Patrick Lefevere at the Grote Prijs Vermarc Sport in 2020.

As Deceuninck-QuickStep announced a change in plans for the Tour de France on Monday, team manager Patrick Lefevere was openly questioning and criticizing one of his own team’s biggest stars in the Belgian press.

Shortly after the squad announced the surprising news that Mark Cavendish would be making a Tour de France start in place of Sam Bennett due to a knee injury Bennett recently sustained, team manager Patrick Lefevere publicly expressed doubts about the severity of that injury.

“I cannot prove that he does not have knee pain, but I am starting to think more and more that it is more fear of failure than just pain,” Lefevere told Sporza. “Yesterday he had to come to Belgium, but then there were problems with his plane again. Then you start to think strange things.”

What did Lefevere say?

According to Sporza, Lefevere said that he was wondering if it was “performance anxiety” that was driving Bennett’s decision to pull out of the Tour, and accused Bennett of being dishonest over the past few weeks.

“Three days before the Tour of Belgium, he bumped his knee against his handlebars. He didn’t tell us about that. When he arrived, we sent him home again. Then it was a yes-no game: To train or not to train?” Lefevere said.

“I cannot prove that he does not have knee pain, but I am starting to think more and more that it is more fear of failure than just pain. Yesterday he had to come to Belgium, but then there were problems with his plane again. Then you start to think strange things. He’ll have to come anyway. I’m not going to let this pass.”

According to Het Laatste Nieuws, Lefevere said that Bennett had given mixed messages about his situation.

“We had asked him to rest. Behind our backs, he turns out to have gone to a physiotherapist in Monaco, who said he could train better. Some kind of miracle man, you know,” Lefevere said.

“We thought Sam Bennett was on the right track. Then it turns out that he has told us anything but the truth. He said three different things to three different people on the squad. That’s not the way it’s played. It’s bad that a 30-year-old guy doesn’t dare to tell the truth.”

For his part, Bennett posted a statement on Twitter on Monday saying that “sometimes life throws you a curveball” and again pointing to his knee injury as the reason for his absence from the Tour.

“A couple of weeks ago in training, I had a really minor injury that I simply couldn’t heal in time to be at my best for this year’s Tour de France,” he said. “The race, and the Wolfpack, deserve me at my very best.”

How did we get here?

Lefevere’s sharply critical comments of the Irish sprinting star are just another twist in a story that has seen conflicting reports about Bennett’s readiness for the Tour dating back to early June, when he was scratched from a planned start at the Baloise Belgium Tour.

The team announced on June 9 that Bennett had suffered a knee injury in training and that Cavendish would replace him in the Belgian stage race, and the 36-year-old Manxman would go on to win the final stage of the race.

Shortly thereafter, reports emerged that Bennett might not be ready for the Tour, and that Cavendish could replace him. Initially, Cavendish was reported as preferring not to race the Tour on his current salary, but he told the Telegraph that he would be interested in making the start should Bennett not be available.

On Friday, Cyclingnews reported that Bennett would be headed to the Tour after all, leaving no room for Cavendish. On Monday, Deceuninck-QuickStep announced a change in plans: Bennett would miss the Tour, and Cavendish would make the start as the team’s sprint leader.

As such, Bennett will not be defending his green jersey or hunting for his third career Tour stage win in the weeks ahead. His successful 2020 Tour campaign will therefore end up as his only Tour start as a member of Deceuninck-QuickStep as well; his contract is up at the end of this season, and he is reportedly heading elsewhere next year.

Lefevere responded to questions about Bennett’s impending departure and its possible connection to his Tour absence in his comments on Monday, although Lefevere’s statements implied that if Bennett’s future transfer had anything to do with him missing the Tour, it was not because of decisions made on Deceuninck-QuickStep’s end.

“If that’s the case, that would say a lot about him, after all I’ve done for him,” Lefevere said. “I’ve even paid advances of fines to pay his fine at Bora. If you treat me like that, it says a lot.”

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