“UNE RAISON D’ÊTRE” – Cillian Kelly
March 20, 2019
As of 1st May 2019, Team Sky will no longer be Team Sky. They will be known as Team Ineos. They’ve been saved by a large petrochemical company owned by Britain’s richest man, Jim Ratcliffe. A debate has begun about whether this is a good thing for cycling or not and there are two aspects to that debate.
The first is that it seems the team’s budget will be even bigger now. More money in cycling seems like it’s a ‘good thing’. And it’s hard to argue when this point is presented on negative terms – ‘Why would you not want more money in the sport?’
But it’s not more money in the sport as such, it’s more money for one team, the team which already had the most money. A team whose ability to recruit multiple leaders and consequent strength in Grand Tours has already led to rule changes in the sport in an attempt to loosen their stranglehold. More money for this one team could make this imbalance even greater.
The other aspect to the argument that this could be a bad thing is that it could scare other potential sponsors away. When all teams operate on similar budgets, a sponsor coming in knows it could conceivably compete to win the biggest races. But when one team has more than double the operating budget of some others, a new sponsor knows that it’s practically impossible to compete with that. So in the short-term, yes, more money for cycling, but in the medium term future, maybe not.
That debate will be ongoing and will depend what happens on the road. If we see a Team Ineos rider (nope, I can’t get used to it either) win the Tour de France again, then we’ll all point at the budget and say, ‘of course they won’. But if Tom Dumoulin or Primoz Roglic or Romain Bardet end up in the Yellow Jersey on the Champs Elysées, then it can be said that success can be achieved somewhat in spite of budget. So let’s see what happens in July.
But there’s an existential aspect now to this team which had me asking myself the question, just exactly what is a cycling team for?
In the early days of organised bicycle racing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were no teams. Riders turned up for races like the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix or Bordeaux-Paris ready to tackle the race completely alone. It was very much every man for himself. It was so much so that at the Tour de France, the father of the race, Henri Desgrange, did everything he could to prevent any sort of co-operation. Drafting behind other riders was expressly forbidden.
Eventually, teams began to form sponsored solely by bicycle manufacturing companies who saw riders winning races on their bikes using their components as the perfect way to advertise that their stuff was the best. The sport shaped itself around this development and team racing became a thing. Leaders were anointed, domestiques were hired and the sport began somewhat to resemble what we recognise now as professional road cycling.
It wasn’t until the mid 1950s when Fiorenzo Magni convinced race organisers to allow his team to be sponsored by Nivea, the skincare company that the first extra-sportif sponsor entered the sport which remains the foundation on which the precarious financial model of cycling is built to this day. The Tour de France resorted to national teams for decades because Desgrange wanted to remove any commercial influence from dictating team tactics. But this race was the exception, for the rest of the cycling year, races were contested by sponsored teams, and since 1969 so has the Tour de France.
The teams exist now to advertise. That is their purpose. The riders are rolling billboards. It’s the reason why we know we’ll see a rider from Direct Energie and Wanty-Groupe Gobert in the breakaway every day during the first week of the Tour. It’s what their sponsors have paid for – to be on the telly for four hours every day while millions of people watch.
Teams exist to sell products or services – hair care products, insurance, lottery tickets, bicycles, shoes, kitchens, laminate flooring, sun holidays. It’s quaint, it’s often quite parochial but it’s how the sport works.
There are exceptions to this rule, namely Astana, Bahrain-Merida and UAE Team Emirates who all ostensibly exist to promote the image of a country. Human rights abuses or political ideologies of these countries mean they are often accused of ‘sportswashing’, an attempt to distract the general public into believing their country is something other than what it is. But the central reason for its existence remains the same, their riders are advertising something to people who they believe need to see it.
It appears to me as though Team Ineos fits neither of these descriptions. A cursory look at the Ineos website gives an indication that we have all probably used their products regularly even though we don’t realise it. They produce chlorine, antibiotics, insulation and plastic packaging for food and drink among many other things. But they don’t sell it to you or me. They sell to other companies. I’m not going to watch the Tour de Yorkshire and suddenly think ‘Jaysus, I forgot to buy some Ineos’.
Orica were similar, a mining company who used to sponsor the team now known as Mitchelton-Scott. They used their team sponsorship to improve their corporate image and didn’t receive much of a backlash. However, Team Sky for various reasons have always elicited more scrutiny than others. And with initial reports around the launch of the team already focused on Ratcliffe’s tax status and residence in Monaco, it hasn’t been a great start.
In other sports the teams exist for very different reasons. Take football for example. Most teams exist to provide a focal point for the community, to give a sense of pride and purpose to an area and to give a family something to do on a Saturday afternoon. The bigger football teams have morphed into something else and now exist to make money. Neither of these reasons apply to a cycling team.
In cycling, the races play the role that the teams do in other sports. It is the races which have always existed and provide a sense of place. The races give the pride and community aspect to an area. It is the races that continue to exist when the teams change or disappear and they give the sport its grounding in history – Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice, Milan-Sanremo – all of which would exist regardless of which teams are present, or if any teams existed at all.
Team Ineos has now lost its original identity as Team Sky. The original lofty goals of Sky to get people cycling via public Sky Rides and winning races with a clean British rider have been left behind. The British stars Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome are reaching the end of their careers and are being gradually replaced with Colombians. The team is shedding its British identity. They’ve also replaced their campaign for cleaning up plastic from the world’s oceans by being sponsored by one of the world’s largest producers of plastic. Yes, Ineos will now be providing enough money so that 70 or 80 people can continue to have a job but that’s not a reason in and of itself for a team to exist. That’s the effect of the existence not the cause of it.
Dave Brailsford has been lauded by some for pulling a rabbit out of a hat to find not only enough money to continue the team’s existence, but to find even more of it than before. But I’m starting to wonder why this team exists at all. Is it to sell Ineos products to the general public watching at the side of the road? Is it to ‘greenwash‘ the image of the Ineos company? Or is it to service a couple of egos who enjoy the idea of playing a fantasy cycling game, but in real life? What is this team for?