Patrick Lefevere’s extraordinary comments about Sam Bennett have no place in sport

Cyclist’s ex-manager known to kiss his riders when they’re up and kick them when they’re down

 Sam Bennett during the 47th Volta Ao Algarve 2021. Photograph: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Sam Bennett during the 47th Volta Ao Algarve 2021. Photograph: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

 

She is feigning injury and crippled instead by her own fear of failure . . . She’s the pinnacle of mental weakness and the same as women who still return home after domestic abuse . . . . Now she’s playing with his balls in public and he’s going to take her back until the steam comes out of her ears.

Okay, not the exact words or commentary of cycling manager Patrick Lefevere concerning one of the star riders at his Belgian team Deceuninck-Quick-Step, given she in this case is in fact he – as in Sam Bennett. Only gender and language and maybe even some cultural differences aside, are we still okay with this?

Because otherwise these are word-for-word just some of things Lefevere has been saying about Bennett – in print and in person – ever since a knee injury forced the Irish rider to withdraw from the start of the Tour de France at the end of June, with that ending his chance to defend the green jersey won so majestically in 2020.

Last Monday, this newspaper dedicated the front page of its Sports Monday supplement to three feats of considerable achievement in Irish sport – Meath beating Dublin to win a first senior All-Ireland football title, at the first attempt, taking out four-time defending champions in the process; Leona Maguire going unbeaten through four sessions of her maiden Solheim Cup appearance to help Europe seal the win for only the second time on US soil; and Katie Taylor securing her 19th straight professional win to remain undisputed lightweight champion of the world.

Indulgence

This wasn’t done out of any need and certainly not any indulgence, just another reminder of some of the changing coverage and commentary around women’s sport. Each of the three feats was a standalone headline in its own right, worthy of such celebration no matter whether what realm of sport, at home or abroad. At the same time and accidentally or otherwise it provided curious contrast to some of the lasting coverage and commentary around men’s sport.

It was this exact week last year when, after winning Stage 10 of the pandemic-delayed 2020 Tour (then only the second Irish rider in history after Shay Elliott to win a hat-trick of Grand Tour stages), Bennett also won back the green jersey and defended it through the final mountainous week before wrapping it up in one of the most iconic moments in all of sport – a victory in the final stage down the Champs-Élysées.

With that the then 29-year-old from Carrick-on-Suir became only the fifth rider in history to win in Paris while also wearing the green jersey (which rewards the Tour’s most consistent finisher based on points gained in each stage) and also became only the second Irish rider is history to win that prize after Seán Kelly last won it in 1989, the year before Bennett was born. After three weeks, 21 stages, 58,000m of climbing, and 3,482km of road, it was hailed as among the hardest in Tour history.

Four weeks after that, he started an equally hard Vuelta a España, promptly winning stage four, was relegated after winning stage nine, and denied the win on the final stage into Madrid, with that a triple crown of Grand Tour final stage wins, by the width of his front tyre. After 69 days of racing, covering 11,269km, Bennett finished the season with seven ProTour stage wins in all, and for me will always be the standout Irish sporting performer of 2020, man or woman, at home or abroad.

For the early part of this year, Bennett was on track to repeat this sort – winning seven ProTour stages, including two in Paris-Nice and then two more at the Tour of the Algarve, exactly four months ago this weekend, which also turned out to be his last race. Since then comments surrounding his knee injury have at times been curiously twisted by Lefevere’s apparent desire to undermine his own rider.

Exact words

Lefevere does has form here, the 66-year-old former Belgian pro known to kiss his riders when they’re up or else kick them when they’re down. A week after the Tour finished and reports first emerged of Bennett’s return to his former German team Bora-Hansgrohe, Lefevere used his weekly column in the Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad to launch an extraordinary broadside against his Irish rider, his exact words being Bennett is “the same as women who still return home after domestic abuse”.

Four days later, Bennett’s move back from Deceuninck-QuickStep to Bora-Hansgrohe was confirmed, a two-year deal that will see him through the end of 2023. Days after that (and presumably under some pressure) Lefevere backtracked on his comments on domestic abuse, only not of Bennett: “My opinion of him [Bennett] remains the same, but what I wrote about intimate partner violence – in the context of his return to Bora – was not appropriate” – before adding that Bennett would require knee surgery and that his season (and career at Deceuninck-QuickStep) was over.

Then on Tuesday, Bennett was announced as a late addition to the Irish team for this weekend’s European Cycling Championships in Trento, Italy – and is set to start Sunday’s 179.2km men’s road race, even if the hilly course won’t be to his liking. Clearly feeling he was fit enough to race, Trento it seems also provided his only outlet to race.

Only two days later Lefevere was back at it, telling Het Nieuwsblad what Bennett is doing now “is playing with my balls in public” and “apparently all the tricks of the trade are at work”.

This, it seems, is reference to Lefevere’s own admission that Bennett had already taken a legal case to the UCI, the governing body of world cycling, over the series of comments the Belgian manager had made of late: there is also a UCI clause which does allow for a team manager to cut the rider’s salary by 50 per cent if he is unable to race for three months, which Lefevere also appears to have initiated, even though Bennett wants to prove he is indeed fit to race.

Bennett has declined to comment on any of Lefevere’s claims, and whatever twisted psychology may be behind them, leaving the Belgian to continue to question the position of the rider who this time last year was leading the way in Irish sport: “It won’t work. I’m going to take him back until the steam goes off his ears . . . ”

There may well be two sides to this twisted case that perhaps need to be pressed more gently against the middle, only insults like this have no place in any sporting coverage or commentary.

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