Team Sky poised for takeover by Britain’s richest man

“Imminent” Ineos-Ratcliffe purchase to see stars retained and budget increased to £40m

 Polish rider Michal Kwiatkowski of Team Sky celebrates on the podium after the final stage of the Paris-Nice  race on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Sebastien Nogier/EPA

Polish rider Michal Kwiatkowski of Team Sky celebrates on the podium after the final stage of the Paris-Nice race on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Sebastien Nogier/EPA

 

Team Sky is poised to announce a takeover by Britain’s richest man in a deal that will maintain the six-time Tour de France winners’ position as the wealthiest team in world cycling. Sources close to Team Sky have told the Guardian that an announcement is “imminent” and Team Ineos, sponsored by the controversial petrochemical company owned by Jim Ratcliffe, is expected to be unveiled within the next 48 hours.

It is understood that a quartet of strong offers were considered by Team Sky principal, Dave Brailsford, but that none were able to match the resources offered by Ratcliffe and Ineos with an increased budget, expected to be close to £40 million (€47 million), Brailsford is almost certain to now hold on to his leading riders, reigning Tour champion Geraint Thomas, multiple Grand Tour champion Chris Froome, and the fast-rising Egan Bernal, who won France’s second most prestigious stage race, Paris-Nice, last weekend.

Confirmation of the deal with Ineos cannot come soon enough for Brailsford and his staff as they look to avoid any further uncertainty in the build-up to this year’s Grand Tours, of Italy, France and Spain, all of which they are targeting.

Keen cyclist

Ratcliffe, who grew up on a council estate in Greater Manchester, is now a resident of Monaco, where Team Sky’s leading riders and its head coach, Tim Kerrison, are based. He is also a keen cyclist and competitive triathlete.

Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour when riding for Sky, said that the news was a “bonus for everyone at Team Sky”. “I’m aware of this guy but I’ve never met him,” Wiggins told Eurosport. “He’s got a house in Mallorca and he’s really into cycling, rides his bike, so I would imagine this is someone who loves cycling.

“It’s an ideal situation for Dave Brailsford because he can continue running out this team with all his plans and philosophies and he’s answerable, you’d imagine, to one man who it’s his money and it’ll certainly help that team.”

“Dave will want to retain control,” Wiggins added. “It’s Dave’s way in terms of the way he manages the team, the way he’s set the team up and I think he would have been reluctant to have another multi-national company that came in and wanted it for the advertisement, but would want the control.”

Largest producers of plastics

Ratcliffe had previously considered a buy-out of Chelsea FC and last year invested £110 million (€129 million) in Ben Ainslie’s Americas Cup team, a relationship which raised eyebrows given Ineos’ status as one of the world’s largest producers of plastics.

The company’s move into professional cycling is equally likely to ruffle feathers, both due to its wealth and within a sport that is steadily becoming increasingly aware of its environmental impact. Brailsford, however, appears to have shed the eco-evangelism of Team Sky’s 2018 Ocean Rescue campaign which included a whale logo on the riders’ jerseys during the Tour de France, accompanied by the hashtag, #passonplastic.

Brailsford currently has 12 riders under contract for next season, including Thomas, Froome and Bernal, although all three were rumoured to have been made offers by rival teams, had a new sponsor not be found. “You’d hope to think that we’d find something,” 2018 Tour winner Thomas said during Brailsford’s negotiations. “We are in the best position to; we are one of the best sports teams around, let alone in cycling, so you’d hope we could find something.”

Suitably wealthy backer

Sky unexpectedly announced the ending of their sponsorship of Brailsford’s team last autumn, and many believed that it would be impossible to find a suitably wealthy backer to enable the team to continue. Recent and extensive negative coverage both of Brailsford and of the team, in the aftermath of stinging criticism from both UKAD and the DCMS after the infamous “Jiffy Bag” investigation, was followed by the ongoing farce of the Dr Richard Freeman medical tribunal into testosterone use, which was adjourned only a fortnight ago. Those factors, allied to a tight timescale and an increasingly fraught sponsorship market within cycling, all appeared to be working against Brailsford hopes of securing a new team with similar resources.

“Brailsford’s selling a guaranteed win at the Tour de France,” Education First team manager Jonathan Vaughters told The Guardian in December. “To ensure that he needs another massive budget. In my view, it’s either a direct replacement for Sky’s sponsorship, or the team goes away.”

But as, Vaughters also noted, Brailsford’s energy and determination should not be underestimated. “He has an impressive ability to reach into the toilet and pull out chocolate,” the American said. – Guardian

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