The future of Irish cycling

While Ireland now have four professional cyclists at the top level of the sport, the presence of Irish riders in the world of cycling does not end there. This is thanks in no small part to the An Post-Sean Kelly team who are now entering their sixth season of professional racing. Although the team is now registered as Belgian, there remains a strong Irish presence.

Both Ronan McLaughlin and Mark Cassidy, a stage winner in last year’s FBD Insurance Rás (now renamed the An Post Rás), will remain on the team for the 2011 season, both having ridden for the An Post-Sean Kelly in its various guises for their entire careers thus far. However, it is the two new Irish arrivals on the team that are creating the most excitement. Philip Lavery and Sam Bennett will be racing in the An Post colours this year. Both are only 20 years old and are fantastic prospects for the future of Irish cycling.

Philip Lavery

Lavery raced with An Post-Sean Kelly throughout the latter half of last year as a trainee and impressed sufficiently to earn a full contract this year. His most notable result last year was a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games as part of the Northern Ireland team pursuit quartet on the track. He also won two stages and the overall in the Tour of the North by attacking with more than 110km to go on the final stage to wipe out a deficit of 1’18”, eventually winning by a narrow 18 seconds. The Tour of the North is a race previously won by Seán Kelly himself back in 1977.

Sam Bennett is another hot prospect, not only in Irish cycling, but in World cycling. Bennett was offered a trainee contract with the French Pro Tour team FDJ for the second half of 2010. Unfortunately a knee injury wiped out any opportunities he may have had to race with the French setup. But this didn’t deter the An Post-Sean Kelly team from signing up the current Irish Under 23 road race champion. He is perhaps best known for being the youngest ever rider to win a stage of the Rás, which he did in 2009 on Stage 7 into Clara at the remarkable age of 18. Bennett had previously cut his teeth with the French amateur club VC La Pomme, a club which has seen Nicolas Roche, Dan Martin, Philip Deignan and Mark Scanlon all pass through the ranks in recent years.

It is sometimes difficult at this early stage in a rider’s career to determine what style of racer they may become, for the moment Bennett’s speciality seems to be bunch sprints, while Lavery is more of a gung-ho attacking rider liable to win from a breakaway. Both riders will be eager to make an impression during their first year with the team.

Sam Bennett

The An Post-Sean Kelly team have a Continental racing license for the coming season, which is the third tier of professional cycling teams. Unfortunately, this means that the team is ineligible to qualify for any of the World Tour races such as the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix. They are however eligible to receive invites for any races ranked just below those with World Tour status. As such, it has already been confirmed that the team will be racing in the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman in February.

Both races are relatively new but are quickly establishing themselves as important races on the cycling calendar. The Tour of Qatar was first raced in 2002 and has been won a record three times by Belgian cycling superstar Tom Boonen. The Tour of Oman made its debut last year when the inaugural edition was won by Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara.

These two events provide the An Post-Sean Kelly team with an early season opportunity to race against some of the best in the world. Although neither race is a World Tour event, the field for both will be made up mostly of Pro Teams. The likes of Boonen, Cancellara, Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins and current World Champion Thor Hushovd are all expected to be present.

The An Post-Sean Kelly team manager Kurt Bogaerts is pleased to see his team being given the opportunity to take part in these races. “We are delighted to have received an invitation to take part in the two stage races, it’s a big honour” said Bogaerts, “We had an excellent season in 2010, so it’s good to see our strong performance acknowledged in this way”.

The Tour of Qatar begins on February 6th with the Tour of Oman starting on February 16th. Should Bennett, Lavery, McLaughlin or Cassidy be chosen for the An Post-Sean Kelly squad for these races they will be joined by compatriot Matt Brammeier who will be racing for HTC-High Road. Both races are made up of six stages each and are being shown on British Eurosport.

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