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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 is the news editor and has spent the past four years writing stories and features, as well as (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. Having previously written about nearly every other sport under the sun for the Express, and the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for the Non-League Paper, Dan joined in 2020. Come the weekend you'll find him labouring up a hill, probably with a mouth full of jelly babies, or making a bonk-induced trip to a south of England petrol station... in search of more jelly babies.

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eburtthebike | 1 year ago

If Shell wasn't really interested in green-washing, they wouldn't insist that their logo is used on everything, they'd just give the money and bask in the glow of a job well done.  A decent person, or company, gives without the necessity or desire for reward, or even of recognition.  Those who want cheap publicity demand recognition of their giving, just like the obnoxious people who photograph themselves helping a destitute person.

It's kind of hard to believe that BC's management missed this, but hey, medals.

Dhill | 1 year ago

Saw that the Dutch squad was sponsored by ESSO, originally a UK/USA concern, the Anglo-American Oil company. And the British squad sponsored by ‘Royal Dutch’ Shell. 

To reassure everyone this is ‘Green washing’ I am with Shell electric and they assure me it is Green energy, so when I do my laundry I no I am not damaging the environment.

Crazyhorse | 1 year ago

No mention here of the role of Israel StartUp Nation in sportwashing Israel's systematic expropriation and oppression of the Palestininan people.

It's a shame seem intent to ignore Israel's system of apartheid (as described by the UN Special Rapporteur), its racist constitution which grants a right of 'return' to all Jews but denies citizenship to the Palestininian diaspora, and its war crimes in the illegally occupied Palestininan Territories which in the period 2008-2020 alone claimed 5,590 Palestinian lives and those of 251 Israelis (including Palestinians living in Israel).

It was the British state which abandoned the Palestinians to this fate in 1948 and has failed to defend their rights incl to self-determination ever since. It is therefore especially shameful that British athletes like Chris Froome and Alex Dowsett are happy to overlook Israeli abuses - and that the wider UK racing community mostly also seems happy to look away from these 'inconvenient truths'. All the money they make will never buy back their souls.

the little onion replied to Crazyhorse | 1 year ago
1 like

Because Israel StartUp Nation isn't actually anything to do with the Israeli state or government, but instead a tech entreprenuer's company.


Unlike other Middle Eastern state-backed cycling teams, which are very much about sportswashing.

darrenleroy replied to Crazyhorse | 1 year ago
1 like

Are you aware Israel Start Up Nation is a privately owned team that isn't owned by the state of Israel? Or is the word Israel so triggering for you you've decided to overlook the facts? Do you pour the same scorn on the likes of China, Russia the whole of the middle east and most of Africa, or is it just little old Israel that gets your ire? 

Simon_MacMichael | 1 year ago

One of my favourite sponsorship tie-ins was the Amgen Tour of California, first held in 2006 and which was last held in 2019 (the following year’s edition had already been cancelled, even before Covid struck).

Amgen being the company that back in the 1980s developed the world’s first recombinant human erythropoetin product … EPO, as it is better known, aimed at helping treat patients with kidney disease.

Now, you could argue that the fact that became the performing-enhancing substance of choice in the peloton, and Amgen’s sponsorship of the race, were pure coincidence … were it not for the fact that the race (and the company’s backing of it) began in 2006, by which time EPO had been widely used in the peloton for more than 15 years (including, of course, by a certain seven-time Tour de France winner*) and dozens of riders had been sanctioned for it.

Cyclo1964 | 1 year ago
1 like

Sportswashing / Greenwashing has gone on for years and will still go on we are just selective who we hold to account. In regards to cycling we are all sucked in to the exotic looking team jerseys with various odd sounding names but never really dig to deep into their backgrounds. I would guess that a great number of them don't have a wholesome image if you scratch beneath the surface. As for British Cycling they wasn't the only team with a large multi-natiional oil company logo on their shoulders. Whether that is right or wrong it is probably down to the team / country etc. looking for sponsorship as most can give a valid reason why they chose company X and whether they want to deal with the fallout that follows ??


mark1a | 1 year ago

Esso extended their existing partnership with the Belgian national cycling teams last month for another 3 years:

Does anyone recall the cycling internet catching fire then? Genuine question, rather than a contrary position. 

Awavey replied to mark1a | 1 year ago
1 like

Well Esso have fewer literal skeletons in the closet and theyve been a sponsor since 2011 so its harder to act surprised that they continue that arrangement, the Belgian federation is also sponsored by banks and Ernst Young so I dont know how their finances are set up or what the deals are. Esso do seem to be engaging more with the Belgian federation to promote cycling as a thing.

But ultimately that's a choice for Belgian cyclists to debate and I'm not a member of their federation.

All I'd say is just because one national federation accepts sponsorship from an oil co, doesnt mean they all do, it's not a race to the bottom.

mattw replied to mark1a | 1 year ago

Belgium as in the Belgian Congo?

How can Esso bear to be associated with a country with *that* in their fairly recent history?

Don't mention that chopped off hands are treated as a chocolate sweet in Antwerp...

Awavey | 1 year ago

I dont see that Peugeot, BP, Esso from 40+ years back or even Shell from the 80s as controversial sponsors, we are not rewriting history here through a 21st century twitter lense.

Marlboro used to sponsor cycling, there was a Belgian team sponsored by Boule d'Or cigarettes, inappropriate now but acceptable at the time, as was the Trump tour.

And I think it completely misses the point spectacularly for all those oh so clever social media posters whatabouting as to missing why Shells lineup NOW with BC is controversial.

FWIW I did call out HSBC at the time they hooked up with BC for those reasons, they ve never been the friendly Midland Griffin bank of old they took over.

And I take more issue with UAE & Bahrain, than I do Israel, though I acknowledge people find them controversial too.

But I wouldnt say the sextoy sponsor was controversial, inappropriate maybe but for me controversial sponsors are like the E3 Haralbeke pinch poster, that was called out at the time, though E3 harelbeke had a succession of controversial ads for the race.

But it's important that the sponsor is controversial when they sponsor the event,team or whatever, not 20, 30 or even 50 years later after the event.

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