LONDON (Reuters) - Not everyone has been celebrating Team Sky’s impending takeover by Britain’s richest man but it must not be regarded as a negative, according to one person tasked with trying to beat them on the road.
When British broadcaster Sky announced last December it was pulling the plug on the outfit set up by Dave Brailsford in 2010, it seemed like good news for teams with lesser budgets.
Tuesday’s announcement that billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, owner of British chemicals giant INEOS, had stepped in to buy the star-studded team that has dominated cycling in recent years means the status quo is likely to remain.
Sky pumped 34 million pounds ($44.93 million) into Brailsford’s team last year around twice as much as their biggest rivals spend annually.
It was a year when Geraint Thomas won the Tour de France — the sixth time Sky have won the Tour since 2012.
Add in Froome’s 2017 Vuelta victory and his Giro d’Italia triumph last year and Sky boast eight Grand Tour titles.
With Ratcliffe, whose wealth is reported to be 21 billion pounds, bankrolling the outfit that will morph into Team INEOS on May 1 to at least the same level, maybe more, no wonder Jonathan Vaughters, boss of rival team EF Education, believes they have an “impenetrable wall of money”.
But Richard Plugge, manager of Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma, formerly Lotto NL-Jumbo, believes rather than cast envious glances, teams should regard taking on Sky as a challenge.
“A team can only have so many riders,” Plugge told Reuters. “They also have to train, prepare and race, the same roads et cetera. It is up to the competition to beat them.
“In every sport there is always a ‘best’ team for a couple of years, whether it is football, tennis, F1 or cycling. The moment these moguls are beaten by smaller teams, is satisfying for everybody. The sport is not less interesting to the fans.”
With Thomas, Froome, young Colombian Egan Bernal, plus a host of “super-domestiques” who would be leading men in other teams, INEOS will be formidable this year.
But Plugge, who is also vice-president of the International Association of Professional Cycling Teams (AIGCP) which has demanded a fairer deal from world governing body the UCI, says they are not unbeatable.
“Whether they are even bigger or not, they will set the pace in terms of quality, level of their riders and innovation, but of course we can compete!” he said.
“We will chase them, we will hunt them and see where we can beat them by being smarter. There will always be a ‘biggest’ team. The ones behind have to fight them wherever they can.”
Vaughters said Sky had “purchased” the ability to win by collecting all the best riders and this week UCI president David Lappartient told Reuters that budget caps could be discussed as a way of preserving fairness in the Grand Tours.
But Plugge does not agree, saying Sky’s new deal was proof that pro cycling is an attractive investment and that the real problem is the failure to tap into the huge commercial revenues that have brought such riches to other sports.
“Salary caps? Why?” he said. “We should look at growth of the sport. There’s a world to win if teams and organizers work together in a better fashion.
“The professional road discipline lacks the commercial knowledge, expertise and skills to lift the sport to its potential. Cycling is a sleeping giant, we should wake him up and ride the future.”
($1 = 0.7568 pounds)
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis