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Cycling's most controversial sponsors

From sportswashing to sex toys via Donald Trump, of course...

As cycling fans across Britain protested Shell's partnership with British Cycling we decided to take a deep dive into the annals to bring you a list of the most controversial* sponsors to ever plaster their brand on a racing cyclist.

In no particular order, get ready for greenwashing, sportswashing, crypto, pyramid schemes, sex toys and an obligatory touch of The Donald...


HSBC UK logo at 2019 Track Cycling World Cup in Glasgow (picture Alex Whitehead.

Cast your minds back before Great Britain's premier track cyclists stood on the World Championships podium in their Shell-shouldered strips and you might just remember British Cycling's former lead sponsor was HSBC.

The banking giant's step into cycling attracted far less heat than Shell and British Cycling's partnership but, as some have pointed out, maybe it ought to have?

> British Cycling and Shell: How HSBC pulling plug and COVID-19 hit governing body’s finances

HSBC became British Cycling's lead sponsor at the start of 2017, signing an eight-year deal to replace broadcaster Sky. Five years earlier, in 2012, HSBC paid $1.9bn (£1.4bn) after an investigation by the US Department of Justice into the bank failing to prevent laundering by Mexican drug cartels.

HSBC UK National Cycling Centre (picture copyright British Cycling)

In December, HSBC was fined £63.9m by the UK's financial regulator for "unacceptable failings" of its anti-money laundering systems.

Ineos Grenadiers

2022 Bioracer Ineos Grenadiers kit Tom Pidcock (1).jpeg

While we're close to home and talking about sponsors taking over from Sky...

Ineos, the petrochemicals multinational founded by the UK's richest man, billionaire Brexiteer — Sir Jim Ratcliffe — ventured into cycling in 2019 taking lead sponsorship from Team Sky at the Tour de Yorkshire.

The sponsor's arrival was met with protests at the British race by an anti-fracking group, while in 2020 team vehicles were targeted by environmental campaigners in Belgium.

Ineos Will Fall (via Annick De Ridder on Twitter)

According to environmental charity ClientEarth, in 2020, Ineos produced 22.8 million tonnes of petrochemicals, with the company's largest plant — in Grangemouth in Scotland — emitting over 3.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide the year previous.

Come 2020 the team had a new name... with Grenadier, a 4x4 being developed by Ineos Automotive, joining before the Tour de France. Cue subtle and tasteful product placement... 

Filippo Ganna breaks UCI Hour record (credit - Ineos Grenadiers)

Peugeot (+ BP, Esso & Shell)

Peugeot, one of cycling's longest-running and most successful teams — until the end of an 80-year involvement in 1986 — had more than a few controversial co-sponsors. Looking something like an oil industry directory, Peugeot's history includes a 20-year association with BP, with whom they created this kit to mark Tom Simpson's 1965 World Championships win...

 Simpson's 1964 Milan-San Remo, 1965 Lombardia, two of Eddy Merckx's San Remo wins and Roger Pingeon's 1967 Tour de France success all came with BP's support.

Into the late 70s and there was a new oil giant — Esso — on the team's kits before, in 1982, Shell jumped onboard for the final five years of the team's existence. The Esso era saw Bernard Thévenet beat former favourite Merckx to the '75 Tour, adding another in '77.

And while there wouldn't be another yellow jersey in the latter years, riders such as Robert Millar, now Philippa York, Stephen Roche and Sean Yates all pulled on the famous black and white.

Le Groupement

Le Groupement Robert Millar 1995 (screenshot YouTube)

Later in Millar's career, the prodigious climber joined the now-infamous Le Groupement, a team founded in 1994 but that only lasted a year, folding two days after Millar's British National Road Race Championships win.

The generally accepted consensus now is the team's financial problems, tied to the negative publicity sponsor Le Groupement Européen des Professionnels du Marketing attracted, was down to the French door-to-door sales organisation being a pyramid scheme, relying on 50,000 independent salespeople selling goods to friends and family.

The sponsor's modus operandi was described in the New York Times in 2019 as based on "motivational sessions and individual investment in the company's retail goods". If that wasn't enough, sales of Le Groupement fell 35 per cent in early 1995 as whispers spread the company was linked to an American sect.

The short of it is the sponsorship was pulled in March of that year and Le Groupement later filed for bankruptcy as the team folded a week before the Tour de France, prompting Millar's retirement from the sport.


A recent one now...

2021 Tour de France Team Qhubeka NextHash Burberry - 1

The final iteration of the African WorldTour outfit run by Doug Ryder, branded under various banners — including MTM, Dimension Data and Qhubeka — was Team Qhubeka NextHash. 

Despite signing a five-year naming rights agreement days before last year's Tour de France, the team faced continued financial woes and eventually dropped to UCI Continental level for 2022 with their development team. 

So who are NextHash? That's a question to which I'm still not sure I know the answer, to be completely honest...

2021 Tour de France Team Qhubeka NextHash Burberry - 2

Investigative reporter Iain Treloar took a deep dive into the murky world of blockchain and cryptocurrency for Cycling Tips, and found NextHash offers a trading platform called NexInter Exchange which uses another company's software. Then there's the 'Token' which allows buyers to "purchase security tokens under the same conditions as professional investors and secure the current and future benefits of being among the first to join." Right.  

NextHash had little to no online presence when their sponsorship began (less than 100 Facebook followers and around 500 on Twitter)... and in response to a question from a cycling fan, the former CEO Daniele Mensi called the company "crooks".


Mat Hayman after winning Paris-Roubaix (source Orica GreenEdge video still).JPG

Orica? Yep, that's the Australian-based multinational corporation that is one of the world's largest providers of commercial explosives and blasting systems to the mining, quarrying, oil and gas, and construction markets.

The sponsor joined GreenEDGE to a backdrop of chemical leaks in Australia and criticism having stored ammonium nitrate in a ship anchored off New South Wales, something the Maritime Union of Australia called "dangerously sub-standard".

Donald Trump


It wouldn't be a controversial sponsors countdown without a mention of 'The Donald'...

In 1988, Trump created a bike race called... the Tour de Trump, obviously. It was a multi-stage race across the north east of the United States to "rival" the Tour de France.

The inaugural edition in 1989 attracted a field including Greg LeMond, but a year later, and after just two renewals, Trump pulled the plug in the face of mounting debts in his property empire.


Another race sponsor now... the Netherlands and Belgium's market leader in sex toys took the naming rights for the EasyToys Bloeizone Fryslân Tour and sent the internet into meltdown by awarding time trial winner Ellen van Dijk with an X-rated giftset.

EasyToys Bloeizone Fryslân prize (via Ellen van Dijk, Twitter)

"Prizes in women’s cycling are improving," Van Dijk joked afterwards. That's one way to lube a chain...

The nations

Just take a glance over today's peloton and you'll spot teams such as UAE Team Emirates, Bahrain Victorious and Astana, all in it for the love of the sport and supporting talent... apparently.

Tadej Pogacar, Stage 19 of 2021 (picture credit Tour de France A.S.O./Pauline Ballet)

How long until we have a Saudi sovereign investment fund-backed team visiting St James' Park in the off-season?

As ever I'm sure we've let one or two slip through the net. Get in the comments to tell us who needs adding to the list...

* Update 18/10/22, 16:08: as noted already in the comments, it's important to add that some of the historical sponsors we've mentioned weren't necessarily controversial at the time. 

Dan joined in 2020, and spent most of his first year (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. At the start of 2022 he took on the role of news editor. Before joining, Dan wrote about various sports, including football and boxing for the Daily Express, and covered the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for The Non-League Paper. Part of the generation inspired by the 2012 Olympics, Dan has been 'enjoying' life on two wheels ever since and spends his weekends making bonk-induced trips to the petrol stations of the south of England.

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