THERE ARE STILL a number of cycling races left in the 2011 professional calendar but the An Post Sean Kelly team drew their season to a close last Sunday at the Nationale Sluitingprijs – Putte-Kapellen in Belgium.
The young British rider Andrew Fenn was the team’s best placed rider in 15th place.
With 12 major victories, this brings to an end the most successful season in the An Post Sean Kelly team’s six-year history.
Their season began with appearances at the new but prestigious Tours of Qatar and Oman. Many of the World Tour teams were present at these races with riders like Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen and Robert Gesink winning stages. The An Post team didn’t notch up any victories, but barely a stage passed where there wasn’t one of their green jerseys present in the break of the day. The team clearly meant business and started the season as they meant to continue.
It was a serious coup for the team to receive invites to these races. Team manager Kurt Bogaerts was delighted with their showing at these races and when asked recently whether they expect to be present in the Middle East again in February in 2012, he said:
After all the good results this year, it should be possible that we have a similar program again next year.
An Post will continue their sponsorship of this Continental (third tier) team into 2012. Sean Kelly has mentioned in the past that the team would eventually be interested in making the jump up to Pro Continental status. Although Bogaerts admitted that they are certainly still considering it as a possibility, the team will continue at Continental level for at least one more season.
In previous years, much of the pressure of winning races was on the shoulders of the veteran former Belgian champion, Niko Eeckhout. But the burden was shared much more this year as victories were also earned by Mark McNally, Andrew Fenn, Sam Bennett and Gediminas Bagdonas.
The Lithuanian Bagdonas had an incredible year winning seven races, the highlight of which was bagging two stages and the overall of the Rás Tailteann. The Rás is always the focal point of the team’s season and winning the race for the first time since 2008 was one of the team’s major goals for the year.
Bagdonas also won the seventh stage of the Tour of Britain into Sandringham, arguably the biggest ever win for the team.
Inevitably, Bagdonas has since been linked with a move to a bigger team and looks to be on his way out, along with Mark McNally and Andrew Fenn who, fresh from a bronze medal at the Under-23 Worlds, will be riding for OmegaPharma-QuickStep next year.
But there is one rider who may be riding for the team for one more year, Eeckhout himself. ‘Rambo’ will be 41 in December but Bogaerts has revealed that he is in talks at the moment to try and convince him to stay on as a rider for 2012.
When asked is it getting frustrating that being in a lower division means that there is a constant stream of riders moving on in order to ride bigger races, Bogaerts said:
It’s not frustrating it means we are doing really good work at the moment developing young riders.
Another young rider who looks to be coming on board for 2012 is the Irishman Sean Downey who won the Irish Under-23 time trial title earlier this year and looks to be a serious prospect for the future.
He will join up with Ronan McLaughlin, Sam Bennett, Philip Lavery, Mark Cassidy and Connor McConvey who will all remain at the team next year, creating a strong Irish contingent on the 2012 roster of the An Post-Sean Kelly team.