When it comes to climate change, professional cycling faces something of a paradox. The sport is, on one hand, the high-performance version of a climate-conscious form of transit and exercise; governments and activists have long promoted the climate benefits of bike riding. Yet at the same time, elite cycling has a hefty carbon footprint and has long been the brand-washing vehicle of choice for major polluters.
This week, a group of climate-minded Australians gathered via Zoom to mark the launch of their response to how cycling will adapt as the climate crisis intensifies. An Adelaide-based collective, Fossil Free SA (FFSA), is commencing a new campaign, #BreakAwayFromGas. It hopes to pressure the organisers of the Tour Down Under, the first race on the World Tour calendar each January, to drop the naming-rights sponsor Santos, a major oil and gas producer.
“This is a very prestigious event, and one that we support and cherish as South Australians,” says Jim Allen, a spokesperson for the movement. “But it has a cosy relationship with a fossil fuel company, which is seeking a social licence for climate destructive activities.”
For Allen and his peers, concerns about Santos’s long-standing sponsorship heightened in recent years as extreme weather conditions took their toll on the TDU. “The irony of the race being vulnerable to global warming, having to make radical changes to adapt, and yet being sponsored by Santos, that really resonated for us,” he says.
In 2017, 2018 and 2019, race organisers were forced to modify or shorten stages due to extreme temperatures. This year, the race route went through bushfire-hit areas. After winning a stage, Sam Bennett described the scenery as “something out of a film about the end of the world.”
FFSA is not the only organisation to highlight the problem climate change poses to elite cycling. In January, the Australian Conversation Foundation and Monash’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub published a report, Vicious Cycle: Climate Change, Extreme Heat and the Tour Down Under. It painted a bleak picture.
“With global warming on track to exceed 3C, the future of elite cycling is grim without serious action to reduce climate emissions,” says Suzanne Harter, a climate campaigner at ACF. “Cyclists are canaries in the coalmine of elite sport in a warming world – they are directly exposed to increasing heat and extreme weather.”
In a joint statement, the TDU and Events SA, a state government body which owns the race, said: “The support and partnership of Santos for this event each year generates millions of dollars of economic benefit and hundreds of jobs for the City of Adelaide and state of South Australia.”
The TDU is a microcosm of the wider climate challenge faced by professional cycling. Both locally and globally, this debate has two interwoven dimensions: the impact of climate change on cycling and cycling’s impact on the climate.
Certainly, Australian races are not the only competitions enduring extreme weather. Last year, stage 19 of the Tour de France was cancelled mid-race due to hail, flooding and a landslide. At the time, a commentator described it as “the first Tour significantly affected by climate change”. European summer heatwaves are increasingly forcing cyclists to sweat it out at some of the World Tour’s landmark races. One stage of the 2019 Tour saw temperatures above 40C, with the conditions in the saddle – directly above scorching bitumen – up to 20C higher.
Many major races have made a concerted effort to mitigate their immediate environmental impact. The Tour, for example, has a comprehensive waste management action plan and mandates the use of biodegradable water bottles. But while the peloton might be using only human energy, the vast caravan of cars, motorbikes, helicopters and television planes that follows the race guzzles fossil fuels. A 2013 estimate put the Tour’s annual carbon footprint at 341,000 tonnes.
The World Tour’s global span compounds this climate impact. In 2019, the men’s edition of the series included 38 races across four continents. In pre-Covid times, the travel bill of Australian team Mitchelton-Scott exceeded $1m each year, mainly spent on flights. Just bringing the hundreds of World Tour cyclists and support staff, and their bikes, from Europe to Adelaide for the TDU represents a sizeable emissions impact.
The sport is also a favoured vehicle for companies to burnish their green credentials – Santos’s sponsorship of the TDU is by no means unique. The British chemicals and gas company Ineos is the title sponsor of the peloton’s dominant team, formerly Team Sky. When the deal was announced in 2019, anti-fracking activists protested against the sponsorship at the Tour de Yorkshire, while Friends of the Earth decried it as “greenwashing”.
Until 2018 Mitchelton-Scott was known as Orica-Scott, sponsored by the explosives multinational that services the mining, oil and gas sector. Two current World Tour teams, Bahrain–McLaren and UAE Team Emirates, are funded by Middle Eastern petro-states.
But there are some rays of hope. In January, Belgium’s Deceuninck-QuickStep announced their intention to become the first carbon neutral team in the peloton. Having calculated their annual carbon footprint at 1,288 tonnes, equivalent to “539 return flights between Brussels and New York”, the team decided to offset that amount of carbon and adopt other climate-conscious initiatives.
“Not easy to start projects like this without acknowledging the difficulties and somewhat inevitable hypocrisy of what comes with being an international team in our sport,” QuickStep rider James Knox said on Twitter at the time. “But great to see the team and the sponsors help make a positive change, albeit small, for the environment.”
On Tuesday, to coincide with the launch of the #BreakAwayFromGas campaign, the City of Adelaide councillor Robert Simms proposed a motion calling for the lord mayor to engage with Events SA over Santos’s ongoing sponsorship of the TDU. The motion was rejected.
“It is absurd that an event that promotes sustainability and healthy living is associated with a fossil fuel company,” says Simms, a former federal Greens senator. Adelaide has aspirations to be a carbon neutral city, and last year declared a climate emergency. “I fear that an association with a big polluter like Santos undermines our reputation as a green city,” the councillor adds.
Local government wrangling and grassroots groups may seem a world away from the glitz and glamour of the world’s biggest cycling races. But, says the ACF’s Harter, if cycling does not get real about the climate crisis, it faces a truly existential threat. “Meeting our Paris Agreement commitments are critical to ensuring a world in which cycling and other sports much loved by the Australian community can continue to exist,” she says.
To Allen and his fellow FFSA activists, the TDU discontinuing its commercial relationship with Santos would be a small but significant step in the right direction. “It would be an important signal that we are waking up to the negative legacy of fossil fuels,” says Allen. “This is a wake-up call.”