Kelly’s Academy major boost to Irish cycling hopes

IT began with a few notes on the back of a paper napkin, but yesterday in a Brussels suburb, leading figures from the world of sport gathered for the official dedication of the Sean Kelly Cycling Academy.

Kelly, ranked among the top five cyclists of all time, was not only present at the dedication of the building, where Irish cyclists have been based for the past three years, but he also designed it.

It has already produced a winner this season and the bouquets were still fresh for yesterday’s visit. Ciaran Kelly, 17, from Leixlip, won two races in the past two weeks and not only did he win Saturday’s race at Wombeek but he also won the KOM classification.

It was fitting that he should be included in yesterday’s gathering, which also included Ciaran Power, David O’Loughlin and Philip Deignan, released by their teams to be present. Ciaran Power and David O’Loughlin will contest the famed Ghent-Wevelgem today ­ a race which Sean Kelly once won.

All were singing the praises of the Academy which has opened up new opportunities for young Irish cyclists wishing to explore the wider field of continental cycling.

“It certainly provides them with the opportunities that we did not have and that is how it should be,” Sean Kelly said. “We had the place in Marseilles first and then moved but neither were all that suitable.”

Kelly and the late lamented Hernan Nice, a father figure not just to Kelly but to the many Irish cyclists who went to cycle in Europe, then discovered the present location which was just around the corner from where Sean and Linda Kelly lived for six years and 15 minutes away from where they lived previously in Velvoorde.

“The first thing about it was that it was accessible ­ near an airport ­ and the most important thing was that it was just a shell,” Kelly recalled.

And when they approached the owner they found that he actually owned the meat company that sponsors the Almero cycling team.

And Kurt Bogaerts, who as a youngster came to Sean Kelly and asked him if he could train with him, was a member of that team. Kelly took him out the following morning at 9am. It was a marriage made in heaven.

Paudie O’Brien from Kanturk had good reason to celebrate the opening too. “You can ride to a race from here every day of the week,” Paudie said. “In fact you can have two races and at weekends you are usually only an hour away from the big races.”

It is hardly surprising that Kurt has to keep them on a tight leash. They can’t race all the time. They must train too.

“And above all he operates a tight ship,” Sean Kelly pointed out. “Like all Belgians he takes cycling very seriously. The older cyclists coming out here are disciplined but you have to look after the younger riders and he does that. There is no messing at all.

“But, having said that, they enjoy it. One guy came to me a short time ago and said he liked not just the racing but the whole atmosphere at the finish. There were lots of girls there. That’s how it should be, there should be more to cycling. It is not about hanging on to a wheel all day.

“Another good thing is that you can put an Irish team into a race from here. It raises the profile of the Irish cyclists here. If you were to send a team over from Ireland, it would cost a few thousand. Here you can have a team in the race with all the back up for next to nothing.”

The whole project started out from small ambitions, recalled Cycling Ireland president, Micheal Concannon. “P. J. Nolan, Frank Campbell, Ciaran McKenna and Sean Kelly were having a meal and it has developed from there,” he said.

“We had funding of our own and our main financial supporter was the Irish Sports Council. Now this is the main project within our High Performance Grant application and this is the priority project for the next number of years.

“It gives guys the opportunity to develop their capacity and is a place where someone will get the opportunity to explore their ambition to become top class cyclists at a very small cost.

“We have Cadets, Juniors and young elite riders in particular here - 16 to 25 years of age, male, female, track road and mountain biking.

“We have a number of outdoor tracks available to us within easy reach, plus the new indoor track in Ghent during the winter and several other indoor tracks are also within easy reach and available to us, so from that point of view it opens up new horizons too.”

Pat Hickey, President of the Olympic Council of Ireland, said Cycling Ireland had set a lead for other sports to follow.

“It is something I have been advocating since 1988 ­ either bring top class coaches to Ireland or else base your athletes where that type of coaching is available,” he said. “Take my own sport, Judo, outside of Japan, France is the next best nation so I always felt we should base our athletes in France.”

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