High above the Yorkshire Dales, the buzz of an approaching helicopter breaks the mournful morning squawking of crows and rooks nesting in the trees overlooking Linton’s babbling brook and old village green. Necks crane skywards in the doorway of the Fountain Inn, a low-ceilinged, old stone pub with nooks, crannies, open fires and hearty Yorkshire food.
The locals tut and roll their eyes at all the fuss that’s descended upon them while the assembled reporters and photographers fiddle expectantly with their microphones and lenses. Britain’s richest man, cycling’s new Mister Big, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, is coming in to land.
The Team Ineos launch in the north of England on Wednesday was remote, understated and secretive, and deliberately so. For some in the media, it was like a journey to Hogwart’s — a mystery tour from platform nine and three quarters, beginning at dawn at a chilly London train station, before the journey north into the Dales. Others managed, by hook or by crook, to make their own way there, but even so, it was a closely guarded secret.
Why the secrecy?
Because there is a growing outrage and anger over the company’s move into cycling among environmental campaigners that, however much Ratcliffe, with his easy charm and ridiculous wealth, shrugs off, will not go away.
This is a relationship between a team and a sponsor that only further accelerates the growing debate over ‘sportswashing’ and furthers panic among those who are convinced that Ratcliffe’s success is founded on a wilful denial of climate change.
Ratcliffe, in his sixties, has little time for the growing band of idealistic young people around the world who are calling for greater urgency in the response to global warming and seas clogged with plastic and readily dismisses them as “ignorant.”
He has little time for European Union or British government restrictions on pollution levels and fracking, a genuine hot potato of controversy, right here among the picturesque Yorkshire Dales.
“Plastics are essential to modern life,” he said. “We don’t chuck it in the sea. We [Ineos] do what we can but we can’t solve the problem.”
Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups are planning mass protests at this week’s Tour de Yorkshire, a race already hampered by the aftermath of the expenses scandal focused on former Welcome to Yorkshire CEO Gary Verity, which has dealt a blow to public confidence in the region’s investment in cycling. There is now even a Tour de Frack, a cycling route lining the main sites pinpointed for fracking in northern England.
There will be an increased police presence around David Brailsford’s team during this week’s race and at the start and finish areas. Several local councillors in local authorities that host the race, have now withdrawn their support of the Tour de Yorkshire because of Ineos.
Ratcliffe, who is said to be pursuing a purchase of English soccer giants Chelsea, wears his immense wealth easily. He has a ready smile, tousled chestnut hair and a lean build, but has little time for his critics. Fracking, he insisted, has generated untold jobs and wealth in American cities like Pittsburgh and Britain should stop being a snowflake and should be following suit.
“Pittsburgh today is boom town. I think it’s a real shame that the north of England is being deprived of cheaper energy,” he said, “and it’s outrageous that the [British] government listens to a small noisy minority instead of looking at the science.”
Meanwhile Dave Brailsford and Chris Froome, both very much bit part players in the Ratcliffe show, strained to find a middle ground, after all it’s only a few months since they were urging us to rescue the oceans and to pass on plastic.
Tortuously, Brailsford managed to suggest that the relationship with Ineos was in fact a natural consequence of Team Sky’s own campaigns on environmental awareness, rather than a monumental act of hypocrisy.
“Sky promoted awareness on plastics,” he said. “We’re not giving up our single-use plastic ambition at all. Whereas Sky raised the awareness, Jim and the team are the guys that can do something about it. If anything, it’s a step in the right direction.”
Whether by accident or design, Brailsford, who had at one point during the winter considered his future in the World Tour scene, once again finds himself cast as cycling’s agent provocateur. Instead of salbutamol use and select committees, this time it’s all about Froome’s views on fracking, the search for even greater success and the ongoing debate over salary caps.
Off the road, with Ratcliffe in such pugilistic mood, Ineos will attract further scrutiny, controversy and criticism. On the road with more money than even before — supposedly £120M over three years — a clutch of coveted young talents, and a brace of Grand Tour champions in Thomas and Froome, the dynasty, like it or not, is set to continue.