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by Shane Stokes
November 3, 2017
Photography by Sportsfile, Cor Vos, Shane Stokes
This week’s announcement that the An Post Chainreaction Sean Kelly team had been unable to find backing for 2018 was a blow to the sport. While the Continental team is relatively small by cycling’s standards, it has had a wider effect due to the talent it developed. However, looking beyond the team itself, the circumstances behind its tough financial situation may well have a bigger implication for the sport in general.
It’s October 19, and Kurt Bogaerts is trying to remain relaxed. The Belgian sits in Girona’s Federal Café drinking a coffee and eating a snack, his clothing wet from a rare rain shower. His An Post Chainreaction/Sean Kelly team has a house in the Catalan town, but that’s not why he is here: the team manager has been having business meetings in Barcelona, trying to secure the future of the squad.
The Continental outfit has been backed since 2008 by the An Post company, the Irish national postal service. It’s been a good partnership. The team has landed a number of big wins, including stages in the Tour of Britain, Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, the Étoile de Bessèges. It has also taken victory in the Grote Prijs Stad Zottegem, the Memorial Rik Van Steenbergen, the Ronde de l’Oise, Schaal Sels and the An Post Rás.
In addition to that it’s been one of the most aggressive teams in its races, livening up the action and earning valuable TV time over the years.
But, perhaps more important than all that, the team has proven very adept at developing young talent. A large number of riders have worn its jersey, learning and developing under Bogaerts’ and Kelly’s guidance, then stepping up.
Current WorldTour riders Sam Bennett and Shane Archbold (Bora-hansgrohe) made important progress there, as did Ryan Mullen (Cannondale-Drapac), Owain Doull (Team Sky) and Gediminas Bagdonas (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
Ditto for Pro Continental competitors such as Kenneth Vanbilsen (Cofidis), plus Matt Brammeier, Conor Dunne, Aaron Gate, Mark Christian, Andy Fenn and Calvin Watson (all Aqua Bue Sport). The ripple effect has had an impact on pro cycling in general and, through those riders’ success and influence, will continue to do so for years to come.
However, despite those achievements, Kelly and Bogaerts were under big pressure in recent months. A tough financial situation for An Post had led the company to announce in May that it was ending its backing. Since then the team had been searching for new sponsors.
Initially confident, Kelly and Bogaerts grew increasingly nervous as time went by. Some early interest fizzled out and while talks were still ongoing with an Irish company and one from Barcelona, the clock was ticking.
On that October day, Bogaerts admitted to CyclingTips that time was running out. Fast forward eleven days, and a difficult decision was announced.
In confirming that the team was on hold, at least for the 2018 season, Kelly and Bogaerts were both deeply disappointed. The project, which they had put so much energy, time and passion into, had ground to a halt. But beyond their own feelings, the situation was a worrying one for cycling in general.
Sponsors had been interested, but because of two big factors, couldn’t fully commit.
The first of those factors was Brexit, a decision made by a slender majority of the British electorate in June 2016 to exit the European Union. As time passes it has become more and more clear that leaving could be economically disastrous for the country.
Despite that, despite calls for a rethink, and despite studies which spell out potential financial ruin, the current government remains set on carrying this out.
The second factor is the push for independence in Catalunya, plus the related backlash from the Spanish government. Together the two create major uncertainty for those two countries, and also for teams, riders and sponsors from those regions.
“The Brexit situation represents a big unknown, in relation to what consequences it might have,” Bogaerts explains to CyclingTips. “The Irish company we have been speaking to is quite an international company, with business all over Europe. The problem is they don’t know what will be the final deal that the UK will make with Europe, basically.
“Some companies are talking of changing their offices to other locations, for example. They don’t know what the consequences are and where the markets will be based in the future. They don’t know how important the UK and Ireland will be.”
An Post Chainreaction manager Kurt Bogaerts.
The issue goes beyond the Kelly team; those within Britain will also be nervously watching what happens in relation to Brexit, including teams based and backed there. There is uncertainty too for riders from there; will they be able to travel freely in the future, for example. Also, can they continue to spend blocks of time being based overseas?
In addition to that, questions exist for those dealing in sterling. Will riders paid in that currency see their earnings take a nosedive? Equally, for teams working off sterling budgets, will the costs of employing foreign riders and of racing overseas soar?
Bogaerts says that the uncertainty has made many companies nervous. “It seems that they are protecting themselves from not making a huge investment at the moment,” he explains.
“If I compare things now to the financial crisis of a few years ago, I think the economy is growing well in Ireland. Yet people seem to be a little bit more cautious than before. It looks like they want to be prepared if things don’t go so well.
“For companies, each investment needs to be well thought out. That is something that we got as a reason [when talking about potential sponsorship]. They said that with Brexit they couldn’t give a quick answer. The hurricane in the States also came up… there are a few things that became obstacles.”
The Brexit issues affected another potential deal too. “I remember I had a conversation two years ago with an English company,” Bogaerts says. “The guy just didn’t see Brexit as an option; he said it was impossible that this could happen. Then a month later, after the vote, I had another event with this guy. I asked him, ‘do you remember what you said [about Brexit being impossible]?’
“He said, ‘it is insane that this can happen.’”
Bogaerts believes it is a chance that that person’s company might otherwise have got involved with the team. Instead, the slide in value of sterling put it on the back foot and under pressure.
Kelly is one of the sport’s best-known riders. He was world number one from 1984 to 1989, won a number of Classics and stage races, and took the 1988 Vuelta a España. In recent years he has been working as a commentator for Eurosport, and has a public profile which should have helped in the search for new backers.
He too believes the British situation has had far-reaching effects. “Brexit is the big problem,” he told CyclingTips this week. “Nobody knows what is happening. ‘We are not sure where it is going’ – that is the quote we have heard from a lot of people. It didn’t help our situation at all.”
As Bogaerts notes, the team also got hit by the Catalan situation. On October 1 voters went to the polls to vote on the question of independence. Spain declared the referendum illegal and sent in its police force, leading in some cases to violence against those trying to vote.
Despite the seizing of ballot boxes from some polling stations, over two million votes were counted. 92 percent of those said yes to independence, favouring a split. Spain didn’t accept the result, instead declaring the vote illegal and putting pressure on banks and other companies to withdraw from the region.
According to the Catalan government’s delegate to France, Martí Anglada, Spanish king Felipe VI personally called Volkswagen to ask the company to leave Catalunya. Since then Spain has arrested politicians and is currently trying to do the same with the exiled Catalan president Carles Puigdemont.
It is against this backdrop that Bogaerts was trying to strike a deal with a Barcelona-based company. He prefers not to go into details of how the Catalan situation complicated things, but it was cited in this week’s team announcement as a factor. It is clear it had an effect.
“The Catalunyian thing blew up,” says Kelly. “That definitely caused problem as well. In between Brexit and Catalunya, it really made it difficult for us. And that was part of the problem why we didn’t go ahead for 2018.”
Other parts of the sport may well be affected. The Volta a Catalunya relies on sponsorship to exist. Will it be affected by the political turmoil? And, in relation to Brexit, what will the long-term consequences be for British teams and riders if it goes ahead?
For several seasons Bogaerts has been talking about stepping up a level; he has long made clear that he wants to run a Pro Continental squad, having the budget to sign bigger names and to compete in bigger events. And while the team is on hold for 2018, he hopes to be able to return the following season with a bigger squad.
“We have been 12 years in the sport. We were quite good in what we were doing,” he says. “We had one of the bigger Continental teams in the world, but you want to taste some other things in cycling. Of course you want to compete with your team one time in the Tour, and do the big Classics. I think now it is the time to really hunt for that.”
Bogaerts reveals that the team did receive an offer from one of the two companies it was speaking to. However, the current financial uncertainties meant that the squad was only offered 70% of what it had in recent years; that was not enough to run the programme the team has been doing.
And while the Irish company hadn’t yet made a decision about 2018, he said he was unable to wait any longer due to the UCI deadline, suppliers needing an answer and riders also needing to know if they could bank on contracts or must look elsewhere.
It’s better, he decided, to take a step back and fully concentrate on returning as a bigger, better squad in 2019. He plans to keep the momentum going in the coming weeks and months, trying to nail something down.
“I see hopes in the companies that we are talking to that they want to take the step into cycling sooner or later,” he says. “They have a benefit to be linked to the sport as they have some cycling products.
“I think it is better to continue the negotiations. I want to keep the conversations going with both companies and see what is possible with certain budgets. That goes from three to ten million Euro. Let’s see what is possible with certain budgets in pro cycling.”
Kelly also believes the extra time could help secure bigger backing. “There are a few possibilities. There are more than just the two we have been speaking to recently. There are others I spoke to at the end of June, in July. They said they all wanted to see what was going to happen with Brexit to get a clearer picture.
“For the three-year deal we were seeking, they said they don’t want to go into something like that at the moment. That was the problem we had. There are quite a few of the sponsors which I feel that they could be ones that could eventually get on board.
“Focussing on 2019 means we will certainly have more time.”
Kurt Bogaerts (left) and Sean Kelly (right) with some off the team’s former riders in 2011. Current WorldTour sprinter Sam Bennett is in the white jersey.
When asked for the main highlights, both Kelly and Bogaerts name Sam Bennett’s stage win in the Tour of Britain as a major achievement. Bennett is now one of the best sprinters in cycling but, in the autumn of 2013, he was coming back from a long period of injury and facing a make or break situation. Winning his stage in the British event set him on a path which secured ten victories this year, including at WorldTour level.
Bogaerts also names Ryan Mullen’s runner-up slot in the under 23 time trial at the 2014 world road race championships as a big achievement for the team. He worked closely with Mullen prior to that event, helping him be in the shape needed to challenge, and also says he was able to push for the best equipment from the team’s suppliers.
Mullen missed out on gold by 0.48 seconds, but it was still a huge result. “He will be world champion sooner or later,” predicts Bogaerts. “I still believe he can do that.” If so, his time with the An Post team will have been an important part in his development.
Bennett is clear on what the team has done for him and others, and why its absence from the peloton next year is a big deal. “The loss of the An Post Chain Reaction team means that so many young riders won’t get that vital opportunity to showcase their talent to the cycling world,” he told CyclingTips.
“It is a real shame that a sponsor wasn’t found. I’m gutted for the riders, the staff and especially Sean and Kurt.”
However he has faith that in the long term, the team will return. “Kurt and Sean are tenacious. I have no doubt that the team will be back on the road lighting up the Tour of Britain as the underdog, punching well above its weight and showcasing Irish cycling across Europe in the not too distant future.
“The team presents such a great opportunity to a sponsor. The person who realises that stands to benefit a lot in 2019.”
Kelly and Bogaerts will both hope that long before then, both the Brexit and Catalan situations will have settled down. If so, there will be greater clarity for those interested in getting involved with the sport.