LINTON, Yorkshire (Reuters) - Dave Brailsford is accustomed to answering awkward questions and the man who masterminded Britain’s rise as a cycling powerhouse was at it again as Team Sky transformed into Team INEOS on Wednesday.
When broadcaster Sky announced last year it was pulling out of funding Brailsford’s brainchild after a decade in which his British team won six Tour de France triumphs, it appeared the days of Grand Tour domination were numbered.
Instead, Brailsford pulled a rabbit out of the hat and persuaded Britain’s richest man Jim Ratcliffe, founder and owner of petrochemicals giant INEOS, to ride to the rescue with a 120 million pounds ($157.04 million) funding package.
The fly in the ointment, however, is that whereas Team Sky earned plaudits for their support of Ocean Rescue, the broadcasters campaign against plastic pollution, Brailsford is now funded by a man who has made a vast fortune making it.
Not only that but INEOS, Britain’s largest private firm, are advocates of fracking — a controversial method of extracting gas which has spawned protest groups across England.
The exact location of Wednesday’s launch, in a cozy pub in the picturesque Yorkshire Dales village of Linton, was kept secret until the morning to prevent protesters hijacking it.
Team INEOS, including four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome who pedaled up outside the pub in the new red and black team livery, are braced for protests when the Tour of Yorkshire begins on Thursday — the first event in the team’s new guise.
Local pressure group Frack Free United have produced “devil masks” of multi-billionaire Ratcliffe, 66, which they say protestors will wear at the opening stage in Doncaster.
Environmental group Friends of the Earth have written a letter to Brailsford expressing their “deep concerns” over the INEOS deal, saying he is facilitating “greenwashing”.
But asked if the INEOS deal ran contrary to the team’s stance against single-use plastic, Brailsford, who last year was accused of crossing ‘ethical lines’ in the use of medications for riders, leapt to the defense of his benefactor.
“I think it’s the opposite, if anyone can do anything about it, it’s these guys,” he told reporters packed into the Fountaine Inn, where locals continued sipping their pints.
“If anything it’s a step in the right direction.
“I’m not an expert in chemicals, I’m an expert in trying to make Chris ride his bike faster.
“When I educated myself about this whole area I quickly came to realize that there’s a very simplistic view, but when you dive down you find out there’s a very different view. I’m very comfortable with the situation.”
Ratcliffe, a keen cyclist himself, spoke of his excitement at acquiring the ‘world’s finest cycling team run by the world’s most successful coach’ but soon found himself defending his companies environmental credentials.
“If I look at fracking groups, the majority of the ones I have met and heard about are ignorant about fracking,” he said.
“It’s outrageous that the government listen to a noisy, miniscule minority instead of looking at science.”
When talk turned to cycling and what the future might hold for Team INEOS, Brailsford said it was a “great opportunity” to stay ahead of the curve.
“This is not about rolling forward with the same. This is something new, making things bigger and better,” he said.
“The feeling I have is a big sense of pride, seeing the bus with INEOS on it and seeing Chris in the new kit. It’s a British success story that we want to continue.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge