Cycling: Kelly aims to deliver as An Post wrap up 16-man package
The 2011 line-up for Sean Kelly's An Post cycling team was officially unveiled in Tielt, Belgium, yesterday.
The Irish-backed team, now in their sixth year, have grown from modest beginnings into one of the best continental, or third division, squads in the world. Their reputation as a solid, aggressive, little team recently saw them invited to the prestigious Tours of Qatar and Oman, where they punched above their weight against top ProTeam squads.
An Post had riders in the breakaways on almost every stage of both races and took top-10 placings with Belgian riders Niko Eeckhout and Pieter Ghyllebert.
Mark Cassidy was present in two long escapes in Oman, while Mark McNally came close to the most aggressive rider's jersey. This augurs well for their spring classics campaign, when the squad return to racing in Belgium this weekend.
"We showed we are capable of racing against the top teams and the top riders," said team manager Kurt Bogaerts yesterday. "We wanted to ride aggressively and to be involved in all the breakaways and the results were better than I expected. We got a lot of compliments, especially from the race organisers, so hopefully we will get a few more invites to the bigger races from that."
Cassidy, Sam Bennett, Philip Lavery and Ronan McLaughlin are the only four Irish riders on the 16-man An Post team and all four have gotten a taste of racing already this season. Cassidy and Bennett were in action at the Tours of Qatar and Oman, while Lavery and McLaughlin began their season in France with the GP la Marseillaise and the Etoile de Besseges.
This year's squad will once again have a strong Belgian contingent as Eeckhout and Ghyllebert are joined by compatriots Bjorn Brems, Maxim Debusschere, Kevin Claeys, Kess Heytens, Dries Hollanders and Kenny Terweduwe.
Liverpudlian McNally and former Junior Paris-Roubaix winner Andy Fenn make up the British contingent, while the line-up is completed by promising Lithuanian duo, Darijus Dzervus and Gediminas Bagdonas.
The green-clad squad are back in action in Belgium this weekend, with the 1.2-ranked Beverbeek Classic on Saturday followed by the prestigious 1.1-ranked Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday.
With An Post also taking over sponsorship of the An Post Rás this year, the eight-day race will feature highly on the team's agenda for the season. Last year, the squad won the team award and took a stage win and the King of the Mountains competition with Cassidy, while former rider Conor McConvey finished fourth overall and won the U-23 competition.
"We always look forward to returning home to race," said former world No 1 Kelly yesterday. "The Ras this year will be extra special. It's the biggest race in Ireland and now we'll have extra motivation with An Post taking over as title sponsor this year."