Blazin' Saddles: Colombian petrol link surely pie in the Sky?
The speculation that Team Sky is about to turn into the first-ever Colombian WorldTour team is exciting and wholly believable – but the last thing cycling needs is sponsorship from one of the 25 largest petroleum companies in the world. Felix Lowe examines the latest rumours surrounding the future of Sir David Brailsford's British team.
News from Colombia 2.1 that Sky Version 2.2 may survive thanks to the 2.3 billion-dollar annual profit from a Latin American petrol firm has been as easy as, well, one-two-three.
Here's the scene: race takes part in a country renowned for its current crop of exciting talent; team manager in search of a new sponsor praises said country and said talent, which includes two of his star prospects; the same manager meets with the nation's president and sports ministry; journalists join the dots and find multi-billion-dollar company from that country with strong ties to that sports ministry, and throw their hat into the ring as a front-running suitor to take over the team.
In this case, there's just one small snag: the potential sponsor in question – the one whose name has been plucked from nowhere as a possible replacement for Sky – is the 90% State-controlled Colombian oil and gas company Ecopetrol.
Just who or what is Ecopetrol?
It's a company whose oxymoronic hybrid name is what the French would describe as a faux ami, or false friend. For despite the presumption of those first three letters, and the green iguana of the company logo, there is nothing remotely ecological about Ecopetrol, which is merely an abbreviation of Empresa Colombiana de Petróleos.
Indeed, last spring – on the same day that Gianni Moscon finished fourteenth in Strade Bianche, to be precise – a malfunctioning well operated by Ecopetrol started to spew crude into a ravine in Central Colombia, contaminating the Sogamoso river and devastating animal and plant life.
Over a three-week period – during which Team Sky picked up wins in Tirreno-Adriatico for Michal Kwiatkowski and the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali for Diego Rosa – the leak continued.
Conservationists claimed it was Colombia's worse environmental disaster in decades – with an estimated 24,000 barrels of black crude spreading over 24 kilometres, killing an estimated 2,400 animals, and resulting in 70 families needing treatment for vomiting, headaches and dizziness.
Quite how this sits with Team Sky's environmental values and Ocean Rescue partnership is anyone's guess; presumably all that crude wouldn't do the orcas too many favours.
And don't get us started on the team's pledge to remove all single-use plastic packaging from its business operations by 2020 – the year when, according to these rumours, their new sponsor will be responsible for the very oil used in the production of said plastics.
The Lizima 158 well spill was a damning blunder for a company whose 2010 sustainability report, while saying nothing about a takeover of a British cycling team within the next decade, nevertheless stressed that, "Our challenge for 2020 is to produce 1,300,000 clean barrels daily – i.e. without accidents or environmental incidents, under labour norms, in harmony with our stakeholders, and with sustainability within the social, environmental and economic dimensions."
Well, they sound about as transparent as Team Sky do sometimes. Perhaps the fit's not so bad, after all.
How did the Ecopetrol rumours start?
Well, Team Sky are currently out in Latin America for the Tour Colombia 2.1 where their six-man team finished 10 seconds behind the EF Education First team of local legend Rigoberto Uran in the opening TTT in Medallin.
Amid the backdrop of Brailsford's on-going search for a new lead sponsor, it was reported earlier in the week that Brailsford had met with the Colombian President Ivan Duque and the Coldeportes (sports ministry) director Ernesto Lucena to discuss the possibility of turning Team Sky into the first-ever Colombian WorldTour team.
The meeting was apparently organised by former Sky rider Uran, who himself would be out of contract at the end of 2020 and, presumably, not adverse to being part of a top-level team from his native Colombia and involving his former employees.
Lucena later confirmed this meeting, telling the newspaper El Espectador that "it is the dream and hope that we have." Sky's current estimated budget of around $30m per year would be "viable […] with the union of three or four multinational companies".
Fast forward a day and an Alvaro Hodeg sprint win for Deceuninck-QuickStep in stage 2 and, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Ecopetrol had emerged as the leading candidate to lead this consortium of sponsors looking to take over the team.
With close links to the Coldeportes sports ministry, a net income reported at $2.2 billion in 2017, and more than double the £13 billion revenue generated by Sky PLC, Ecopetrol certainly have deep enough pockets to foot the current wage bill.
So, will Team Sky really become Team Colombia?
When quizzed about these meetings, Brailsford, being the slick, elusive operator that he is, did not answer any of the questions asked but instead waxed lyrical about Colombia's cycling heritage, claiming the country was on the cusp of cycling greatness and "just one step away from what Brazil is to football".
On paper, the idea is not so rum: while Britons Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas (combined age 67) are the current flagbearers of the British team, Colombians Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa (combined age 43) are very much the faces of the future – with Bernal touted to lead Sky in only his second Grand Tour in May's Giro d'Italia.
But would Brailsford really risk pouring fuel on the fire by linking up with a lead sponsor that seems so opposed to everything the team stands for – and in doing so potentially isolate the very fan base on which the team is founded?
In many respects, the supposed link with Ecopetrol seems even more unlikely than last week's rumours of Oleg Tinkov stepping in to save the day – perhaps more a case of journalists putting two and two together to make five.
It's not that fossil fuels are unwelcome in the pro-peloton per se: for all the talk of motor-doping, Gazprom has been involved with Russian cycling for years while oil-rich nations Kazakhstan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates all sponsor WorldTour teams. It just doesn't seem like a viable route for Brailsford in the light of the current set of values embodied by his team.
That doesn't mean it won't happen. Brailsford is an opportunist to the core and could argue his way out of a straight jacket. He's already gone well beyond his promise of delivering Britain its first Grand Tour win; if he sees value in switching the focus of his team from one nation to another, then he'd do it in the blink of an eye.
After all, it was only last year when Brailsford admitted that he'd love the challenge of placing a Frenchman atop the Tour podium.
As he said this week, "The wealth of talent that exists in [Colombia] is second to none" – and that was before the home fans were treated to yet another victory, this time for youngster Juan Sebastian Molano of UAE Team Emirates, who stepped into the shoes of absent compatriot Fernando Gaviria with aplomb to zip to victory in stage 3.
In Bernal and Sosa, Sky have the two biggest prospects from a nation that represents not only the future but the present day of cycling. This seismic shift could be motivation enough for Brailsford to keep the show on the road with a fresh focus – even if it does mean staying afloat with a company that sells the environment down the river.
Either way, he'll have to act fast: Team Sky are currently registered as British and should Brailsford want to pick up a Colombian licence then, under new UCI rules for the 2020-23 WorldTour, applications will have to be made before – and here's a delightful coincidence – April 1.
So, be warned: April Fools' Day could come early this spring.