Saturday 22 October 2016

Kelly's heroes

New faces at An Post team are ready to make mark with Ireland's pro team

Sean McKenna
Sean McKenna

Sean Kelly doesn't need to be doing this. He's nearly 60 but he still gets up on his bike nearly every day. Creature of habit, at home in the saddle.

More importantly he's at the helm of the An Post/Chain Reaction/Seán Kelly team that provides a gateway for young Irish cyclists to start in the third division of cycling (Continenal) before hopefully moving on to a higher level in the slipstream of Ryan Mullen and Sam Bennett.

Last year I travelled to Belgium with the team to brave the narrow cobblestone climbs of the Tour of Flanders but last month they were in sunny Calpe near Alicante where a number of World Tour teams were staying, including the German Giant-Alpecin squad who were ploughed down by a British tourist the day after we left for home.

Kelly was pleased with 2015 as the team knotched up four Rás stage wins but less so with their form in Europe.

"The moves of Bennett (he spent three years with An Post and is now at Bora-Argon 18) and Mullen (moved to Cannondale last year) shows success of the team.

"Bennett did a lot of work with Kurt (Bogaerts, team manager) and Mullen could have moved earlier but we wanted to impove his road racing."

The temptation is there for Kelly to move up to Continental-Pro but it would require a lot more sponsorship money.

"We had a few negotiations but they were't good enough.

"Going up a level would make it more difficult to get Irish juniors in."

Kelly also explains that young Irish riders need nurturing before they can handle a career with a Pro Tour team.

"We look after our riders. If you get injured there it's 'hard shit'," he argues.

Jack Wilson

It's a "make or break" year for Jack Wilson - even though he told me the same time last Easter in Flanders.

The difference this year is that the Antrim rider had an annus horribilis in 2015 suffering a dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, broken collar bone and a broken wrist.

As any cyclist will attest, any kind of tumble off the rothar can affect your confidence long after the physical pain has dissipated.

"Mentally it's harder to deal with it (injuries), rather than physically," he explains. "Now I feel like a rider and not a cripple."

Wilson (pictured left) is the veteran at 22, his fourth year with An Post/Chain Reaction and is the only Irishman left from 2015. Seán Kelly has so much faith in the former National Junior Champion that he convinced Wilson to give it another year when he hit a low ebb due to his spate of injuries last year.

"He wanted to quit and get a job back home but we talked him around. Once you quit you're gone," he mused.

"I gave him the examples of (Sam) Bennett and (Fabian) Cancellera as examples (of riders who kept returning after injury).

What does Wilson make of the new guys in the squad? "I've been really impressed, they keep you on your toes."

Having missed two days with gastric poisoning Wilson was keen to get back in the saddle again but he is more patient this year having suffered so much in 2015. His main aim is to get some consistency and "fingers crossed" he will make it for the An Post Rás in May.

Damian Shaw

Shaw's story is an inspiration for every weekend warrior.

At the age of 32 he has joined the team having only started cycling at 26 to keep fit and lose some weight.

Well, to be fair, the Mullingar man did already have some sporting pedigree. He took up cross-country running at 18 when he wasn't making it at football - running his first race in boots.

His fierce determintation and huge engine meant he would go on to win all around him, going on to repesent Ireland at U19 level. He started a landscaping business and later became a fireman in Mullingar.

He eventually turned to cycling as way to lose some timber.

"I was up to 98kg, I was 70kg when I was running, so I bought a bike and used a turbo (trainer) at home. I lost 16kg after two months," he confesses.

After six months on the road he was winning races. "I went from the lowest level to the highest (in Ireland) after ten races," he explains.

The step-up to joining An Post "is like going from the League of Ireland to playing in the UEFA Cup" but he's old enough to grasp the oppoprtunity that very few riders get at his age. The all-rounder won the National Road Race Championship last year ahead of one of Ireland's brightest prospects Eddie Dunbar.

"My aim this year is to do the Tour of Britain and I'd love to be picked for the World Championships," he adds.

Shaw was on Kelly's radar for quite a while: "I spoke to him three or four years ago and said to him 'if you can win in Ireland you can give Europe a lash'. He's a cool, relaxed guy. One thing is for certain, having come this far Shaw can only improve with the 14-man team as he has already shown through his meteoric rise to date.

Seán McKenna

Seán is the only Dub on the team. Why so few I ask? "Too many nightclubs!" he quips.

The tall, lean former Terenure College student has cycling in the blood but credits his leap to pro through the help he received in Belfield with older mentors in UCD CC. The commitment of becoming a full-time rider is not easy to marry with completing a college degree - but McKenna is determined and practical.

"My priority was to finish my degree in Food Science out in UCD," he says of a busy 2015. "I was doing work experience out in Naas so I cycled there and back every day from March to August."

The 70km round trip doesn't seem huge but the 21-year-old was putting the extra miles in on his way home. "I used to return home via Blessington and take in some hills and the lakes."

A winner of Rás Mumhan last year the young Templeogue man isn't putting too much pressure on himself to make it in cycling and seems content to enjoy each challenge as it comes.

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