The richest team in cycling just got richer.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s takeover of Team Sky – set to be rebranded Team Ineos from May 1 – has been greeted with concern within the sport and with outrage from environmental campaigners.
While some fear the millions provided by Britain’s richest man could further entrench inequality within a sport his new team has dominated, others have described his petrochemical company as ‘planet-wrecking.’
Launched in 2010, Team Sky has dominated cycling by winning six of the last seven editions of the Tour de France – including a first ever British triumph for Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and four subsequent victories for Chris Froome.
But five months after Geraint Thomas became the third Brit to win the Tour in July 2018, Sky announced last December it would cease funding the team in 2019.
Financial backing will now come from Ratcliffe with the Manchester-born billionaire set to further swell the budget of the most handsomely-backed team on two wheels.
While acknowledging that securing Team Sky’s survival is good for stability within the sport, British and Irish cyclist Michael Hutchinson is worried it could further cement their dominance of cycling’s biggest races – in particular the Tour.
“Team Sky, Team Ineos as they’re going to be, will continue to do what they’ve always done which is buying up the best riders so that people who might otherwise be competing to win the Tour de France are now helping Chris Froome or perhaps Geraint Thomas,” Hutchinson told Yahoo Sport.
“If you’re a fan of Team Sky, or Team Ineos, that’s terrific. If you’re a fan of anyone else, it clearly gets very tedious very quickly and that’s not great.”
“At the moment they’ve got Egan Bernal, who is the next big prospect coming through,” explained Hutchinson, who has competed at the Commonwealth Games. “And they’ve got the winner of the last Tour de France, Geraint Thomas.
“They’ve got the winner of four other Tours de France in Chris Froome – all on the same team – and that’s not a salary budget that any other team can afford to sustain.”
And more money doesn’t just mean better riders, insists Hutchinson.
“They will also put money into R&D with things like clothing sponsors and bike sponsors,” he continued. “So they will develop better, faster skin suits for time trialling. They will work with nutritional partners, they can employ the best nutritionists, the best sport psychologists, the best coaches. Money is no object. You can make a wish list and make it happen.”
While Hutchinson doesn’t, in principle, support the idea of a spending cap within the sport, he does accept that growing inequality could mean it is one of the few practical solutions.
“There are other teams in the same world tour division who are maybe on £10m, they’ve got a quarter of the budget to run the same number of riders, to do the same number of races and that does start to seem – I don’t want to say unfair – unequal.”
Meanwhile, Ineos’ position as one of Europe’s largest plastic manufacturers makes them, for some, an unwelcome presence in elite sport.
It’s also a shift in tone for Team Sky, who currently carry the “Sky Ocean Rescue” logo on their jersey to promote a campaign aimed, in part, at reducing the use of single-use plastics.
With Ratcliffe also an advocate of fracking, this latest investment has further angered environmentalists.
“Taking over Team Sky is the latest blatant attempt at greenwashing by Ineos,” read a statement from Tony Boswell, a fossil free campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
“It’s a harsh change of tone that may see Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign to clear plastic pollution from our oceans ditched from the team jersey in favour of Ineos – one of the biggest plastic producers in Europe.
“This is also a company that wants to frack large swathes of northern England and the East Midlands. Ineos has also been lobbying hard for the government to relax safety rules so fracking companies can trigger larger earthquakes before having to down tools.
“Cycling is one the UK’s most successful and popular sports, but do the likes of Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome really want to be associated with a planet-wrecking company like Ineos?”