Opinion: Read the room, Patrick

Patrick Lefevere
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

As someone who predominantly works within women’s cycling, I don’t know everything about Patrick Lafevere’s background and history within the sport but I do know that when he says something that has gained prominence it's often controversial. 

The Deceuninck Quickstep manager continued to use his column for Het Nieuwsblad to plump for a position as an antagonistic commentator and this weekend’s piece, in particular, contains destructive and insensitive takes on mental health in sport and domestic abuse. 

In other words: Patrick Lefevere has once again misread the room. While the conversation across many sports at the Olympic Games has centered around the importance of athletes’ mental health, Lefevere writes in his latest column: “I’ve never had mentally unstable riders in my team, but there were definitely ‘special ones” before picking off some of his team’s best assets and giving his opinion on their mental state.  

Highlighting the perceived mental weaknesses of your own riders is nothing short of bullying. For a team that goes by the moniker of ‘The Wolfpack’ there’s little unity displayed in the manager’s comments. 

Cycling is a sport that fetishises ‘toughness’, both physical and mental, and this attitude is pervasive within men’s cycling in particular — it’s one of the reasons that there are so few openly gay male riders. Toxic masculinity hurts men, too. The tide is changing slowly, with more riders showing emotion in post-race interviews and speaking out on issues that matter — but that’s something Lefevere clearly doesn’t recognise in his column.  

The rest of the piece is a litany of red flags and problematic statements, but one part, in particular, stands out. In the Deceuninck Quickstep manager’s continued campaign to single out and besmirch Sam Bennett he describes the Irish sprinter, who won the Green jersey for the team at the 2020 Tour de France as: “the pinnacle of mental weakness.” 

Lefevere’s particular issue with Bennett is simply that he is leaving the team at the end of the season. A situation that occurs in every team, every year. To use it as an excuse to publicly shame and bully a rider who is still on the team's books is an act of pettiness. 

And this is where Lefevere oversteps the mark even further. In reference to Bennett’s return to his former team of Bora Hansgrohe, the Belgian says: “Leaving Bora and moaning to everybody about how he was ‘bullied’ and almost broke and depressed. Only to return fourteen months later. It’s the same as women who return home after domestic abuse.” 

From Lefevere’s stab at Bennett’s ‘weakness’ followed by this further comment, it’s clear what his views on women are: In the team manager’s opinion one can sense that to be ‘weak’ and to be compared to a woman are both interchangeable and two of the worst qualities a man can possess. We already know that Lefevere is no Simone de Beauvoir, that much became clear after he leaped to Iljo Keisse’s defence in 2019 for his completely inappropriate actions towards a female fan at the Vuelta a San Juan, speculating that she wanted money. However, this comment displays a complete insensitivity towards a serious issue that is endemic within society and is perpetuated by those with attitudes like Lefevere’s. 

Domestic abuse is not a joke. In England and Wales alone, an average of two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. Those who “return home” to abusive partners do so for myriad complex reasons which sometimes, sadly, results in tragic consequences. According to the Office for National Statistics almost one in three women in the UK aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. In Lefevere’s native Belgium, a country-wide study commissioned by Amnesty International in 2014 found that a quarter of the women surveyed reported having suffered sexual violence at the hands of their partners.

Domestic abuse is a serious issue. It is not a cheap throwaway comment for a cycling team manager to make in his increasingly desperate column. 

Deceuninck-Quickstep might have plenty of wins to their name thanks to Lefevere, but the fact that someone is good at their job is not carte blanche to say and do whatever they like. No matter how many wins the team might have, even by Lefevere’s — admittedly low — standards, a line has been crossed in this column. 

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