The feud between Sam Bennett and his Deceuninck-QuickStep team boss Patrick Lefevere has escalated after the sprinter, who has not raced since May, was named in Ireland's team for this weekend's European Championships road race.
Lefevere has initiated the process of slashing Bennett's wages in half and now appears to be arming himself for a legal dispute with his rider.
"What he's doing now is playing with my balls in public," Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad (opens in new tab), the newspaper in which he has used his weekly column to publicly criticise Bennett in recent months.
Bennett had a storming first season at the Belgian team in 2020 but relations quickly soured this year ahead of the Tour de France, when Bennett suffered a knee injury but Lefevere suspected it was more of a "fear of failure".
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Three months on, and with Bennett having negotiated a transfer back to his old team Bora-Hansgrohe for 2022, that injury continues to be a source of mystery and controversy.
Lefevere claims Bennett has not communicated properly with the team about his condition, and was up in arms when he learned Bennett will be racing for Ireland in an elite competition.
"Apparently all the tricks of the trade are at work," Lefevere said, before sarcastically questioning why Bennett is doing the hilly Trento race on Sunday. "A course with four thousand metres of elevation..."
The suspicion for Lefevere seems to be that this is a response from Bennett and his agent to being informed that his pay would be halved from September, which is provided for under UCI regulations if a rider has been inactive for three months. Lefevere first issued the threat at the Tour de France and has now confirmed he has begun the process.
"Anyone who knows me knows that I never do that [cut pay]. I continued to pay [Fabio] Jakobsen and dozens of other riders in full, despite long injuries," Lefevere said.
"But here the rider acts in bad faith. He no longer uploads training files. He doesn't want to be operated on. And he is crying on the phone with our doctor Philip Jansen."
In the context of a possible legal dispute over wages, Lefevere believes Bennett is using the European Championships to establish that he was indeed fit and available to race for his trade team.
"I hear from his manager Andrew McQuaid that he will definitely finish the European Championship. I'm not so sure about that yet. We have already suggested that we do an exercise test at our Bakala Academy, but he does not go into that. For me it's simple; first prove that you're fit, before you take the place of a teammate."
Lefevere revealed that Bennett has already taken action himself with the UCI, apparently relating to the way he has been treated in the media. Lefevere has used his newspaper column to repeatedly attack Bennett, questioning his mentality and even likening his return to Bora-Hansgrohe - where he broke his contract to join QuickStep in 2020 - to a victim of domestic abuse returning to their partner.
Unlike Lefevere, Bennett has not commented at any stage of the saga, but the Belgian manager is treating his appearance this weekend as a public affront.
"What he's doing now is playing with my balls in public," he said. "He has also already sent a letter to the UCI to denounce that I have tackled him in the media. It will not work. I'm going to take him back until the steam comes out of his ears."
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