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Staying strong: Team Ineos at the Tour of Britain

In-depth
20 Nov 2019
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Angry fans, life-threatening crashes, cancer… Team Ineos had a lot to deal with at the 2019 Tour of Britain back in September

Words James Witts Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

Sir Dave Brailsford is struggling. ‘I’ve walked 18km today,’ he says somewhat surprisingly outside the Team Ineos bus on an overcast and warm Wednesday at the Tour of Britain.

Normally the Ineos boss would be in one of the team cars. Or even at the Vuelta. ‘I had surgery for prostate cancer just over two weeks ago,’ Brailsford adds after a moment’s pause. ‘I can’t ride a bike or fly. It’s been a tough time.’

Cyclist is in the Wirral with Team Ineos. We’re here to see if the mid-season transformation from Sky to Ineos has extended beyond a change of livery and name, and to discover where Chris Froome stands on his path to recovery.

Brailsford’s confession is therefore unexpected and shocking. Until now, the 55-year-old has been keeping it secret from everyone but close colleagues, friends and family.

‘I had the operation in Birmingham but found out the diagnosis around the time of the Giro d’Italia [in May],’ Brailsford, unprompted, carries on. ‘Over the winter, I’d discovered that my PSA [prostate-specific antigen, a protein produced by the prostate] levels were high. That’s the first marker. I have blood tests every quarter. I then had bouts of fatigue and that grew, so I underwent an MRI and then a biopsy. That’s when it was diagnosed.’

Brailsford carried this burden to France, where in July Egan Bernal won the team’s seventh Tour in the past eight years. Whatever your thoughts about one of cycling’s most divisive characters, internalising life-changing – potentially life-ending – news in the pressure-cooker environment of the Tour is admirable, if presumably medically unwise. For a workaholic like Brailsford, there was no other way. Work, he says, helps and has helped.

‘Over the years you become used to helping people recalibrate quickly and change their mindset. Without knowing it, that equipped me well. Of course it took a little while to process but you have a choice, and mine was to stay positive and deal with it.

'It’s an advantage of working with the likes of [sports psychiatrist] Steve Peters, who teaches that it’s you who decides if you want to move on or not. Once you’ve made that decision, you can create a plan, because without that plan it won’t work.’

Cultural shift

Brailsford’s muffling of his inner ‘chimp’ (to use Peters's terminology) to listen to the more rational, evidence-based part of the brain is hardly surprising, and exercise is an important mental and physical step to recovery.

That explains the 18km of walking today. Time away from the team car has also left Brailsford reflecting on Team Ineos’s impact so far.

‘It’s an interesting thing about cycling that when you change ownership you change your name. It’s not like Man United changed their name to Sharp [shirt sponsor in the 1980s and 90s]. You become the embodiment of your sponsor. So very quickly there’s an integration of your owner’s culture into what you’re doing.

‘Sky were brilliant to us but they were quite corporate, which is different to the culture of Ineos. Jim Ratcliffe and his team, they’re not listed and there’s no huge committee. It offers us the opportunity to be more agile and dynamic, and see how we can collaborate not just across cycling but across many sports.’

This collaboration stems from Ineos’s growing sports portfolio. Britain’s third richest man has invested in Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup Challenge, has recently bought French football club OCG Nice for €100 million and is seemingly forever linked with a potential takeover bid of Chelsea.

Oh, and he heavily funded the Ineos 1:59 Challenge that saw Kenya’s Eluid Kipchoge become the first human to run a marathon in under two hours.

‘We’ve been involved in that,’ says Brailsford (albeit at a time several weeks before Kipchoge actually achieved the record). ‘Quite a bit of technology goes into it – people who control the pace car and the speed of the pace car, then there’s the running formation to think about and the technology behind the shoes.

‘It’s a project of different components. When you think about it in those terms, there’s huge potential for knowledge-sharing across the Ineos portfolio. It has given everyone a boost.’

It’s a boost that many in the team may need. Despite securing their first victory at the Tour de France in Ineos colours, the team has had to fight a constant PR battle as a result of the contentious new sponsor.

As a reminder, Ineos’s core business is in petrochemicals. Its success has accumulated Ratcliffe a fortune of more than £20 billion. It has also left the company’s critics lambasting its environmental profile, accusing Ineos of a string of ecological crimes from creating plastic nurdles that pollute the sea to fracking-induced earthquakes that have struck parts of Britain.

Ineos counters these claims by stating it is investing in equipment and training as part of its ‘Zero Pellet Loss’ strategy, and has argued that UK quake limits are ‘absurd’. Several Tour of Britain fans thought otherwise, venting their anger via an array of post-watershed hand-painted signs.

Ineos the company has been accused of ‘sportswashing’, a term applied to a company or country perceived to be trying to cleanse its reputation by investing in sport. Ratcliffe has refuted these allegations.

But in securing their future by aligning with Ineos, the British team have now joined a growing list of WorldTour squads, including Bahrain-Merida, UAE Team Emirates, Total Direct Energie and arguably Astana, whose ultimate ambition is believed by many to be to draw attention away from the sponsors’ more unsavoury activities.

Still, who would Brailsford rather work with – a man labelled Britain’s most private billionaire, or a man who actively courts controversy? If rumours circulated in Spanish newspaper AS earlier in the year are to be believed, Brailsford could easily now be operating under Oleg Tinkov, not Ratcliffe.

You remember him, don’t you? The brash but fun Russian entrepreneur left cycling in 2016, closing one of the most successful teams of the era, Tinkoff. AS reported that the billionaire made a £17 million offer for Sky back in February. Tinkov denied it. Its implausibility, critics argued, also stemmed from a perceived mutual dislike between him and Brailsford.

‘That’s untrue,’ says Matteo Tosatto, directeur sportif at Team Ineos, our driver for the day and a man who knows Tinkov better than most, having raced for him for six seasons from 2011 through to his retirement in 2016.

‘They have a good relationship. In fact, I remember one time, at Tirreno, Dave let Oleg shower in the Team Sky bus. It was all a bit of a show with Oleg. He was crazy with the journalists. Really crazy. But with the riders he was brilliant.

‘I heard those rumours and, whether they were true or not, I’m sure Oleg would have the money,’ Tosatto adds. ‘I know his bank’s doing well, as are his La Datcha holidays.

‘But if he ever does return, he would need a project to motivate him and that would mean a minimum five years’ involvement. You really can’t do anything in this sport if you’ve only been in it for a short period of time.’

That doesn’t apply to Mathieu van der Poel, the man leading the Tour of Britain at the time of our day in the car with Team Ineos. The 24-year-old star of cyclocross and mountain bike has only recently diverted more of his focus onto the road – and with impressive results.

He won the Dutch National Road Race in 2018, and cranked up his palmarès this spring with wins at Brabantse Pijl, Dwars door Vlaanderen and his first Classics victory at Amstel Gold.

Going into the fifth stage of the Tour of Britain, an out-and-back 174km starting and finishing in Birkenhead Park, Van der Poel is GC leader, with Ben Swift as Team Ineos’s best-placed rider in sixth overall.

‘He’s a star in the making,’ says Tosatto of Van der Poel. ‘If the weather is like it is today [warm, still and dry], I can see him winning the World Championships in Harrogate. But Yorkshire at the end of September? It could easily be wet and cold. He might also find that course too long.’

Mystic Matteo’s prophecy will come true, of course. Come September, the rain will reach such apocalyptic levels that Van der Poel will drop out of a leading group towards the end of the race, plummeting to 41st and complaining of feeling ‘dizzy and empty’.

Still, Van der Poel’s abundant talent, aligned with Team Ineos’s flatlining performances in the Spring Classics, surely marks him as a target for Ratcliffe’s billions?

‘Who knows?’ replies Tosatto. ‘All I do know is that he’ll definitely be with [ProContinental team] Corendon-Circus next year because he’s competing in mountain biking at the Olympics. After that, well, I know his bike sponsor, Canyon, has benefitted hugely from the partnership.’

One might speculate that Canyon-riding Movistar could look to lure Van der Poel, although that would be a historical shift in strategy from targeting Grand Tours.

We know from interviewing Deceuninck-QuickStep boss Patrick Lefevre that he is also a huge fan and claims to ‘know his dad very well’. There’s also the recent acquisition of Corendon, a travel operator, by Swedish private equity investor Triton Partners, which already owns that other travel operator, Sunweb.

It’s a speculative swamp, but Ineos, if interested, could be the only WorldTour team capable of striding through the monetary marsh, because it’s rumoured that to secure Van der Poel’s signature would require a quintupling of his current £1 million annual salary. 

Up at the sharp end

Van der Poel would certainly add firepower to a team that, despite claiming the world’s biggest race – again – only has 26 wins in 2019. This compares to 42 in 2018.

The imminent arrival of 2019 Giro winner Richard Carapaz, plus the rise of potential GC leaders in Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov, signposts that Team Ineos’s future remains focused on the global media jackpots that are the Grand Tours, and especially the Tour. When it comes to sprints… well, you almost feel sorry for the likes of youngster Kristoffer Halvorsen and Ben Swift.

‘I’m not really an out-and-out sprinter,’ Swift corrects us. Swift is leading the team at the Tour of Britain. The pre-stage bus prep talk focussed on it being a sprint finish and potentially one for ‘Swifty’, although at the end of the day he will lose out to Jumbo-Visma’s Dylan Groenewegen. But Swift is now 31, and knows he doesn’t possess the pure power to outsprint the likes of Groenewegen.

‘In fact, I’m arguably better at tough one-day races.’ He’s right. His Sky palmarès included two podiums at Milan-San Remo before moving to UAE Team Emirates. Two disappointing seasons later, he returned to the British team for 2019.

Whatever the team is called, the ethos hasn’t changed, says Swift. ‘This team has and still does commit 100% to every rider, and every rider commits 100% to each other. Off the bike as well, it’s much more relaxed than you might think. You can underestimate the importance of a team’s culture.’

Swift divides his time between Sheffield, the Isle of Man and his father-in-law’s apartment on Mallorca, and is a far more content specimen in 2019, culminating in him becoming the British National Road Race Champion for the first time. That’s despite a career-threatening training crash in Tenerife in February that left him with multiple injuries, including a torn spleen.

‘It’s hard to think about coming back when you’re in intensive care,’ Swift said after his Nationals triumph. ‘But once you’re a bit more awake, it’s the only thing you want to do.’

All this talk of crashes inevitably brings us round to the topic of Chris Froome. In mid-October it was reported that the four-time Tour champion was set to return to racing at the annual end-of-season exhibition, the Saitama Criterium.

All being well, it would continue his remarkable recovery from June’s Dauphiné recon crash that left him with an open fracture of his femur, plus fractures to his elbow, ribs, sternum and C7 vertebrae. He also lost around four pints of blood and was in surgery for six hours.

In the Wirral, before hooking up with Tosatto, Cyclist spent time with Team Ineos doctor Richard Usher aboard the team’s bus, where he explained the extent and detail of Froome’s recovery plan.

‘Chris is now well ahead of schedule and that’s partly down to the intensive rehab, which has included significant physio work, plus periods in a hyperbaric chamber close to his home in Saint-Raphaël.

‘He’s also taken loan of an anti-gravity treadmill, which is currently carrying around 70% of his bodyweight, and he’s been out on the bike, albeit the track.’

We ask Usher if Froome’s super-human physiology has accelerated the recovery process?

‘Sure, it helps being so fit, but you still lose muscle mass like we all would. That’s where his diet helps because the nutritionists have given Chris a specific fuelling programme to enhance bone healing that includes things like gelatin.

‘Mind you, he’s had a slight setback recently as he cut the tendon in his thumb with a knife when cooking. He now has his thumb in a splint, which is hindering the crutches. But overall it’s looking good.’

Echoing Brailsford’s negative-to-positive U-turn, Usher says key to Froome’s recovery is his ability to compartmentalise the problem, listen to the experts and formulate a plan of attack.

It’s what you might expect of Team Ineos, and Froome in particular. Indeed it’s arguably that perceived emotionless approach that has opened the team up to criticism – of being cold, stand-offish and robotic.

In the many times that Cyclist has been embedded in the team, we’ve found them to be warm, welcoming and, when it comes to the likes of Tosatto and Luke Rowe, rather charming and funny.

So have we been hoodwinked? We don’t think so. The problem is that, for Team Ineos, every race win, every yellow jersey, every BBC Sports Personality of the Year award will be overshadowed by the mysterious Jiffy bag, salbutamol-gate and Dr Richard Freeman’s adjourned medical tribunal, which is underway now and set to run until 20th December.

It’s the elephant in the team bus and at every press conference, and until credible answers are given, doubts, scepticism and, in some cases, vitriol will remain.

Much rests on Dr Freeman’s shoulders. If irrefutable evidence arises that there were illegal goings-on, Ineos’s controversial association with cycling might be a short-lived one. If the defence is rock-solid, will Team Ineos 2020 enjoy the love-in enjoyed by Team Sky circa 2012?

The smell of petrol and cycling’s scarred reputation answers that one, but at least it would offer something of a fresh start to the team’s second decade of racing.

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