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Love ’n’ hate: Team Ineos

In-depth
7 Oct 2019
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Not everyone was happy about Ineos buying Britain’s Tour-winning cycling squad. But how much does it matter where the money comes from?

Words Richard Moore Photography Chris Auld

In Selby, after Stage 1 of the Tour de Yorkshire back in May, Sir Dave Brailsford stepped out of the Team Ineos bus and strode towards a group of reporters with the swagger of a triumphant boxer.

Where were the protesters, he asked. It was a rhetorical question. ‘There was hardly anybody there, let’s be honest, let’s be real,’ he said. ‘The 15,000 mob that was to attack me this morning didn’t really materialise. There were people there with the right to an opinion and I respect that. But they’ve got a right to their opinion and that’s it.’

The man in charge of the team formerly known as Team Sky was speaking in the kind of bullish tone he might adopt to discuss one of Chris Froome’s four Tour de France wins. As he acknowledged, there had been a threat of disruption when Team Ineos made their debut on the roads of Yorkshire in early May.

At the stage start in Doncaster around 100 people, protesting that one of the world’s biggest chemical companies had replaced Sky as the sponsor, gathered around the team bus.

Fracking was their main focus, with Ineos involved in the controversial process of attempting to extract shale gas from beneath the Yorkshire earth. Stage 1 started just seven miles from a fracking site.

Some protestors wore masks showing the face of Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the Ineos founder and two-thirds owner, complete with red devil’s horns. There were apparently 15,000 of these masks to be distributed along the route of the stage.

There were banners, too, from the pithy – ‘Frack off, Ineos!’, ‘On your bike, Ineos!’ – to the more verbose: ‘The UK’s richest man wants to frack our village to make plastic.’

And at the start in rainy Doncaster one man distributed cigarettes ‘for good health’ – an ironic gesture, apparently, to suggest that promoting smoking is as absurd as endorsing the industries – manufacturing plastic, fracking – in which Ineos is involved, and which have made Ratcliffe one of the country’s richest men with an estimated fortune of £21 billion.

When the riders, including Froome, emerged from the bus and made their way to the signing-on stage they were followed by the protesters, who heckled them as they were introduced to the crowd with boos and shouts of ‘Shame on you!’

For the grand unveiling of a new sponsor and rebranded team, the optics were not good. Brailsford and Ratcliffe had said at the press launch the previous day that they were unconcerned, with Ratcliffe describing fracking protesters as ‘ignorant’ and ‘a noisy minority’.

Brailsford’s palpable sense of relief at the end of Stage 1, and his fighting talk, suggested otherwise.

Yet it seemed a risky position to adopt, presenting himself and the team as being in square opposition to, rather than even slightly sympathetic with, those who were protesting.

If the number of protesters fell short of the target of 15,000, and the race was unimpeded, was it to be regarded as a moral victory for Team Ineos?

Fracks and figures

Brailsford was right that while the media focused overwhelmingly on placards and heckles, the protesters were outnumbered by cycling fans.

‘You might have people with placards but what about these people here?’ he said, gesturing to the supporters congregating outside the bus. ‘Does their opinion matter any less? No, it doesn’t.’

At least one argument broke out at the bus in Doncaster between a protester and a fan who was angry that the protesters’ focus was on the riders he had come to see – riders who would now be staying on their bus until the very last minute to minimise their exposure to the demonstrators.

But it wouldn’t be correct to imagine that the crowd was divided neatly between fans and protesters. Among the protesters were fans of cycling, and among the fans were people sympathetic to the views of the protesters.

Around the paddock, meanwhile, riders from other teams expressed sympathy for their Ineos counterparts, as well as relief that they didn’t have to cope with the stress of public hostility on top of the pressure of riding the race – and doing so in filthy Yorkshire weather.

In the end, Team Ineos won their debut race with Chris Lawless sealing victory on a thrilling final stage into Leeds after a show of strength from Froome on the climbs and a tactical masterclass by the whole team.

The protesters, meanwhile, went home and considered their next move. They feel that, with escalating concern over climate change and the rise of movements such as Extinction Rebellion, they have momentum on their side.

Were they disappointed that their protests didn’t make more of an impact?

‘You can never have a big enough demonstration,’ says Dave Shaw, a local councillor and anti-fracking protester who was present at the start in Doncaster. ‘We made our presence felt, and we did make an impact, but I was pleased that no one took any direct action and disrupted the race. We didn’t want that.

‘The success of campaigns like this is in the media coverage,’ he continues. ‘That’s the battleground.’

Shaw feels they scored a win in the first battle: ‘Brailsford could have struck a reconciliatory tone. The fact that he didn’t plays into our hands. We spoke to a lot of people at the race who were very sympathetic, who love cycling but have concerns about Ineos taking over the team.

‘Companies who make their money in fossil fuels are on the wrong side of history, it’s as simple as that.’

Does he have sympathy for the riders, who, after all, had no say in Ineos taking over their team mid-season?

‘Yes, I do,’ says Shaw. ‘They’re caught in a trap, but at the same time they’re the people you want to take your message to, because the likes of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas have a platform. When they’re at the end of their contracts you’d want them to say, “I wouldn’t do anything that goes against my conscience; I don’t want to be associated with this.”’

Clean, green cycling machine

One of the charges made against Ineos by people such as Shaw is that of ‘greenwashing’ – that it is using sport to give the company a softer image and to endear itself to the public.

Shaw has no doubt that this is the primary aim of Ineos’s sponsorship of a cycling team. It’s all about subtly altering the image of the company, so that in the public’s mind (and in Google searches) Ineos is more aligned with elite sport, and sporting glory, than with its core business.

A few days after it launched Team Ineos, the company announced another ambitious sporting project, called the Ineos 1:59 Challenge. This revolves around the Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge’s attempt to become the first runner to go under two hours for a marathon.

Two weeks after this announcement the marathon project remained the top story on Ineos’s corporate website’s homepage, just above a story about its takeover of Team Sky.

Beneath that was a story about the sailing team, Ineos Team UK, which aims to win the America’s Cup in 2021 with four-time Olympic sailing champion Sir Ben Ainslie.

You had to scroll a long way down to find out anything about what Ineos actually does. Browsing the website, you could be left with the impression that it runs world-beating sports teams. Shaw would say that this is precisely the point.

The counter-argument to the accusation of greenwashing hinges on the question of how effective it is, if at all. Far from improving a company’s (or country’s) image, in drawing attention to the charges against it, the effect can be the opposite.

Thus, the Beijing Olympics highlighted the human rights abuses of the Chinese government. The Qatar World Cup, due to be held in 2022, has been beset by controversies around the bidding process and the treatment of the workers building the stadiums.

Any company’s sponsorship of high-profile sports teams and athletes will make more people aware of what they do, leaving them open to scrutiny and criticism, with sporting events providing the perfect stage for protesters for whom publicity – as Shaw happily admits – is oxygen.

Some of those who know Ratcliffe, who is heavily involved in the drive to buy up prime sporting real estate (with Chelsea Football Club also said to be on his wish list), say greenwashing is not his aim.

They argue that, far from wanting to enhance the image of his company or divert attention away from its practices, he remains a staunch defender of Ineos’s business, claiming that science supports his belief that fracking is perfectly safe and should be less tightly regulated than it is.

As such, he has no real interest in raising the profile of either himself or his company.

Instead they describe the new sporting empire as a fun sideline or, as some have put it, a vanity project. At 66, having devoted his life to building his business while also developing an interest in triathlon, sailing and cycling, Ratcliffe is pouring millions into Team Ineos and the other sporting endeavours purely because he can. It’s like a climber aiming for Everest simply because it is there.

‘You don’t want to get too deep about it really,’ said Ratcliffe at the launch of the marathon challenge, when asked about his motivation. ‘We make $6 billion to $7 billion a year in profit. What’s wrong with investing a bit of that into sport, good challenges and some good people?’

Shaw rejects the suggestion that there is no public relations agenda. ‘Until about a year ago no one had heard of Ratcliffe and Ineos apart from the anti-fracking movement, and we were having some impact.

‘I’m sure someone said to him, “You’ve got to get the public onside.” I think that’s what is behind Team Ineos.’

Don’t ask, just ride

Ineos is not the only controversial sponsor in cycling, nor the only one whose business raises the hackles of environmentalists and people worried about climate change.

Total, the gas and oil giant, took over title sponsorship of the Direct Energie team in April. Bahrain, UAE and Astana, a vehicle for the Kazakhstan state, have all been accused of using sport to deflect from their questionable records on democracy and human rights.

Cycling, as a sport that depends entirely on commercial sponsorship, has historically been guilty of not asking too many questions about where the money comes from. But to read through lists of former team sponsors is also to be reminded of how social attitudes and norms have changed.

For many years cigarette and alcohol companies were ubiquitous on team jerseys. In the 1950s and 60s St Raphaël, an aperitif, came in as sponsor of a team run by Raphaël Géminiani that included Jacques Anquetil. Carpano, the Italian vermouth, was another, with Fausto Coppi their star rider.

Pelforth, the French beer, was another. And Boule d’Or, the Belgian cigarettes, sponsored a team as recently as the 1980s.

Nor have professional riders traditionally had much say in the name emblazoned on their jerseys. A curious aspect of the Sky-to-Ineos story is the charge of hypocrisy levelled at the riders over the switch from endorsing Sky’s campaign to end single-use plastic during last year’s Tour to riding this year’s race with the name of a plastic manufacturer on their jerseys.

In reality, they had as little influence over last year’s campaign as they do over the business of their new sponsor.

Will we eventually look on Ineos’s sponsorship of a cycling team in the same way as we now regard sponsorship by cigarette and alcohol companies? Might the fuss around Team Ineos even prove to be a turning point? Shaw and others think, and hope, so.

It is noticeable, however, that while there has been controversy over Ineos’s takeover of the all-conquering Team Sky, there has been virtual silence over Total’s takeover of a small French team.

There was opposition to Team Ineos before they became Team Ineos, largely because of the way they have dominated and won cycling’s biggest event. And this, according to Brailsford and Ratcliffe, won’t change.

As Ratcliffe said at the team launch, ‘We’re here to help Dave and encourage this winning streak to continue.’

Which, ironically, could be good news both for fans of Team Ineos and for the anti-fracking and anti-plastic campaigners who are looking to make an impact with their protests.

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'No one does protesting quite like the French, meaning the Tour de France is often a target for groups with a grievance to air'

The Tour de France has a long history of protests, usually by workers or farmers using the country’s biggest annual sporting event to draw attention to their cause.

Last year a farmers’ protest in the Massif Central, between Carcassonne and Luchon, held up Stage 16. However the real damage was done by the police, who used tear gas to force the farmers to disperse.

Wind carried the tear gas into the peloton, causing distress to riders including Geraint Thomas, who was in the yellow jersey at the time. Thomas and others had to use mineral water to wash the substance from their eyes.