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The Team Ineos environmental U-turn isn't the fault of Thomas, Froome or Brailsford

In-depth
23 Jul 2020
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From saving the whales to promoting diesel 4x4s, the 'Ineos Grenadiers' prove they are just part of the game

Words: Joe Robinson

Cast your minds back just 24 months. May 2018 to be precise, and Chris Froome, fresh off the back of winning the Giro d’Italia and a third consecutive Grand Tour, is sitting in a baggy Team Ineos polo in a Sky studio in Osterley.

He is holding up the new jersey set to be worn by the team at the Tour de France alongside the team’s slightly altered name for the race, too.

You’ll remember it – Team Sky Ocean Rescue. The reason? The team’s sponsor, broadcasting company Sky, had pledged to do its bit for the environment and remove all single-use plastics by 2020, a pledge that was shared by Froome, Dave Brailsford and the rest of the Team Sky empire. In fact, they even went a step further by pledging to remove all single-use plastic from their supply chain by the same period.

Being questioned by Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News, Froome holds up a jersey made of reclaimed and recycled plastic found floating in our oceans that has a massive Orca whale printed on its rear and the hashtag #PassonPlastic down each side.

‘It’s staggering to hear figures like how much plastic goes into the ocean every year, eight million tonnes,’ says Froome. ‘We’re going to try, as much as possible, to reduce as much as possible the use of plastics within the team.’

A stonewall pledge, down the barrel of a lens to help fight back against global warming, pollution, environmental damage, the lot.

For the 2020 Tour de France, that same team, riders and staff – albeit with new sponsors – will be called Team Ineos Grenadier as a marketing exercise by billionaire team financier Sir Jim Ratcliffe to advertise his latest business venture, a 4x4 car.

Froome – if he's selected – will line up alongside Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal at the Tour’s Grand Depart in a different jersey, tweaked team colours and a new name, all to promote a £40,000 SUV that looks like the bulky lovechild of a Land Rover Discovery and Mercedes G-Wagon.

Look, technically Team Ineos are still passing on plastic.

It is just they passed it on for a two and a half tonne 4x4 that guzzles diesel and petrol through its BMW-sourced three litre straight six engine at a rate of about 30 miles (48km) to the gallon while pumping just the 209g of CO² into the atmosphere per kilometre.

In two years, Froome, Thomas, Brailsford and the gang have gone from eco-warriors to eco-destroyers. But stop short before you begin to shame them because I don’t think they’re to blame.

When petrochemical behemoth Ineos took the team sponsorship and responsibility off the hands of Sky last May, we cannot pretend we did not see this being an issue.

The anti-fracking campaigners outside the team bus at the Tour de Yorkshire, the team’s very first race, and the Greenpeace banners did warn us that this was Ineos’s shtick from the beginning.

But this is just the name of the game of sponsorship in cycling. Jim Ratcliffe has a product he wants to sell – in this case a car – and he is going to use every marketing weapon within his arsenal to do that, whether you agree with it or not.

Righly or wrongly, he pumps around £40 million a year into this cycling team for that right and does the same with plenty of other ventures, football and sailing to name just two.

Realistically, the message of the team at the Tour in 2018 is not one shared by Ratcliffe’s company and he has no obligation to honour the pledges once set by the team under a different guise.

Ratcliffe will tell you he has just as much right promoting his new diesel car in the professional peloton as Groupama-FDJ does promoting the French lottery, and there is nothing to stop him doing that.

Can we really point our fingers at the Ineos riders and management for simply letting this happen?

Do we really think Ian Stannard or Ben Swift should take some grand moral high ground and refuse to wear the jersey, underlining the gross hypocrisy of this latest sponsor compared to the team’s commitments of two years ago? No.

Even the high-profile figures of Froome and Thomas would not be able to do it. They could probably get away with a condemning comment in an interview but ultimately they are paid a lot of money by Ineos to win bike races and wear the brand on their backs.

Nobody in football really points the finger of blame at Raheem Sterling for starting at Manchester City or at Neymar playing at Paris St-Germain despite their paymasters having far from clean human rights records.

We can’t even blame Dave Brailsford. He manages the team and last spring he was presented with the possibility of the team folding and pretty much over a hundred people losing their jobs if he did not find a new backer.

He just needs someone to pay the wages and keep the team afloat, and that just so happened to be a Monaco-based British billionaire whose money was made in petrochemicals.

And let’s not throw stones in glass houses, cycling is not a sustainable sport by any stretch and we have already been infiltrated by much murkier financiers than Ineos.

A single WorldTour race will see hundreds of cars, buses and motorbikes travelling hundreds of miles, powered by petrol or diesel, trekking cross-country followed by even more press vehicles and race officials, several helicopters and an aeroplane pumping toxic emissions into our Earth’s atmosphere, day after day.

And within that peloton, there are already riders paid by shale gas ventures, online casinos and dubious nation-states anyway, just as insidious – if not more so – than a £40,000 4X4 SUV with every chance of being bought by one man and his big dog that sits in the boot.

Oh, and you know cycling's governing body the UCI, which keeps a tab on all these things and is the body that should really be looking into the sponsors that are financing the teams that act as poster boys for our sport?

It recently gave Turkmenistan its highest ‘UCI Order’ honour and the 2021 Track Cycling World Championships despite it being run by a dictatorship with a human rights record described as ‘dire’ by Human Rights Watch.

So when Bernal, Thomas, Froome and co turn up in Nice as the 'Ineos Grenadiers', don’t go hating the players because it’s all just part of the game.