went on to enjoy further success that year when Stephen Gallagher won the overall at the FBD Insurance Rás while they also won the Team Classification at the same race. Added to that was an equally impressive win by Briton Dan Lloyd at the Vuelta Ciclista Internacional a Extremadura and Dan Fleeman’s win in the Tour des Pyrénées.
Since then the team have expanded their roster list to 18 riders with the addition of mountain bikers, but the main focus is on the road. Last season they added seasoned professional David O’Loughlin to the squad while veteran Belgian rider Niko Eckhoudt - a former National champion - agreed a one-year extension on his contract. The team have six Irish, 11 Belgians and one rider from the UK.
Kelly, the highest ranked rider in the world for four consecutive years is positive about the team’s future. He believes the team will strengthen and spur on more young aspiring Irish riders.
“The long term goal is that we try to make a step up, to go Pro Continental (a step above continental, a step below pro-tour). We will try also to keep working with the youth. We want to continue with the Academy but Cycling Ireland made a decision last year not to do it. Still every guy is welcome in Belgium and this summer, like every summer, we will be full up with guys coming over to stay for a week or a month at a time. We will always try to look after them as it is part of our future too as an Irish team.
“That is why I thought it was important to get Connor (McConvey) into the team. I hope sooner or later (Sam) Bennett, (Philip) Lavery and (Sean) Downey and whichever riders are coming are also part of the team.
"That is what we are hoping for. I think that is the goal of the team – it’s not because we have an Irish sponsor, but I want to create a future for Irish cycling. That is still the main goal.”
Of his own arrival to Belgium some 30 years ago, Kelly had no such support structure. Just his bike and an address to hand to a man with no English at the airport.
"I was fierce hungry though," laughed Kelly. "I came from a farming background. I had to get up early in the cold and wet and go out and milk cows.
"When I was in a line-out in the gutter in a race in Belgium or somewhere like that in the early days, I just had to think about going back to the farm and I found myself hanging on that little bit longer.
"Nowadays of course, it's much easier. Lifestyles have changed, and that's only natural.
"Myself and Directeur Sportif Kurt Bogaerts, we try to keep the guys going," he says, "get them to work at it one hundred percent."
"Increasing the quality of the team, and especially adding riders from countries other than Ireland is key,” says Kelly.
"We have a better team this year. We have a number of foreign riders in there.
"I feel if you have some good foreign riders, the Irish riders will rise to that. It helps to push them a bit more. Everybody is going to have to fight for their place this year.
"It’s not going to be as easy as last year to get on a team to go to a race. We’re all in there to learn and try and get the best results."
Kelly, of course has been there, done that. He knows what it takes to win and he’ll be there to push his riders along.
"I know from my experience, it’s easy to stay sitting in the saddle all the time," he says, "but you have to get your butt out of the saddle at times to get a result.
"If you look at this country, we have a number of riders coming through in the junior ranks and I feel they are coming along now because they have seen the team over the past couple of years and they realise that if they get to a certain standard they can get on the team.
"That all helps. It’s a snowball effect."
Now in its fifth year the team were recently registered as a Belgian team, which will allow them entry into the more difficult races and expose them to a higher quality of opposition, something that should see them improve.
Being a Continental team like the Sean Kelly squad, they are essentially a third division outfit; lacking the bigger budgets of Pro Tour teams and bigger names which that inevitably brings.
In this regard, they are what can be described as a ‘feeder team’, where they are merely a pad for riders to launch their careers. The aforementioned Dan Lloyd and Dan Fleeman have both gone on to secure contracts with pro Tour teams having cut their teeth with the Sean Kelly squad.
Managers: Sean Kelly and Kurt Bogaerts
Directeur Sportifs: Hans Sente and Stef Lauwaert
Mechanics: Freddy Van Goidsenhoven and Michel Bogaerts.