There will be no room for dreamers and riders content to just warm a saddle on the An Post / M. Donnelly / Grant Thornton / Sean Kelly Cycling Team this year, team mentor Sean Kelly said at the team’s launch at the GPO Dublin Tuesday.
The Irish-registered team, now in its third year, has more of an international flavour in 2008. There are six Irish riders in the squad – two of them first-year pros – four Belgians, two British and one each from Sweden and Germany.
Kelly is positive about the team’s future. Ireland’s greatest ever road cyclist, with a record that includes four Tour de France green jerseys and seven consecutive wins in Paris-Nice, believes the new signings will strengthen the squad and spur on the Irish riders. That’s despite a general feeling that Ireland’s booming economy of recent years has made Irish domestic riders ‘soft’.
“I was fierce hungry,” laughed Kelly as he was asked the difference between his generation and today’s young stars. “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.”
And that’s the level of commitment Kelly says he is looking for from his team’s riders this year.
“You have a lot of people who dream really,” he says. “They think if you make a three month effort they can become a bike rider and get into this team, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s a long term effort.”
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.”
Good start for De Schrooder
Based at the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy in Belgium, the squad has already gotten their season off to a flying start with Belgian sprinter Benny De Schrooder finishing seventh overall in last week’s five-day Etoile de Besseges in France.
The 27 year old Belgian is one of the new faces on this year’s squad and the ex Chocolate Jacques pro is impressed by the Irish set-up and by former world number one Kelly.
“The team is working very well together,” he says. “Last week was my first race with them and, after three days, I was fifth overall. Everybody helped me hold onto a high position, kept me out of the wind, so I could do my sprint at the end each day. It was really good.
Kelly’s involvement with the team is confidence-inspiring, says De Schrooder.
“The first time I met Sean Kelly was at the training camp in Majorca,” he says, “I knew he was a very good rider but he rode with us on the bike every day. He’s still in very good shape.
“I think it’s very good for the team to have somebody like that behind us. I think it’s going to be a good year.”
The Irish angle
“This team is really important to Irish cycling,” says current Irish under 23 champion Mark Cassidy.
“When you’re racing abroad, you always have a pretty hard programme, but this team is also ideal for the young guys like Ronan and Denis.
“They can get a taster of racing and find out what level they’re at and what they need to do to get up to the next level, like I did when I joined this team.
“I found it very hard. Once I knew how hard it was going to be, I realised I needed to step up my training even more than I’d been used to.
“Now I’m comfortable riding at the higher level and I think if we can get a few more young guys up to that standard, maybe win a big race, we can motivate even more young riders at home and it will continue like that.”
Major sponsor An Post is set to roll out more initiatives to get people on their bikes by the end of the year and see this team as a great way to promote cycling as a healthy lifestyle.
“An Post’s sponsorship of the Sean Kelly Team is the start of what we hope will be a significant investment in cycling in Ireland,” said An Post CEO Donal Connell.
“We believe our involvement with the Sean Kelly Team will ensure Ireland’s best young riders will have the chance to fulfil their potential and gain invaluable experience and exposure to international cycling, something we believe is integral to the development of cycling across the country.”
The full team line-up comprises Irish riders Mark Cassidy, Paidi O’Brien, Stephen Gallagher, Isaac Speirs, Ronan McLaughlin and Denis Dunworth; Belgians Benny De Schrooder, Rieno Stoferis, Frank Van Kuik and Kenny Lisabeth; British duo Daniel Lloyd and Daniel Fleeman; Swede Victor Folkessan; and former under 23 European time trial champion, Germany’s Christian Muller.
Eighteen-year-old Denis Dunworth and Donegal’s Ronan McLaughlin (20) are both former Irish junior champions and will be hoping to have as impressive a debut season as 19-year-old Navan youngster Isaac Speirs had last year.