For the past seven years, Irish cycling legend Sean Kelly has run a Continental team based in Belgium, and despite the constant call to ascend cycling’s ranks, Kelly is content to keep the team’s position as a development grounds for young riders. “Mr. Paris-Nice” is, however, asking for help from the sport’s governing body, the UCI, in funding those efforts.
Originally intended as an academy for young Irish riders, the An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles team has developed into a multi-national squad and grown in stature to become one of the top Continental teams in the world. The squad started the Driedaagse van West-Vlaandren (Three Days of West Flanders) on Friday.
With a top quality race program, the team has seen riders such as current Irish national champion Matt Brammeier, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Andy Fenn, Dan Fleeman, Daniel Lloyd, and Steven Van Vooren snapped up by Pro Continental and ProTeams in recent years.
At the end of 2012, Lithuanian strongman Gediminas Bagdonas moved to the WorldTour with Ag2r La Mondiale, while young Belgian Kenneth Van Bilsen joined Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise.
“If you look at the guys who moved on, Van Bilsen won the U23 Tour of Flanders, had some great results last year and finished seventh at the worlds,” said Kelly. “Bagdonas of course moved to Ag2r this year. He should have moved on at the end of 2011 when won a stage of the Tour of Britain, won the An Post Rás in Ireland, and had a very good season. I was speaking to a number of teams back then about him. WorldTour teams told me they’d take him and then a number of days later they wanted to hold off because of this and that. He eventually signed for Geox but they folded before the season even started. He was really close but unfortunately didn’t get his move until this year with Ag2r.”
While the conveyor belt of talent coming out of Kelly’s team is the dividend of a good race program and solid team environment, it requires the squad to overhaul itself at the end of every year, with the team having little to show for its hard work.
“I think there should be a set transfer system for the smaller teams,” said Kelly. “The UCI, they talk about the development of cycling but I think a Continental team, who develop a rider, look after a rider and then move him up to the next level should be encouraged and rewarded for that with some kind of a fee. I think if you move a guy onto the Pro Continental level there should be a small fee and if you send a guy on to WorldTour then the fee should be bigger for the Continental team. I have suggested that. I proposed it to the UCI already, two years ago, but it takes a lot of time for the UCI to react.”
The UCI appears set to react now, telling VeloNews this week that it is working on a transfer system with the Professional Cycling Council.
“UCI is currently working on such a transfer system to be put in place in 2014, but this will come out from the Professional Cycling Council and not from a Sean Kelly proposal,” a UCI spokesperson said in an e-mail.
Although Kelly’s squad provides new talent for the bigger teams at the end of each year, the Irishman is not sure he would like the team as a whole to move up to the next level, citing financial constraints as the main problem.
“We have a budget of around €550,000 at the moment,” he said. “For [Pro Continental], you need a minimum of €2.5 million. There are [Pro Continental] teams out there and I’ve heard they have just around a million euros, but they’re doing a program of races that is not much better than the one we’re doing now. … To try and go to Pro Continental level under budget, I don’t want to do that. You’re in the races, but you’re winning nothing. You’re just following, fighting to finish races. We have a good race program. We have made contacts over the years and organizers have seen that we are a serious team and we get invited back to races all the time.”
Kelly does understand that the team’s director, Kurt Bogaerts, would like to take out a Pro Continental license, but he says he is not losing sleep over the squad’s third division standing. The team is, however, working with potential new sponsors outside of cycling.
“That’s normal because he’s the guy who puts in the big amount of work all year with the team, working with the riders every day,” said Kelly. “To go up a level we would probably need two more major sponsors. We’ve had contact with sponsors in the last two years and there are sponsors out there that we’ve had meetings with and are not with the team at all at the moment.”
Even the temptation of a possible wildcard into the Giro d’Italia when it starts in Ireland next year is not enough for Kelly to force the step up. (Pro Continental teams are eligible for wildcard invitations to grand tours.)
“I don’t think the Giro has any bearing on it,” he said. “The Giro is a tiny percentage of your race program first of all. Just to ride the Giro because it’s starting in Ireland … hoping to get an invitation, because to get an invitation first of all is not guaranteed, is just not feasible.”
This year, Kelly’s team does have a new partner in the Bradley Wiggins Foundation, set up by the defending Tour champion to give young athletes the opportunity to perform at a high level as well to promote a variety of sport in schools and through local programs. British rider Kieran Frend is the foundation’s first cyclist be placed with the team.
“Bradley made contact and he said that he’d seen the team over the past number of years and knows we have a nice team,” said Kelly. “From speaking to the English guys like Mark McNally, Daniel Lloyd, and Andy Fenn, he knows we are serious, we work well with the riders and we try to give them a good program of races. He wanted to come on board with the team and put in one or two riders.”
So, with a Tour champ’s foundation in step, Sean Kelly and his An Post squad are rolling into 2013 and hoping to continue developing riders not only from Britain, but from all over the world.