Interview: Sean Kelly looks to the future with An Post-Chain Reaction and calls for more support for women's cycling - Road Cycling UK

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Interview: Sean Kelly looks to the future with An Post-Chain Reaction and calls for more support for women’s cycling

Irish legend shares his views on the WorldTour and the future of pro cycling

Sean Kelly: seven-time Paris-Nice winner, nine-time Monument victor, and a rare beast – a classics specialist with a Grand Tour win under his belt, namely the 1988 Vuelta a Espana. It’s quite some palmares, isn’t it?

To older generations, Kelly epitomised a period of time where Irish cycling was one of the dominating forces of the pro peloton. The likes of he and Stephen Roche headed a golden period for Irish cycling, and Kelly himself emerged from it a legend of the sport.

To newer generations, he’s the man whose poetic tones can be heard through their television sets, providing insightful and revealing input as one of Eurosport’s most well-respected commentators and pundits.

Sean Kelly turned down offers to become a Pro Tour DS to found his own cycling development team, An Post-Chain Reaction (pic – Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

All the while, he’s also been heavily involved with the team he founded in 2006 – now known as An Post-Chain Reaction – in the process creating a team specifically focussed at developing riders and giving them a platform to spring into the pro ranks, or a home base that riders can return to if they’ve lost their way somehow.

His involvement, by his own admission, is slightly reduced than it was before, with fellow team manager Kurt Bogaerts taking up much of the day-to-day organisational reins, but his passion for the team is as unrestricted as ever.

We caught up with Kelly at the An Post-Chain Reaction team launch in the Spanish resort of Calpe, and got the lowdown on his motivation to work in the development ranks of the sport, views on the WorldTour and the demise of the Criterium International, the developing women’s WorldTour, and what he’s particularly excited about for 2017.

Kelly on… An Post-Chain Reaction

Since retirement in 1994, Sean Kelly has remained around the professional cycling scene and – alongside his Eurosport commitments – helps oversee the development team he created in 2006.

After a merger and sponsor changes within its first few years – at one point they sported one of the most complicated names on record as ‘An Post-M Donnelly-Grant Thornton-Sean Kelly’ – the Irish-Belgian UCI Continental team has settled into the An Post-Chain Reaction outfit we have known since 2013.

For Kelly, he recalls how he preferred the route of a development team as opposed to becoming directeur sportif for a WorldTour team.

“There was an opportunity for me to be DS a long time ago in a big team, but it wasn’t my cup of tea to follow all the races,” he says. “I wouldn’t like to have to do that all year round.

“Some guys like it, but for me it just didn’t appeal. It was the setting up of this team that motivated me, just an idea, at a low level, and build it gradually.”

After more than a decade in the peloton, An Post-Chain Reaction have helped to launch the careers of the likes of WorldTour pros Ryan Mullen and Sam Bennett (pic – Sirotti)

He continues: “We had my academy in Belgium, and we decided to have a continental team to do races outside of Belgium, taking riders from the junior ranks into under-23 racing.

“In the ten or 11 years since, we’ve developed and had discussions to go to the ‘next level’ (Pro Continental), but we’ve never had the budget really to go and do it well.

“But, if you go back the ten or 11 years the team’s been running, it’s been a nice project to work with the young guys, take them on, work with them and see how far they can go.

“You look at the number of riders that we’ve had in the team racing at ProConti or WorldTour level and it’s a lot.”

Sean Kelly’s history with Vitus has paid dividends for An Post-Chain Reaction (pic – Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

It’s clear Kelly doesn’t see the fact the team hasn’t moved up the pro ranks as a failing in any way, though.

Quite the contrary – he seems proud of the legacy of the team in the ranks above and the fact it’s flourished in a period anyone might consider turbulent for securing backing in cycling.

“It’s a buzz, because you start to get a few results, so you get some better riders when they see you’re doing a good thing, then you continue on like that, moving up [the placings],” he says.

“Sometimes you do think, why the feck am I doing this, you know? Back a few years ago when times were difficult and sponsors were difficult to convince, it was tough. It’s good, but hard work.”

These days cycling is in a slightly more secure place. There are still huge disparities at the highest levels between the budgets of the likes of Team Sky and Cannondale-Drapac in the WorldTour, but at the Continental level at least, An Post-Chain Reaction have found some security in familiarity, and Kelly thinks that comes down to being realistic.

“We’ve now got great long-term relationships with An Post and Chain Reaction Cycles – but with sponsors it’s important to not over promise,” he explains.

Kelly believes realistic ambitions have kept An Post-Chain Reaction in a secure place (Pic: David Pintens Photography)

“You need to tell it how it is so you get sponsors on board who know they’re going to get good value out of the relationship with what you can offer.

“Connections come into it too: in the case of Chain Reaction, they now own the Vitus brand – a brand I rode on during my career and have been ambassador for years – and we’ve rebuilt the brand again with developmental help from the team.

“I mean, what better way to do it? Then they came on board as a sponsor of the jersey.”

Kelly on… the UCI WorldTour

With the An Post-Chain Reaction team working away in the background, Kelly is fully involved with the goings on in the WorldTour, if not only through his media work with Eurosport, but through the respect he’s garnered with one of the most impressive palmares of all time.

He’s got a lot to say about the current state of the sport, starting with the expansion towards the Middle East in recent years, and the opportunity that can provide.

“When you look at the likes of Qatar, Oman and Dubai hosting races,” he says, pondering his next words, “[going there] is good for cycling and good for sponsors.

“We need it to get new sponsors in, like any sport, but unfortunately now you see with the likes of Qatar, that they come in and do a number of years, but can pull the plug very quickly.

“Although, maybe because we’ve had those races you can see investment coming in with the teams, like the Abu Dhabi sponsorship that took over the old Lampre team last month. That is definitely good.”

Sean Kelly, moor, pic - Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com
A spot of rain is no bother to the boss and all-round hard man, Sean Kelly (Pic: David Pintens Photography)

However, it’s not just about new regions coming in and spending money on hosting these races for Kelly. He’s clear the UCI could take a little more responsibility for the smaller races that pepper the calendar beneath the WorldTour.

“I think the UCI could do a little more to help smaller races,” he admits. “We’ve seen in the past organisers having difficulty keeping going each year.

“The UCI might say that’s not their job to help the race organisation, that’s the organiser’s job, but certainly for the development of the sport they should be more supportive of those races to make sure they keep their place, because there are some great and historic races there.”

His opinion also stretches to support of the UCI Continental teams that go to compete in those races regularly.

“There needs to be more support for UCI Continental teams, because those races have really struggled in recent years,” he adds. “That makes it more difficult for conti teams, first of all to get a budget to race in the first place, but also to pay for a hotel and travel and so on.

“Some races don’t or can’t afford to pay for hotels for teams, so that makes it difficult. In that respect, if they were involved more there, that could help the development of cycling and teams.”

Kelly wants more support for UCI Continental teams like An Post-Chain Reaction and existing races, as opposed to investment in races across the globe (pic – Sirotti)

It’s not all bad, though, with Kelly adamant that, with the right management and a financial climate that allows the smaller races to flourish without looking over their shoulder every year, the whole of cycling can benefit.

“Some of the older race organisers have really been running them on pennies, but are now starting to flourish again,” he concludes.

“It’s not all about being a WorldTour race and going to the Far East where a lot of big money is, because those guys could leave you quickly. We need a more sustainable model that runs down the divisions.”

Kelly on… the demise of the Criterium International

That sustainable model Kelly speaks of hasn’t come quickly enough for one notable race: the Criterium International.

Held in the Ardennes until 2009, before making the switch to Corsica, ASO – organisers of the likes of the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix and the newer Tour of Oman – pulled the plug in 2016, with Thibaut Pinot the final winner of the historic event.

It’s historic especially for Kelly, who won the race in 1983, 1984 and 1987, and carries a lot of fond memories. It galls the Irishman that the ASO have let the event fail.

“It’s amazing to me,” he intones, sounding exasperated, “with the ASO owning the event, I was amazed they couldn’t find the money to run it.

“Maybe going to Corsica was a bit of a nightmare for the teams, but when the deal with the region finished, you would have thought they could have found another region willing to host it.

“You have to ask the question: ‘what’s caused this?’ Is there something there that costs too much for regions to host it? Because it’s a race with history, and that’s very important.

An Post-Chain Reaction are currently competing at the Etoile de Besseges – a race Kelly believes proves it’s not all doom and gloom for long-established, lower-profile European races (pic – Sirotti)

“Cycling loses its soul in a way if you lose these races, and when you see a big organisation like the ASO, with their power in cycling, fail to get some sort of sponsor or region that would have been willing to take it on… I was shocked.”

However, Kelly isn’t prophesising doom on a wide scale, with the Criterium International just the tip of the iceberg. No, he sees the positive shoots of recovery in the sport.

“The good thing is I think it’s an isolated incident. There are other races that aren’t facing this,” he says.

“Look at the Etoile de Besseges, which was struggling for a number of years, the Tour of the Mediterranean, also been struggling for a while, but things are getting better now.

“They’re just hanging in there and making the best of it, and it looks like at the moment things will be ok.”

Kelly on… the UCI Women’s WorldTour

With his passion for developing riders and helping them reach the professional ranks, it’s unsurprising that we find Kelly particularly vocal on the women’s side of the sport to, which last year saw the inaugural Women’s WorldTour raced.

He likes what he’s seeing, but knows there’s a long way to go with significant obstacles in the way before there’s parity.

Marianne Vos faces the cameras at La Course by Le Tour de France – Kelly says restructured TV packaging will be key to helping grow women’s cycling (pic – Pauline Ballet/ASO)

“If you look at women’s cycling as a whole, it’s growing, it’s getting better,” he says. “But the only way it’s possible to do it like the Tour de France or full Giro, is to have all that structure in place first.

“For parity with the men – races that are comparable – it’s going to be really difficult to get that kind of structure in place for another race at another time of the year.

“The UCI could really push it, but the bottom line is they’re limited too, not least with the amount of backing they can get for it.”

A man heavily involved with the media, Kelly knows how important TV coverage is to the sport as a whole. For the women, he says it’s vital, especially if it’s currently unfeasible to have a separate organisation operating at another time of the year.

“We’ve got the men’s race on TV, then it’s about getting the package right – maybe doing the women’s race first. But at the moment [the powers that be] are talking about showing every stage of the Tour de France live from start to finish,” he says.

“Well, that’s OK, but it’s about how you package it. I think it needs to be looked at, because not many people sit and watch a whole stage, let alone two back-to-back.

“TV coverage is super important because it’s a snowball effect. More TV coverage will mean more sponsors will want to spend money on teams and events, which they’ll only do if they have that coverage.

“That’s why it’s difficult to get sponsors for a theoretical Tour Feminin, or smaller races – there’s no coverage.”

Kelly is heavily involved in the media, working as a pundit for Eurosport, but he believes the current TV packages for Grand Tour stages is too long (pic: Pierre Diéterlé, via Wiki Commons)

Interestingly, Kelly believes that the UCI and TV companies can find the time to show and support these events if they look inwards, by repackaging what’s already shown to open up space.

“I do believe that the airtime with the Tour de France, for example, is too long,” he admits. “People maybe don’t want that to sit down for five hours to watch a stage.

“Shorter airtime on the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, maybe with shorter stages which can be very exciting, and then we can see what’s possible with the remainder for women’s coverage.”

On the face of it, it’s a potential solution to a problem that has dogged the women’s side of the sport for years, and Kelly sees getting the all-important package right as one of the cornerstones of developing women’s cycling.

“The structure we have here in the men’s side for development, like with the An Post team, doesn’t exist in the women’s side,” he confesses.

“From my experience, there aren’t many teams there who have been there for many years developing riders. It goes back to TV time though – if you don’t have TV time, then it’s going to be difficult to get sponsors on board to support that.”

Kelly admits women’s cycling lack the development structure which An Post-Chain Reaction benefits from on the men’s side (Pic: David Pintens Photography)

He continues, hammering home his points: “It all comes back to money and TV coverage – it doesn’t currently work to have the races happening at the same time, because it’s already a very long event, and TV time is many hours already [on the men’s side]. People aren’t going to watch everything.”

It’s pointed out to Kelly that, in Britain, the clamour for women’s cycling coverage – on the road and track – is far closer than it is on the continent, with newer races on both sides flourishing with great crowds.

Kelly agrees, pointing out the unique position Britain is currently in. “In Britain it’s a different situation, because we’re on a crest of wave,” he says.

“The men’s and women’s Tours of Britain, and Tour of Yorkshire have been very successful because of the enthusiasm that’s built up in recent years.

“But if you go out to France or Italy, and they don’t have anything like that enthusiasm for the new.

“In Britain it’s all relatively new for the people, and that’s why you have so many people turning out and supporting it, with TV companies, regions and sponsors seeing the value in getting behind it.”

Sean Kelly, Paris-Roubaix, cobbles, mud, pic - Sirotti
Sean Kelly, Giro di Lombardia, pic - Sirotti

Kelly on… 2017

Our time with the Kelly is ending – a number of phone calls have come and gone on his phone while we’ve been chatting, with friends and acquaintances all making themselves known with increasing regularity in the hotel lobby where the An Post-Chain Reaction team are based for the duration of their pre-season training camp in Calpe.

We finish on his hopes for the 2017 season – something he’s enthusiastic to talk about. You get the sense that, although Kelly is very much seasoned in the world of cycling, with involvement in many structural areas of the sport, at his heart he’s just as captivated by the mystique and potential for sporting greatness as the public is.

“With An Post, it’s straightforward – we need to get some race wins, and with the riders we’ve got this season you’d expect that,” he states.

“There’s never a guarantee, so we’ll need to see how things go, but to win 8-10 races at least, and race some quality races competitively would be the aim.

“We’d like to ride the Tour of Yorkshire this year (Kelly is working hard behind the scenes to make it happen as this interview takes place). In the past we’ve had a little concern with the quality of riders we’ve had, but this year we can definitely compete.

“You look at the Tour of Britain and we’ve never just gone to make up the numbers, we’ve always ridden aggressively, and we can do that now regularly.”

Kelly will of course contribute to Eurosport’s coverage again this year, lending his considerable expertise to the goings on of the WorldTour. He’s got big hopes of a triumphant finale, and a more entertaining spectacle.

Kelly is hoping for a final Classics hurrah for Tom Boonen in 2017 and an end to Team Sky’s metronome-like domination of the Tour de France (Pic: Sirotti)

“On the WorldTour, Boonen winning a Classic would be amazing, right at the end of his career,” Kelly believes.

“But the Tour is the thing for me though; I want to see a more exciting Tour. When you look at the Giro or Vuelta last year and further back, they’ve generally been better races.

“You look at the domination of Sky, by the final week, week and a half, the race is over. I want to see teams put them under pressure. That’ll be difficult to do, unless we have a Quintana in super shape, because the Sky team is so strong.

“You look at the feedback we get at Eurosport, and the viewers want suspense. The Giro and Vuelta, they were amazing races – and that’s how people judge a race. The Tour isn’t, so I’d look forward to seeing that.”

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