Deceuninck-QuickStep team manager Partrick Lefevere has revealed that Sam Bennett’s knee problem could mean he misses the Tour de France, with Mark Cavendish unlikely to replace him unless a new, better paid, contract can be agreed for the rest of the season and for 2022.
World Champion Julian Alaphilippe will have the freedom to ride aggressively at the Tour de France with a large block of the Deceuninck-QuickStep squad built around helping Bennett in the sprints with the aim to repeat last year's two stage wins and victory in the green jersey competition.
However, Bennett was forced to miss the Baloise Belgium Tour and Lefevere is concerned that the Irishman will not recover in time for the start of the Tour de France on June 26. Bennett is expected to leave Deceuninck-QuickStep at the end of the season but was named as the team’s sprinter for the Tour.
Cavendish replaced Bennett for the Baloise Belgium Tour but Lefevere revealed the Manxman logically wanted a better contract if he were to be the team’s lead sprinter and face the pressures and expectations of the Tour de France. Lefevere has secured new sponsorship from Specialized but is still to finalise a new title sponsor for 2022. He has extended the contracts of Alaphilippe, Remco Evenepoel and Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen but turned down a chance to sign Peter Sagan and is still working on his roster for 2022.
He faces some tough decisions before the start of the Tour de France.
“The problem is that he (Bennett) suffers from inflammation of the patellar tendon and that’s a persistent injury,” Lefevere wrote in his weekly column for Belgian newspaper Nieuwsblad.
“We've been through it before with Tom Boonen, Zdenek Stybar and Andrea Bagioli, all of whom even had surgery. Will Sam make the Tour? At the moment we don't know. He has to rest until at least Monday."
Lefevere is convinced that Cavendish has refound his sprinting form but budget restraints could scupper any hope of seeing Cavendish ride the Tour de France, forcing Deceuninck-QuickStep to scrap plans to target the sprint stages. “There is no real plan B as a sprinter,” Lefevere revealed, perhaps again playing his contract negotiation game via his newspaper column.
“I went to dinner with Mark Cavendish on Sunday evening and the question came up: Do you want to do another Grand Tour? Mark replied: ‘Not at this salary, no.’
“That may sound cynical, but I understand his point of view. Mark was 35 years old and joined us at the last minute. At that time, the Tour was totally out of the question. He signed a minimum contract because we had minimal expectations.
"The cards are different now. His level is much better than expected. The Tour of Turkey is only the Tour of Turkey, but he won four stages. Mark was also freewheeling in the Scheldeprijs and in the Elfstedenronde he was at least as fast as Tim Merlier in the sprint on Sunday. Mark still has his speed.
“But I understand him about the Tour de France. For him, that means racing with pressure, under the magnifying glass of the media. If he even comes close to a win, everyone immediately starts talking about Eddy Merckx's record. Merckx has won 34 stages in the Tour, Mark is now at thirty.
“It's not fair to have a rider with a minimum contract as a Deceuninck-QuickStep lead sprinter, with all the pressure and expectations that come with it. I agree with Mark on that. All the more so because we have never been able to offer him a full, uninterrupted (race) programme this year.
“It's something I'm thinking about right now: extending Cavendish for the Tour, on better terms. At least to get that issue out of the way. With the level he has now, Mark wants to continue for at least another year. We're going to at least talk about it together."
Lefevere celebrated Remco Evenepoel’s return to success at the Baloise Belgium Tour after his struggles at the Giro d’Italia and the end of the team’s dry spell. Alaphilippe did not win a stage at the Tour de Suisse and will soon become a father but Lefevere is convinced the Frenchman is on track for the Tour de France.
“Remco Evenepoel put an end to a difficult month for our team on Thursday. Between May 8 and June 10, we didn't win a single race,” Lefevere admitted.
“It’s very unusual and I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me nervous. The animal can't help it, if it doesn't win races, it's not happy.
“I'm pretty sure there won't be another month without wins. Remco has cleared his head in the Tour of Belgium and Julian Alaphilippe will also be fine. In the Tour of Switzerland he has not won for the time being and will not happen again. The plan is to get out of the race today (Saturday) because his baby is normally born on Monday."
“Julian was no match for Mathieu van der Poel in the first stages, but I'm not too worried about that. He will have a problem if the Tour starts tomorrow, but we still have two weeks. I see Julian racing in Switzerland like in last year's Tour: Wild, without consultation, but always à fond. Last year the Tour was his preparation for the World Cup. Now Switzerland is preparing for the Tour.”