The development game: inside the An Post-Chain Reaction talent factory
How have Sean Kelly's team become so successful in developing riders for cycling's upper reaches?
Sam Bennett, Matt Brammeier, Andy Fenn, Owain Doull… Sean Kelly’s UCI Continental team, An Post-Chain Reaction, certainly has an alumni to be proud of.
Known for their rider development ethos, the team has undergone many name and sponsorship changes since being founded in 2006, but the focus continues to be on developing riders and helping them onto the next stages of their career.
But how do they make it work, not only for the riders whose careers they are helping to propel into the upper echelons of the cycling world, but for themselves?
Talent identification is the cornerstone of the team’s success - after all, no matter how good the infrastructure in place is the team needs talented riders to achieve its objectives both on the road and in terms of development.
Notions of a ‘diamond in the rough’ drive the An Post team, so how do team manager Kurt Bogaerts and the team spot their riders?
“Identifying riders can go even further back than a whole season," he says. “With certain athletes I’m trying several years to get hold of – sometimes waiting until they’re older to get them on the team.
“Generally, it’s around April or May you tend to know the vision of what team you want to make for next year, and then you try to fill that with the talent you’ve identified in the past."
Some sports require young athletes of just 12 or 13 to already be in a competitive training programme to make into the big time come maturity, but with cycling it’s a little different, Bogaerts says.
“I think from the age of 15 you start to give some indications about your potential, and when the rider has finished growing you can see more clearly what the maximum potential is," he explains.
“Sometimes cycling especially can give a wrong impression though – at 16 some guys still need to grow a bit so you need to follow that and spot when guys can still develop."
Spotting talent in cycling then is a game of patience. However, Bogaerts knows it’s an impossible task to follow every talented rider from the multitude of cycling nations that might one day race for An Post-Chain Reaction.
Instead, thanks to the work the team has done over the past ten seasons, it’s the relationships with governing bodies he and general manager Kelly have built that feed into the team.
“Over the years we’ve developed relationships with the Irish, Belgian and British federations, for example, then added more when others see what we’re doing," says Kelly.
“Now we’re working with Holland, New Zealand and this season have even taken a Canadian rider on, which definitely helps Kurt with his talent spotting."
Bogaerts, however, is clear the maintenance of these relationships takes work, pointing out the governing bodies of these nations all want riders to develop too. It’s a two-way street, and being able to place them at a team like An-Post Chain Reaction is invaluable to them and helps build that trusting relationship.
It’s not just about who you know, though. He says: “Selecting riders is based on a combination of results and relationships, and sometimes testing too.
“If we’re unsure, we can do tests with them to see their ability, and we can also see their personalities, their character, how they are in a group, and we know their experience level too.
“Sometimes it can come down to opportunity: when they’re being scouted by other teams – sometimes big teams – the rider needs to believe that you’re the right fit for them, that they’ll get opportunities and a chance to get results and develop with you. So we need to sell the team to each individual too."
The training camp/atmosphere
Part of building a team dynamic is how the team comes together. At their second training camp in Calpe ahead of the 2017 season, where the team is launched in front of the media and team partners, all bar one of the riders are present (Kiwi Regan Gough has a good excuse – he’s just won the New Zealand U23 Time Trial Championships).
The team camps clearly have a great influence on the riders and team ethic, and give an insight into the backing the riders have.
“They’re super supportive of us – this is my second year, but through injury and illness they’ve helped me out, and kept me on which is really helpful," says Brit Jacob Scott.
“At this level it’s hard to get back to the high level the team races at, so from early on, it’s helpful for me to have a reassurance that they’re behind me.
“The likes of Kurt and [sports director] Niko Eeckhout tell me to take my time now, which takes some pressure off and helps me."
Fellow GB rider Dan Gardner agrees, having just stepped over from two years riding in the United States. He’s a first year, and carries the enthusiasm of a new rider to the team with a great reputation for developing young riders too.
“I’ve been in America for the last two years, so their calendar only starts in March-time, so with the camp now, peaking earlier this year is probably going to work in my favour because I’m so excited for it already," he admits.
“We’re all training together, but there’s a little competition too because we’re all young guys, which is good for everyone really.
“It’s a springboard for riders, and in the last two years I’ve been among older riders, but here everyone’s much younger, and that adds something. Everyone’s on the same level, so we’re pushing each other. It’s good."
Enthusiasm abounds at An Post-Chain Reaction, but Bogaerts is under no illusion careful structure and planning is key to turning motivation and drive into forward progress for the riders, the team and the achievement of results.
“We try to set up things like training camps around bigger teams, so the riders are exposed to that [staying at the same hotel are the likes of Katusha-Alpecin, Dimension Data, Direct-Energie and CCC-Sprandi Polkewicz]," he says.
“You’ve got me, Sean, Niko and Neil (Martin, father of Quick-Step Floors rider Dan) here to support them, and everyone is living in the environment that is very professional.
“We’ve got three soigneurs, three mechanics, three PR guys, a coach and doctor, as well as the directors, so they’ve got everything around them they need to maximise things while they’re here, as well as during the races."
Team backing in recent years has been hard to come by and maintain, not least in part to the difficult financial situations of invested nations, as well as high-profile controversies that have served to weaken the sport’s hand as a whole at the negotiating table with potential sponsors.
Bogaerts, along with Kelly, knows how important it is to have those partnerships to support rider development with value transferring both ways.
“You need sponsors to invest, but you need a return on that, so you need success. But you also need a story as well as results, and we can give them that too. You have young guys who are enthusiastic to do that too because of where they are in their careers," he says.
“We’ve got a nutrition sponsor in High5, the same Vision wheels Sagan used last year, an extremely good Vitus bike (the bike has been developed with the support of the team in partnership with Chain Reaction, who own the Vitus brand), and a TT bike that came second in the u23 worlds.
“It’s important on the start line the riders don’t feel they’re already behind – it’s good that they have a similar level of kit and support to bring them forward."
Bogaerts is keenly aware of the value of a story and product of competitive racing, as opposed to just wins or podiums.
It’s vital to securing sponsorship for a development team that might not feature on the podium as much as bigger teams in bigger races, which feeds into improving its riders.
“Results are results, but I think results need to be inspirational, with a little unpredictability," he believes. “For example, people like to see riders go from the gun and have a chance to win.
“Look at Dimension Data in the WorldTour – they might send someone out front, then if it doesn’t work they go for Cavendish. They’re animating a race. But they were almost out of the WorldTour, which is crazy when you think about it and the value they bring to the sport with their aims and spirit.
“On our level, we do the An Post Ras which has five rider teams, so you can’t control the race, and that’s the challenge. You take the lead by a few seconds and it can turn around. You can gain and lose time on each day. I still remember those wins.
“So, on a big scale, one less rider [per team] in the Tour, with an extra team, might have a positive influence. It’s the challenge of the middle class teams to try to beat the big budget teams. You must love the sport when you sponsor and see value – and exciting racing will always help this."
The An Post-Chain Reaction team, then, is built from the ground-up to develop riders, from its structure to its partners and the product it provides.
While Kelly has previously said the option to move up to Pro-Continental level is a future possibility, it’s at the Continental level the team currently plies its trade, and at that slightly lower level can allow riders to experience a range of fields and race scenarios as part of their development.
“We try to give them opportunities for the breakaway, and try to race to win," says Bogaert. “When it’s a sprint stage we try to work for one sprinter, so as a rider you say this is my race, this is my tactic, and you try to create an opportunity for yourself on that day. Everyone gets their turn.
“In a higher-level team, everyone has their job within the team, but with the development team like this we want to share out the opportunities."
That mix of tactics and approaches for the riders is made possible by the fact the team specifically targets a range of races at different levels, from the Tour of Britain and Tour de Yorkshire offering opportunities to compete against WorldTour opposition, to 1.1 and 2.2-classified races where the team is comparatively stronger, and can go for results.
“[Especially in the bigger races] we’re prepared to lose, but the young guys can definitely win. But they learn from losing too, and that comes with age and experience," Bogaerts says.
Bogaerts points out the nurturing process continues when finding a team for their riders when they’re ready to make the step up to Pro-Continental or WorldTour level.
“It’s part of our role to help riders find the best team for them, and we keep in mind what is best for the individual," he says.
You might be forgiven for thinking that, once the team has developed a rider for a couple of seasons and found him a space at another team, it would be the end of the relationship. Not at all, says Bogaerts.
“This is the most motivating thing for me; you can follow their progress," he explains. “I have good relationships with Sam Mullen, for example, and we follow his career. It’s a good feeling to see him succeed.
“They can fall back on you too if they get a bit lost, because we’re always thinking about their career, whereas you find a big team is thinking about the ‘team concept’ and its goals.
“It’s very inspirational. There are seven riders who now ride for Aqua Blue, all from us. It’s nice to follow it up.
“It’s a family, and that’s a difference, right through the staff too. Maybe that disappears with the big teams and people sometimes get lost."
The rider’s view
But how does all that reflect on the most important part of any development team: the riders themselves?
This season, among their multi-national squad, are three Brits - all from differing backgrounds and contrasting outlooks. It’s indicative of the flexibility of the team that it caters for everyone.
“There are a lot of u23 guys this year, and we’re all looking forward to getting racing – we all gel," says Scott, now entering his second year with the team.
“Loads of guys are already looking at racing with the national squads instead of just for An Post, so lots are in the same boat, really.
“The race programme definitely helps, with high-level races and smaller ones too. You look at the guys who raced in Belgium: Tao Geoghegan Hart, Dan McLay… they’ve all gone through it and it’s developed them.
“We’re right in the middle of it, based in Belgium, so that helps the team too and the management, I expect"
British Academy graduate Mark Stewart, who will spend the early part of the season blending road commitments with his bid to ride for the national team at the UCI Under-23 World Track Championships, says flexibility in his programme was key.
“An Post were ideal for me," he says. “British Cycling’s podium funding for the track [which Stewart still receives] is quite restrictive - not in a bad way, but it’s regimented in how you train.
“An Post gave me the race programme in order to do what I want to do, so it was an easy choice. The setup Sean and Kurt have developed is impressive."
Stewart’s attitude towards his riding and his prospects belie his 21 years – he’s keen to make the most of the opportunities that will come his way in 2017, but also realises already how important the success of the team is to both himself and the individuals.
“Everyone’s in it together; so many young guys, everyone’s so keen, so young, that we all have opportunities now so I’m really looking forward to that. There’s an aspect of competition too – you want to be picked for the races," he says.
“That’s not the process though; if you focus on the short-term selection, rather than on winning or training at your best, then you almost shoot yourself in the foot.
“You almost need to put your ego on the shelf and get the training done for the betterment of everyone, and yourself."
While tailored programmes were key to Stewart’s decision, for the third Brit on the team, Dave Rayner Fund-backed Dan Gardner, it was simply the opportunity to race for the An Post-Chain Reaction team that sealed the deal.
“It’s the team I’ve been following for the last two years," he admits. “It’s been a target of mine to race for them, so it’s great to be here.
"The way the team races has always attracted me – they’ve always punched above their weight with the results, the ambitious style of riding, their personalities; it all comes together for me.
“Sometimes the riders go onto bigger things, sometimes not, but right now the races they do are the ones I want to do, so I’m happy to be here and pinning on a number for them."
An Post-Chain Reaction’s reputation, therefore, goes before them. This is a team well-versed in its practice of rider development.
Led by Sean Kelly behind the scenes, and Kurt Bogaerts on the ground, the team are leaders in identifying and sourcing new talent, developing its riders while also providing a steady and consistent platform for those riders show themselves.
In doing so, they all give value for money for the team’s long-term partners as the team strives for results. Now in its second decade, and with an impressive list of alumni, we should all follow their progress with keen interest in 2017.