Eeckhout to continue racing at 41, is poised to renew with An Post Sean Kelly team
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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Eeckhout to continue racing at 41, is poised to renew with An Post Sean Kelly team

by Shane Stokes at 8:54 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling
 
Team hoping for repeat invitation to Tours of Qatar and Oman, Bagdonas could return

Niko EeckhoutHe’ll turn 41 in just over two weeks' time, but it looks like the tough veteran Niko Eeckhout will battle on in the peloton for one more season. The 2006 Belgian road race champion has been in talks with his An Post Grant Thornton M. Donnelly Sean Kelly squad and according to the team’s general manager, things are looking good.

“The team is optimistic. Normally by the end of the week, things should be finalised,” Kurt Bogaerts told VeloNation. “It is a matter of getting the contract ready, meeting Niko and signing it. We know where we stand.”

Nicknamed Rambo because of his physique and toughness, Eeckhout’s age doesn’t prevent him from clocking up impressive results. In February he was a solid eighth on a stage of the Tour of Oman, then three weeks later he won a stage of the 2.1 Driedaagse Van West Vlaanderen en route to eighth overall. He also picked up smaller victories in races in Vilvoorde, Houthalen-helchteren, Stadsprijs Sint – Niklaas, Stekene and Oostrozebeke.

Other placings included third in the 1.1 Handzame Classic, second on a stage of the Ronde de l’Oise, fourth on the Omloop van het Waasland and twelfth in the 1.1 Halle – Ingooigem.

Eeckhout’s worth extends beyond the results, though. “Niko has been very important for the team in the past three years,” states Bogaerts. “He put us in a situation in high-standard races where we had the ambition to win. Also his attitude - his professionalism is really, really high. What is really important for me is that he trains hard, he looks after himself a lot, he sacrifices a lot. This gives a really good example to the other riders.”

The team is a Continental squad, but gets invites to some of the biggest races in cycling. Kelly is a big part of that, but so too the team’s oldest rider. “Niko is an important ‘name’ on the team,” Bogaerts continues. “Okay, we have a big name like Sean Kelly, but we have also a name with palmares who is still racing. That helps us to keep the programme that we have…he is very well known, particularly in Belgium.”

Race invites and key riders returning:

Having taken that top ten finish on a stage of Oman, Eeckhout will be keen to go back to the race again and see if he can improve on that. Bogaerts is waiting for a decision from ASO in relation to Oman and Qatar, and expects to find out very soon.

“We are in discussion with all these races, and I think they will come up with the teams at the beginning of December,” he said. “Qatar and Oman were really important for us in 2011, and the race was also on Eurosport in Ireland. That meant that the sponsors and fans could follow how we did. We did a really good race last year, we rode really aggressively. The organiser was happy with that and we hope that we can go back.”

Eeckhout aside, the team had some other important riders in 2011. The Briton Mark McNally and Gediminas Bagdonas both impressed, with the former winning the overall classification of the Mi Aout en Bretagne, and the latter winning stage seven of the Tour of Britain, taking the Lithuanian time trial championships and clocking up stage wins plus overall victories in the Ronde de l’Oise and the An Post Rás.

Both were due to move to bigger teams in 2012, but at least one of those deals has fallen through. McNally is already confirmed as coming back to the team after a planned move to Europcar didn’t happen; Bogaerts reveals that Bagdonas could also end up returning if his 2012 squad doesn’t find the replacement backer it has been chasing.

“Geox is still unofficial…it is still not completely finished, so that is what Bagdonas is waiting on. If that doesn’t go ahead, he will probably ride for us,” he said. “We should know soon what is happening.

“I personally think that he has a valid contract there [at Geox TMC], everything was done at that time. For his sake, I hope it comes good, because he is at the age where he needs to make the step up to a higher level. We will see.”

Bogaerts stresses that the team is more interested in developing its riders and helping them move to bigger contracts. He’s happy to help out where necessary, though, and of course sees the advantage for his team if both riders are part of it next year.

“With Bagdonas, it is the same situation as McNally [if he returns] – if you can keep him on the team, he is going to be even stronger in 2012. We got a lot out of him and if he does another year, he could be a really good rider for us.”

Former Saxo Bank SunGard competitor Jonny Bellis has already been confirmed for 2012, and hopes that the varied race programme will help him return to the level he was at before his bad motorbike crash two years ago.


Also see: video interview with Niko Eeckhout from earlier this year:

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