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Team Ineos, Once Team Sky, Is Off to a Very Bad Start

A secretive launch signaled that the new team isn’t going to be a softer, cuddlier version of its controversial predecessor

The launch of Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) landed on some rough terrain. (OLI SCARFF/Getty)
Photo: OLI SCARFF/Getty bikes

A secretive launch signaled that the new team isn’t going to be a softer, cuddlier version of its controversial predecessor

Team Ineos, the new name for what was known as Team Sky before April 30, launched yesterday. I wasn’t there, but maybe that’s just as well, since the launch seemed to be a disaster.

Reports indicate that Dave Brailsford, the team’s general manager, was his usual chummy self, able to spin pleasant-sounding word-salad replies out of almost any question. As for Ineos CEO Jim Ratcliffe? A verbal train wreck of combative arrogance and misstatements. Let’s explore.

The launch was secretive to avoid the presence of anti-fracking protesters. (Ineos is a petrochemicals company.) Ratcliffe went to great pains to avoid them—even arriving by helicopter—and although he was successful, many of the questions from the press dealt with exactly the issues the protesters wanted to highlight. The central accusation: Ineos’s sponsorship is an effort to greenwash its environmental record by developing an association with cycling, which has something of an eco-friendly gloss. (Never mind the fleet of vehicles involved with putting on a road race.)

Ratcliffe wasted little time sharing his opinion that the critics were ignorant and should be ignored, according to news stories from the event. He insisted we “look at the science” behind hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and claimed it’s safe because “all you do is pump water down.” That’s demonstrably untrue. Both the process of injecting fracking fluid and treating the waste brine creates risks for water and air pollution, including contaminated wells, according to the EPA. 

Then the conversation pivoted: Ineos’s business includes a heavy focus on plastics, yet last year, Team Sky participated in a high-profile PR campaign against plastic pollution of the ocean. Plastics, Ratcliffe argued, are essential to modern life. (True.) But from there, he took a questionable turn. “We don’t chuck it in the sea,” he said. It’s nice that Ineos doesn’t make plastics with the express goal of throwing them into the ocean, but collectively we do exactly that, and in great quantities: 18 billion pounds a year, enough to pack every linear foot of coastline in the world with five grocery bags full of the stuff.

“We do what we can, but we can’t solve the problem,” said Ratcliffe, which is a classic the-problem-is-hard-so-why-should-we-try response. Instead he could have pointed out that Ineos has invested in so-called closed-loop recycling research. Somewhere an Ineos communications staffer is grinding their molars to powder on the prep notes that were undoubtedly created and seemingly ignored.

Finally, Ratcliffe came full circle and advocated for more fracking in the U.K., pointing to Pittsburgh’s economy as an example of what could happen if the power of industry were set free to work. “Pittsburgh today is a boom town. It’s outrageous that the (British) government listens to a small, noisy minority,” he said.

Energy is undoubtedly an important economic driver. But it’s a bit much to suggest that it could lead a durable economic revival, at least based on how the U.S. shale boom has gone. According to data from the Chicago Board of Exchange, energy is the most volatile economic sector in the U.S. since 2012, and second only to financials since 1998. That’s due more to economic forces than regulatory ones. In Texas’s Permian Basin, one of the world’s largest shale oil and gas fields, employment is down for the decade despite the fact that Texas has oil and gas regulations that are literally written by the industry.

The real economic power of increased energy development is from lower prices. While natural gas prices have fallen, even with the U.S. becoming the world’s largest producer of crude oil, oil prices today are almost identical to 20 years ago when adjusted for inflation.

As for Pittsburgh, it’s economy is, like most major urban areas, quite complex, driven primarily by healthcare, financial, and corporate services, plus steel. The region has a solid energy economy, partly around the Marcellus shale. But of a total non-farm workforce of 1.2 million people, just 11,000 work directly in extractive industries, down from the peak of 12,500 in 2014. The largest single energy employer is Westinghouse, which is nuclear, not oil and gas.

My point: the Pittsburgh MacGuffin is a prime example from a derisive and arrogant performance filled with elisions and misstatements of fact, willful or otherwise, stunning in its defiance and pugnacity and, apparently, vintage Ratcliffe. It comes against the backdrop of a team that has long been perceived—fairly, I think—as the most haughty and dismissive in pro cycling. (This may partly explain why Team Ineos née Sky gets questions about whether its sponsorship is greenwashing instead of, say, Total Direct Energie. Though it’s worth noting that mining-services company Orica faced some similar criticism when it began sponsoring a team in 2012.)

The scrutiny of Ineos also comes against the backdrop of cycling’s larger association with unsavory backers, which is really only beginning to come under any scrutiny.

Under Sky, the team’s reputation for arrogance seemed to stem mainly from Brailsford, who was unrepentant even in the face of major questions last year about his leadership in the wake of the Jiffy Bag scandal. That marked one of the few instances when corporate owners got involved publicly.

But with Ratcliffe, Brailsford appears to have found a temperamental soulmate of sorts, if a more bluntly spoken one. It’s unlikely that either will act as a check on the other.

Cycling has a long and checkered history with patronage sponsorships, and from Ratcliffe’s comments over the last few months, that’s exactly what this is. “We make £5 to £7 billion a year in profit, so there’s no harm in diverting a modest amount into worthy sporting endeavors,” said Ratcliffe at the launch event. “I like opera but I prefer sport.” Ratcliffe, as chairman, CEO, and controlling shareholder at Ineos, has remarkable power to control his company’s spending, whatever criticism it gets. As long as he enjoys the sport and his toy, the team is in no danger of folding.

Still, the criticisms of Ineos’s environmental practices aren’t going away. You can hold a secret launch event to avoid protesters. But the start and finish locations of every stage of the Tour de France have been public since last October’s route announcement. With demonstrations already planned for this week’s Tour de Yorkshire, it’s a near certainty that protesters will also leverage the media attention of the world’s biggest bike race to their advantage, and there may not be much that Ineos or Ratcliffe can do about it.

Maybe Ratcliffe and Ineos didn’t care yesterday to address the accusations of greenwashing directly. Maybe they don’t know how to respond, even though this isn’t the first time Ineos or Ratcliffe have dived into sport. Maybe they feel unfairly singled out, since no one made 15,000 devil masks to protest the Total Direct Energie team and company cofounder Xavier Caïtucoli after the French electric utility was acquired by Total SA last year. But Ratcliffe’s combative and tone-deaf start raises the question of whether the love affair Brits had with the team under one owner will carry over to the next, and Ratcliffe is as responsible for that as the protesters.

Team Ineos may well continue its strangling grip on major stage races this year. Its two leaders, Chris Froome and defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas, are aging but still powerful, and Ineos enjoys a large financial advantage over almost any other team in the sport, which lets them outbid other teams for top talent and support that talent in ways other teams can’t. But whatever happens in the races, the team itself is off to a terrible start.

Filed To: Road Biking / Racing / Biking