Having left the team at the end of 2019, Sam Bennett has confirmed that he will rejoin the Bora-hansgrohe setup next season as its clear sprint leader. Bennett departed the team due to dissatisfaction over his priority in the squad, with both Peter Sagan and Pascal Ackermann being given prominence over him.
Bennett has since underlined his superiority over both riders, winning two stages plus the points jersey at last year's Tour de France, and has been welcomed back to the team as the number one sprinter. Both Sagan and Ackermann have disappointed in the past two seasons and are leaving the squad.
“I am very excited about returning to Bora-hansgrohe,” Bennett said in a team announcement on Tuesday. “I had six incredible years with this team and I really feel like I grew up as a pro rider during this period. It was a really difficult decision to leave, but I decided I needed to continue my professional and personal development in a new environment. While some may have questioned my decision at the time, I believe it is the right move for me to return to Bora-hansgrohe.”
Bennett moved to Deceuninck-QuickStep prior to the start of the 2020 and had a very strong first year there, taking those Tour de France successes and winning another five races. He clocked up seven victories this year between February and May, but then suffered a knee injury and missed the Tour de France as a result.
His absence from the Tour coincided with criticism from team manager Patrick Lefevere, who has launched several attacks at Bennett. Lefevere came under strong condemnation in recent days when he claimed Bennett was "the pinnacle of mental weakness," and liked his return to Bora-hansgrohe as "the same as women who still return home after domestic abuse."
The Belgian has been faulted by many for his comments, with those criticising him including an organisation representing abused women plus several long-time journalists and commentators on the sport. There have also been calls for disciplinary action by cycling’s governing body the UCI.
Both Bennett and Bora-hansgrohe have chosen the high ground on the matter by not responding to Lefevere. In Tuesday’s announcement, Bennett instead expressed gratitude to the team he is leaving.
“I have enjoyed two great years at Deceuninck-QuickStep, my boyhood dream team, and have continued my development both on and off the bike whilst making lifelong friendships. However, I feel ready to go back home to be the team leader that I want to be, and know Bora-hansgrohe also wants me to be. I know the team will have a slightly different roster than when I left, but the core group of people who are responsible for the team’s successful environment remains.
“I am ready to embrace the role of a team leader, to help drive the team forward so we can win together.”
Bora-hansgrohe team manager Ralph Denk said he was "very pleased" that Bennett was returning, talking about their past history, referencing the breakdown in their previous relationship and the rapprochement that has taken place since.
“I’m very pleased that Sam is returning to us. We’ve been together for several years, he turned pro with us and we developed him into one of the best sprinters in the peloton,” he said. “It’s no secret that his departure hurt us a lot at the time. However, I can understand that he felt that step was important for his career. I’d say that only worked out partially.
“We are a team that places a lot of value on cohesion, respect and sustainable cooperation, as we believe that these are the foundations for long-term success. You can have disagreements sometimes. However, as long as you treat each other with respect, you will always find each other again. That was also the case here.”
Bennett’s new agreement with the team sees him commit to a two-year deal. One factor that will be crucial for his chances of success will be the lead out riders who will help haul back breakaway riders and help position him optimally before the sprint starts. Deceuninck-QuickStep is widely regarded as having the best sprint train in cycling and there was some concern that Bennett’s move away from that team may impact his chances.
Bora-hansgrohe often fell short in the past when trying to position him, with the lead out running out of steam before the final sprint. However, the squad announced three signings on Tuesday which, when combined to the riders already on the roster, it believes will help make the difference. One of those is another Irishman, Ryan Mullen, who has competed for the past four seasons with the Trek-Segafredo squad. Mullen is a time trial specialist who has the strength to drive the peloton for sustained periods of time, and also to ramp up the speed approaching the final kilometre.
Mullen described the move as ‘a new chapter’ in his career and a challenge he was looking forward to. “I’m pulling on the Bora-hansgrohe jersey with even more motivation and hunger for racing success in the upcoming years. There’s some amazing talent within the team already and I’m really looking forward to joining them and getting stuck in.”
The other two signings confirmed on Tuesday are the Dutch sprinter Danny van Poppel, who won a stage in the 2015 Vuelta a España, and the Kiwi Shane Archbold. The latter has competed alongside Bennett for much of his pro career, being an important part of his lead-out train, and will move across with him from Deceuninck-QuickStep.
Bennett summarised their abilities and said that their signings gave him confidence. "Ryan Mullen has always impressed me with his strength when we raced together for Ireland. Shane Archbold is one of the world's best and most experienced lead out men and a rider whose knowledge of bunch sprinting is only surpassed by his own sprint speed. He is the rider I have raced alongside the most even before my pro career.
“It goes without saying that Danny van Poppel is an immensely successful sprinter himself and it is rare in cycling for a rider to be so capable of reading a race that he never finds himself out of position even in the most competitive bunch sprints. The four of us have different strengths and we believe the amalgamation of our skills will make for a very competitive sprint train.”
Bennett is thought almost certain to miss the upcoming Vuelta a España. It is not clear when, or indeed if, he will race again with Deceuninck-QuickStep. Lefevere had previously threatened to bench him and dock him pay, something which would presumably lead to legal action being taken by Bennett and his agent.
The Carrick-on-Suir rider said on Tuesday that he is still recovering from his knee problem but expressed optimism that he will return to form soon.
“Currently I am still dealing with the knee injury which forced me to miss the Tour de France,” he said. “But I am confident I will overcome this small setback and get back to where I want to be soon: winning races. Injuries are part of life, I’ve had them before and have overcome them, this is just another hurdle to conquer on life’s journey.”