Team Ineos shows how cycling is drifting into the arms of the oil industry

Joel Dimmock

Britain’s richest man is the new owner of the “Death Star”. As Team Sky bludgeoned its way to six Tour de France victories, their sleek luxury coach became an emblem of dominance, and was quickly given the Star Wars nickname by envious rivals.

Cycling used to be a fairly humble sport, you see, all cheap hotels and hand-to-mouth existence. The Team Sky era helped changed that, and now Ineos founder Jim Ratcliffe is going to keep the money flowing.

But what is in it for the Mancunian “son of a joiner” (as the media love to refer to Ratcliffe)? He is worth £21bn or thereabouts, and you wonder if his petrochemicals business really needs the kind of public exposure that normally lies behind sports sponsorship. His reported interest in Chelsea would represent a more traditional investment.

Cycling’s backers are an odd bunch the two most successful teams this season make the point well. Deceuninck-Quick Step is funded by two Belgian companies which make windows and flooring; Astana is bankrolled by oil-rich Kazakhstan and named after the country’s capital. One of peloton’s curious charms is the way provincial sponsors, unknown outside their home markets, rub shoulders with mega-wealthy nations in search of some international exposure.

It’s worth remembering that in cycling, sponsors are the team, and the team is the sponsor. Unlike football, there are no ticket sales, and TV money goes to race organisers. It means the company (or country) provides pretty much all of a team’s revenue, and can gather all the exposure it wants. But it also takes a big hit when reputational damage strikes.

Combined with the legacy of relentless doping during the Lance Armstrong era, that has meant global brands, by and large, still won’t go near cycling. The suspicion, and the fear, lingers.

In the absence of household names, the sport has become a home for those wishing to polish a tarnished reputation. Team Sky’s involvement was driven by James Murdoch’s personal enthusiasm for the sport, and began at a time when his dad’s company was battling the phone-hacking scandal that eventually forced the closure of the News of the World. It perhaps made involvement in cycling look more like an opportunity than a risk.

And in among the benign bike makers, Dutch supermarkets and French insurers, you'll find a trio of sponsors whose human rights records attract sustained criticism. Kazakhstan we’ve mentioned, but there are also teams bankrolled by Bahrain and the UAE. It's worth noting that the economies of all three are reliant on oil and gas.

Money from the Middle East has also helped make the UAE Tour a fixture in the early season schedule. Russia's Gazprom, meanwhile, contents itself with sponsoring a team in cycling's second tier.

Like James Murdoch, Ratcliffe is an enthusiast and often cited as a keen cyclist himself. But the presence of these energy industry heavyweights must be a bonus. Ineos is always looking to reduce the costs of the oil-based products it needs to run its chemical plants. Bumping into Emirati power brokers on the Champs Elysees in Paris will surely be an enticing prospect.

Ineos has its own controversies to gloss over, of course. Friends of the Earth immediately criticised the Team Sky deal as "greenwashing ... [by] a planet-wrecking company". The environmental group highlighted that only last year Geraint Thomas won the Tour while promoting the Ocean Rescue campaign to clear plastic from the oceans. The switch to Ineos is quite a turnaround, even if it's in keeping with trends in the sport.

Ratcliffe has also taken heat over a pensions standoff with workers at Ineos’ Grangemouth refinery and for a reported plan to save £4bn in tax by moving to the tax haven of Monaco. But at least some of his cash is now going to Sir Dave Brailsford’s extraordinarily successful project. You could call it a government subsidy. And it will likely be welcomed by the pro peloton.

Viewed from the outside, Team Sky has appeared like a brutal monolith, hoovering up valuable Tour de France exposure on double the budget of most others. Those teams, however, were happier with this than the thought that it might all suddenly fold, sending a shockwave through the sport

Team Sky raised the profile of professional cycling at a crucial time; Team Ineos will sustain that while likely bringing more British success. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a wealthy fan to want a sporting plaything. Russian billionaire Oleg Tinkov's time running his own team was never dull, and he even got to indulge his passion by riding in full kit with Alberto Contador on training camps in Tenerife. It was no surprise that Tinkov was reported to have offered Brailsford a deal to take over the team before Ratcliffe did.

The only real concern is that cycling itself becomes a plaything. It was telling that another, more realistic alternative for Brailsford had been Colombia’s state oil company Ecopetrol. The bug seems to be catching.

There have always been grumbles from riders forced to ride in the heat and dust of the desert, but they know that in part their fragile sport has recovered from scandal, underpinned by oil. As Ineos settles into the saddle as owner of its richest team, a sport that trades off its environmental credentials will just have to get used to life under the growing shadow of the energy industry.