Ambitious An Post Sean Kelly team launched in Belgium
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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Ambitious An Post Sean Kelly team launched in Belgium

by Shane Stokes at 2:25 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling
 
Kelly: ‘On paper, we have our strongest team ever’

An Post Sean KellyBeginning the year with what looks to be its strongest lineup to date, the Irish-sponsored, Belgian-based An Post Grant Thornton Sean Kelly team was today launched in Tielt, near Brussels, and is approaching the season in an ambitious frame of mind.

The eighteen-man team has retained the services of three key riders who had been expected to depart; two of those are the Tour of Britain stage victor and An Post Rás winner Gediminas Bagdonas (Lituanian) and the Liverpudlian Mark McNally, overall winner of the Mi Aout en Bretagne.

They had been linked to moves to the Geox TMC team and the Europcar squad, respectively, but sponsorship (Geox) and licence complications (Europcar) for those teams meant that neither move materialised. As a result, both riders will remain with the team, boosting its firepower.

Ditto for former Belgian national champion Niko Eeckhout who, at 41 years of age, had spoken of 2011 as his last season, considered retirement, but decided to keep racing. “I’m enjoying the sport too much to stop,” he told VeloNation today.

Eeckhout was second on a stage of the recent Étoile de Bessèges, being pipped by Vacansoleil’s Marco Marcato, and said today that he wants to perform strongly in the upcoming Belgian semi-Classics such as Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Le Samyn.

“I feel good, and will aim to get myself into top shape for those races,” he said. “Then we’ll see how things go.”

Also remaining on board are the Belgian Pieter Ghyllabert plus young Irish riders Sam Bennett, Ronan McLaughlin, Connor McConvey and Mark Cassidy. There are a total of ten new signings, including the former Saxo Bank rider Jonny Bellis, his fellow Britons Mark Christian and Jonathan Mould, Belgians Kenny Van Bilsen, Niels Wytinck, Roy Jans, Jorsen Segers and Stijn Ennekens, the Australian Scott Law plus the Irishman Sean Downey.

“So far it is looking good,” said Kelly to VeloNation. “On paper, we have the strongest team ever, although you do have to turn that into results. But I’m happy with the way things are going at the moment.

“Eeckhout is still performing really well. He was very impressive at the training camp. I think Bagdonas will produce some good results again this year; in 2011 he had fabulous year, considering he came from a programme of races in the previous season which were shorter and not at the same level. So he should win some good races this year, and be very aggressive.

“McNally was very strong at the end of season last year, so I feel he should be able to get some good results.”

The team was originally set up as a development team for young Irish riders and Kelly is encouraged that there is some good talent on the squad. One of those is Bennett, who comes from the former world number one’s hometown of Carrick on Suir. “From an Irish point of view, Sam Bennett should produce some good results this year. Last season was a bit of a learning process for him…he was coming from an injury in the previous year when he lost out on a lot of racing. I am hoping that he will benefit from the race programme last year and get some good results.”

He’s also hoping for strong showings from the other Irish riders.

According to Bellis, he’s heading gradually in the right direction. “The training has been going okay,” he said. “I’ve got a much better winter in than last year and the tests are showing that I’m getting stronger.” He was badly injured in a motobike crash in September 2009 and is still rebuilding form.

“Jonny is gradually moving forward,” said Kelly, “although he’s got a lot of work ahead before he gets back to his real level. I think if he keeps at it, he could do it”

According to both Kelly and team manager Kurt Bogaerts, the team would like to go Pro Continental in the future. “It depends on the budget,” said Bogaerts. If we move up, there’d be a lot of extra expense, so we’d need to get more sponsors on board.”

Kelly echoed this. “There’s many Pro Continental teams out there and if we make the step up, we want to make sure we do it right, are at a high level and get wildcards to the big races. That will require a bigger budget to run the team and also to get some bigger riders.”

In the meantime, the goal is to perform as strongly as possible in 2012, landing the sort of results which will help in attracting prospective sponsors. Next up for the team is next week’s Volta ao Algarve, then the Belgian semi-Classics.

An Post Grant Thornton M. Donnelly for 2012:

Mark Cassidy (IRL)
Ronan McLaughlin (IRL)
Sam Bennett (IRL)
Sean Downey (IRL)
Connor McConvey (IRL)
Mark McNally (UK)
Mark Christian (UK)
Jonathan Bellis (UK)
Jonathan Mould (UK)
Niko Eeckhout (BEL)
Pieter Ghyllabert (BEL)
Joren Segers (BEL)
Nils Wytinck (BEL)
Roy Jans (BEL)
Kenneth Van Bilsen (BEL)
Stijn Ennekens (BEL)
Scott Law (AUS)
Gediminas Bagdonas (LTU)


Manager: Kurt Bogaerts
Director: Sean Kelly

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