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Former world number one Sean Kelly has said that the next few days will be crucial in determining whether or not his team will continue in 2018.
The Continental An Post Chainreaction squad has played a crucial part in the early careers of many riders, with WorldTour riders such as Sam Bennett, Ryan Mullen, Shane Archbold and Gediminas Bagdonas all competing there prior to stepping up. Ditto for current Pro Continental competitors Matt Brammeier, Andy Fenn and Aidis Kruopis, plus others.
The squad has stated many times in the past that it is aiming to move to Pro Continental level, with stage victories in races such as the Tour of Britain showing it has the results to do so.
However it finds itself at a very crucial part of its history after current title sponsor An Post ended its backing. It could disappear from the peloton if a replacement is not found in the coming days.
“Things are pretty much the same as they were a week or more ago,” Kelly told CyclingTips on Tuesday evening. “We have two potential sponsors that we have been negotiating with and we are trying to finalize a deal. As yet, we haven’t done it. We are hoping that it will happen very soon.
“Time is tight. The first of November is the deadline to register with the UCI. We need to sign riders before then. We are hoping that we can secure sponsorship it in the next three or four days…that would be okay. But if it drags on much longer….”
Team manager Kurt Bogaerts previously told CyclingTips that the two potential backers were companies from Ireland and Spain. The team has been talking to both for some time, but it is a question of trying to get negotiations across the finish line.
Kelly said that he believes both companies are interested, but that each need to get the final go-ahead from others within their structures.
An example of this was seen in August when the Cannondale-Drapac team was left high and dry despite believing it had an agreement on the cards.
According to team manager Jonathan Vaughters then, the company it was speaking to needed to have an unanimous agreement from board in order for backing to happen. At the crucial point, one of the board members rejected the sponsorship plan and the deal was scuppered. Media reports later stated the company in question was Unibet.
The American WorldTour squad was ultimately able to find a replacement, EF Education First, but the situation highlighted how promising negotiations can unravel right before a contract is signed.
Asked how confident he was that a deal could be done, Kelly is equally hopeful and cautious.
“There was another company that I was confident about six, seven weeks ago, and then it didn’t happen in the end,” he answers. “You can be confident about things, but until you actually sign the contract you just never know. They just start looking at different things. They look at the programme of races you are doing. They want to do races in various places. Perhaps they want to race in the States, which has been a problem.
“It is a very difficult one to do. When you start racing in the States, it changes things, because with the travelling your budget completely changes then.”
Bennett: the team was vital for my career
Since winning a stage of the Tour of Britain in 2013 and then turning pro the following January, Sam Bennett has progressed to the point where he is one of the best sprinters in the sport. Last week he beat Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel and others to win the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro. On Wednesday he won his second consecutive stage of the Presidential Tour of Turkey, his eighth victory of the year.
This followed on from earlier 2017 results such as a stage win in Paris-Nice and four top-three stage finishes in the Giro d’Italia.
He is clear that without the An Post Chainreaction team, he might well not be where he is now.
“I think a lot of young riders don’t realise how difficult life can be in the amateur ranks,” he told CyclingTips. “The support I got with An Post prepared me in the best possible way for the World Tour.
“When I was 18, I was hit by a car while out training and as a result, I developed tendonitis in both knees among many other injuries. My career was over unless someone took me under their wing and supported me back to full strength. Kurt and Sean took on an injured rider and I’m forever grateful.
“I couldn’t believe the support I got from them. They arranged for me to see an amazing surgeon in Belgium who performed a key-hole procedure on both knees. They arranged for me to meet physiotherapists that I could never have afforded myself. More than anything, they didn’t give up on me. It was a long road but it’s been worth it.
“The team has helped Irish cycling hugely, but also others. I spoke to Mark McNally last week and he stressed how important the team is for British cycling. So many riders have come through the ranks. He, [Owain] Doull, [Mark] Christian, Andy Fenn.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is that the team continues.”
Because of that, Bennett urges those interested in backing the team to commit and thus secure its future. “I would tell a potential sponsor that cycling represents everything a company wants to be associated with: determination, hard-work, focus. A team sponsor is more than a name on a jersey – the brand identity is next to none.”
Kelly said that if an agreement is not reached in time, there is a chance the team could return in 2019. He said that taking the time to work on agreements and coming back as a Pro Continental squad is not beyond the realms of possibility.
However he is also conscious that the team has built a momentum that would be lost if it was to stop at the end of this year. Because of that, he is fully committed to trying to keep things going.
“We are not thinking about 2019,” he said. “We are focussing on what we are doing at the moment, trying to get something in place for next season. We are just hoping that it will go ahead.”