Kurt Bogaerts is young, ambitious and already successful. He has performed every role in a cycling team, from rider to general manager. The UCI Continental team he runs with the legendary Sean Kelly has established an enviable reputation in the last 10 years, and its most successful riders have graduated to the sport’s biggest teams, including Garmin, Quick-Step and Sky.
A combination of professionalism and a comprehensive race programme has won Bogaerts’ team a reputation that far exceeds most in the UCI’s third tier. ProTeams and national federations seek out An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles as a school for their brightest talents.
Riders, too, recognise the team’s value, regardless of their career arc. Twenty-year-old Irish road race champion Ryan Mullen has chosen to spend a second year with the team. Aidis Kruopis, by contrast, approached Bogaerts after spending the previous two seasons with Orica-GreenEDGE, seeking an environment in which the standards to which he had become accustomed would remain.
“If you ask my staff, I’m a demanding person, but I hope I don’t go over the top,” Bogaerts smiles. “In the past, I did every drive to Spain - 2000km. When the team was young, I built every bike. I gave massages. I rode the bike myself. I think all these things are important to value your personnel. It’s very important to know all these aspects to run a team with respect.”
Bogaerts' An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles team has a well-established reputation for developing young riders. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles
It is in Spain where Rouleur joins Bogaerts and his team, at their second winter training camp in Calpe. Astana reside at the same four star hotel, with Nibali and Fuglsang among their number; so too Katusha, who have Rodriguez and Kristoff with them. An Post-CRC’s young hopefuls need not look far for inspiration.
Bogaerts is keenly aware of the importance of a rider’s personality. Cycling’s human component is what separates it from a conventional businesses, he believes. Each rider is different. For young riders with sufficient talent, the job of building confidence and professionalism can be worth starting from scratch. Significantly, An Post-CRC’s riders are schooled in a style of racing closer to the WorldTour than espoir racing. They will be encouraged towards a more measured approach than the blood-and-guts, from-the-gun efforts that characterise, say, Nations’ Cups.
Bogaerts points to the immediate success enjoyed by Andy Fenn on his graduation to cycling’s top tier. Fenn won his first two races for Quick-Step. “They are already on a high level, because our programme is very different from other Continental teams. We do a lot of big races, so it’s not all new when they go to a ProTour team.” He offers Sam Bennett as a further example: a rider sufficiently well-schooled to win a stage of the Tour of Britain while racing in An Post-CRC colours.
Protecting the gifted
The profligate attitude towards young talent adopted by some of the world’s biggest football clubs is well documented. Instances are fewer in professional cycling, but it’s easy to draw up a list of riders whose arrival in the WorldTour peloton was greeted with fanfare and whose exit goes unnoticed.
Bogaerts has performed every role on a cycling team, including driving the 2000km trip from Belgium to the Costa Blanca
Bogaerts is keen that any of his riders who accede to the top tier are sufficiently prepared, but also that they join an outfit where they will be offered the chance to fulfil their talent. Those with the potential to lead must be given the chance, he believes. Should they fail, the opportunity to make a career as a domestique remains; far worse is for a rider with ability to be set to work on the front of the bunch for 150km each day until he forgets how to contest a finish.
“If you join a team, for example, where they just put you on the front and let you chase, you never find out for yourself if you are capable of becoming a good leader,” Bogaerts says. “That’s a danger, for example, for a sprinter like Sam. If they say you have to make the sprint for someone else, they never find out if they can win the races. The same with Ryan: he has a lot of horse power, but it’s easy to misuse him and let him ride on the front of the group all the time.”
The change wrought by such misuse can be physical as well psychological, Bogaerts continues. Setting tempo for the peloton requires only about 75 or 80 per cent of a rider’s effort. To ride a final requires 110 per cent. The rider tasked with little more than pacemaking, and who may not be required even to reach the finish in a one day race, gradually loses his ability to produce repeated maximum efforts.
For the outsider, An Post-CRC is the sole provenance of Sean Kelly, but it is Bogaerts who manages all day-to-day operations, who devises the race strategies, and who calls the shots from the team car. There is little question that the Irish legend is head man at the team, one created from the Sean Kelly Academy, or that Bogaerts underestimates Kelly’s immense contribution to its success - and his own.
Sean Kelly still has speed in his legs and continues to live as a rider should, Bogaerts says. Following his example requires character. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles
Bogearts laughs when reminded that their partnership began when he, racing as a junior, knocked on the door of Kelly’s home in Belgium and asked the winner of nine Monument Classics if he could join him for training. He is fulsome in his praise for the Irishman, for the doors he has opened, and the education in cycling he has delivered, but he is not in awe of him, valuing his good opinion more because it is not easily gained (“He don’t give presents”).
“The riders know really well that me and Sean are like one,” Bogaerts explains. “They feel also with Sean that he’s really open; he’s available. He lives still like an athlete. He still has the speed in the legs, he’s still living like a rider should live, and his career speaks for itself. The riders can copy him, if they want to. It’s not always easy. A lot of the things he does require character.”
Bogaerts’ character is equally evident. One might easily be crushed by the weight of Kelly’s achievements, but his young manager is thriving. Bogaerts has serious ambitions for a team that he intends will ride the Tour de France within five years. Advancement to the Pro Continental tier is the next goal, with a set-up similar in scale to Cofidis, and then to ride a Grand Tour, before a final step to ProTeam status and competition in the WorldTour. He intends that the Continental team will remain and act as a feeder for the ProTeam.
Bogaerts has big ambitions for An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles that include running a Continental feeder team alongside a ProTeam. pic: Joolze Dymond/An Post-Chain Reaction Cycles
“What I learned after 10 years is that you can’t do everything,” he laughs. “What I try to do now is hire specific people with specific talents [but] there’s also letting control go. That’s something you also need to learn. That’s a very big challenge for me - I don’t know how you do it, but I’m trying to make that step!”
A word from the sponsor…
Much has been written about the ProTeams’ over-reliance on sponsorship and its consequences for the health of the sport, both in economic and ethical terms. One would imagine the challenge would be greater still for a third-tier team, but in the Irish postal service and an online retailer with justifiable claims to being the world’s biggest bike store, the team has reliable backers, seemingly in it for the long term. Bogaerts concedes that attracting sponsorship can be a battle, but says that at the moment he is very optimistic.
Cycling must increase its professionalism to offer a greater return to its commercial supporters, he believes, while retaining its appeal to its traditional audience. The access the public enjoys to the teams and its riders must remain: this is cycling’s greatest appeal to the man in the street. For the corporate backer, however, a team must offer something greater than brand awareness: a demonstration of how the values of the sponsor are reflected in the team.
Bogaerts has learned to delegate - a skill which he admits has not come easily
For this, Bogaerts has recruited a film-maker and social media manager. Their efforts he hopes will also attract a new, younger audience to the sport. The fans at the races and the cheque-signing sponsor are already sold on the excitement of professional cycling; the teenager who experiences the world through a phone or tablet must also be engaged, if the sport is to have a future, he believes.
Meet the new boss
At a time when professional cycling is scrambling to escape its tainted past, new faces at the helm of its biggest teams would help the sport take a significant step towards credibility. Bogaerts, who is perhaps understating the case when he says he lives for cycling, would make an ideal candidate.
The roles of rider and general manager require different skills, and a glittering career in the saddle is no guarantee of future success in the boardroom, the team car, the pre-race briefing, or any other arena where the man at the helm must translate his ambition into results.
The narrative of a young manager learning his trade from the ground up is refreshing for cycling. Boegarts is the first to admit that he has benefited from the wisdom and influence of one of the sport’s legendary figures, but in 10 years, he has forged a reputation of his own.
“I did the world championships for Ireland, where I was working Daniel Martin, Nicholas Roche, and Philip Deignan, and they followed my tactical plan. I don’t think these are riders who would just take it if you hadn’t proved yourself.”
The WorldTour might prove a sufficiently challenging environment for Bogaerts to fulfil his ambition. With some of its senior managers increasingly scrutinised over their past indiscretions, the 37-year-old Bogaerts, whose reputation is based entirely on his skill as a manager, rather than on a former career as a rider, might be just what the sport needs.