Days after announcing the lineup for the race, the team’s head of performance Dan Lorang insisted that the chance to aim for the general classification with Aleksandr Vlasov is the main reason Bennett won’t be there.
While acknowledging that the Irishman hasn’t yet shown the same competitive form which won him two stages and the green jersey in the 2020 Tour, he said that his non-selection does not mean the team has lost faith in the rider.
“Basically, we saw that Alex [Vlasov] is in really good shape this season,” Lorang told VeloNews this week. “The races he won and also, for example, the Tour de Suisse [performance] … before he had to go out of the race [with COVID], he really showed that he’s up there.
“We see a high potential to go for a podium here in the Tour de France, and the Tour de France is the biggest race of the year. Sometimes you have to grab opportunities when they are there. That’s why we decided, OK, let’s try to go for that.”
Vlasov finished fourth in last year’s Giro d’Italia and has impressed in what is his first season with Bora-Hansgrohe. He won the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the Tour de Romandie, was third in La Flèche Wallonne, fourth in the UAE Tour and was leading the Tour de Suisse until he tested positive with COVID and had to leave the race.
Bennett also moved to the team over the winter, rejoining the German squad after a two-year hiatus with Deceuninck-Quick-Step. He is still getting back up to speed after a knee injury last season sidelined him for months, but did pick up victory in Eschborn-Frankfurt in early May.
A more recent competitive appearance at the Baloise Belgium Tour didn’t go quite as planned, though, with fourth on the final stage his best showing in the race.
Lorang has coached the Irishman for years and says he has a lot of faith in Bennett. However with Vlasov going so well, he said that stronger performances were needed to seal his place in the Tour team.
“We talked already about it in the last months. If Sam would have already won a lot of races, I think then for sure the decision-making would have been to rethink [things]. But I think it’s like … you go with the best power possible.
“If you go for GC strategy, then yeah, you need perhaps one rider more to help there. And if on the other side, you don’t really have the big success, it’s quite hard then to nominate Sam.
“But it was a really, really tough decision. It was not like, ‘yeah, it’s clear.’ It was really a lot of discussions of pros and cons. But finally we have to say it’s not a decision against Sam, it’s more a decision for GC, a decision for Alex. We couldn’t expect that [his 2022 season success] coming so fast.
“We will see after the Tour if it is the best decision or not, but for now it seems to be to be the best for Bora-Hansgrohe.”
‘It would have been easier for him to come here to the Tour de France with some victories’
Bennett is in his seventh season with the team. He turned professional with the squad back in 2014 when it was called Team NetApp-Endura, and stayed there until the end of 2019. Lorang has worked closely with him in the past, and Bennett said part of the reason for his move back to the squad was to be reunited with the coach who understands him so well.
He told VeloNews last winter that Lorang knows how to get the best out of him. For his part, Lorang told VeloNews twice this season that he was convinced Bennett would be back to his best for the Tour de France.
He said that most recently toward the end of May. So what has happened since?
“I completely agree we were in a good way, it was really a good build-up with just some small setbacks,” Lorang answers. “The big goal was to win a race in the Tour of Belgium. That didn’t happen and it was, in terms of racing, a setback. Before we always had a good explanation. But then there we didn’t have the [expected] outcome. He really wanted to go out with a way and showing strong performances. This didn’t happen.
“Sam had some races where he felt good, others where he felt not so good. But in training he was already better than he showed it in the races. So that was a little bit unexpected from my side. I thought he could really go for some wins there. Like I also told you months ago, we [all] didn’t achieve it. So it’s not Sam who did not achieve it, we didn’t achieve it and we have to rethink after that.
“For sure it would have been easier for him to come here to the Tour de France with some victories in the pocket. And not only the victories, but also showing that he’s really, really strong. I think then the decision would even be harder, but that was not the case.
“We have to figure out why that is. The season is not over yet so let’s see what is still on.”
Lorang said that not performing as he wished in the Baloise Belgium Tour was frustrating for Bennett. Still, he believes he reacted in the best way to that frustration.
“He dealt quite well with it, because he was really convinced that he could show his best shape in the Tour.”
‘We want to support him as well as possible’
Bennett is a driven, successful athlete and not winning will be both alien to him and hard to accept. Having taken two stages plus the green jersey in the 2020 Tour de France, he was determined to return to the race this season and to take up again where he left off two years ago.
He is motivated to prove a point that he is the same rider as before his injury.
In that context, missing the Tour for the second year in a row is undoubtedly difficult for him. How does Lorang feel he is taking it?
“For sure Sam is really disappointed,” he said. “On one side, on the rational side perhaps, he understands the team [selection] a little bit. But it’s not about rationality, it’s also about emotions, about feelings, about how you see yourself, how you feel that the team sees you. So I guess they have to talk to him.
“But for sure he is disappointed. He really wanted to go to the Tour. And now it didn’t happen, and he has to deal with the situation.”
Bennett has taken setbacks to heart in the past. When he had an injury at the An Post-Sean Kelly team, Kelly and general manager Kurt Bogaerts gave Bennett plenty of encouragement and reassurance, telling him that he could yet make it big in the sport. He has credited them with giving him to self-belief to keep working hard, something which eventually paid off.
He’s older and more successful now, having gained a lot of experience, and will likely be better at moving forward after setbacks.
Still, it hurt last year to miss the Tour, and also because his then-team manager Patrick Lefevere was dismissive of him to the media. Bennett is yet to speak about his non-selection for this year’s big race, but it’s certain he is very disappointed not to be in Copenhagen and about to start.
Given his sensitivity, how will Bora-Hansgrohe ensure Bennett remains as motivated as possible and confident in his abilities?
“Sam is sensitive. It’s not a secret. It’s something we know,” Lorang says. “And for sure, at the moment, we will give him time just to digest this. But we are there for him. And we want to support him as well as possible.
“Like I said, it’s not a decision against him. It’s a decision for a GC result. Hopefully, he really understands it like that. Because we need a strong Sam also to be successful in the upcoming races, and I’m 100% sure that he can really score some nice victories.
“For this we need him with confidence, with the desire to win and also to feel good in the team.”
‘A fully-fit Sam is always a big factor’
Bennett missed the Irish championships to be rested and ready for the Tour de France. Ryan Mullen also did the same, passing up the chance to defend his national time trial and road race titles in the expectation that he would be making his Tour de France debut.
That hasn’t now happened, with Mullen also not selected. Lorang said that a decision was taken to keep the two of them together in their upcoming race program in order to maximize Bennett’s chances of success.
“I think it’s good like that [both not riding – ed.], so they could really show up strong as a team again in the next races. And then also Ryan can help Sam really enormously to get some more victories this year.”
So how far away is Bennett now from his previous best form?
Lorang was certain before that the sprinter would be in tip-top shape for the Tour. The Baloise Belgium Tour complicated things somewhat, in that his training numbers weren’t reflected in the race itself, and it now impossible to know how the Tour would have gone.
But if he is not yet quite at 100 percent, how long does Lorang think it will take for Bennett to get there?
“It’s hard to say because in training he showed already some nice performances,” he explains. “That’s why I don’t think that he needs so much time to be there soon. For sure we have to see what the next goals are and how good he can mentally deal with the situation to not go to the Tour.”
So, with the Tour out of the question this year, is the Vuelta a España a possibility for both Bennett and Mullen?
“I can say nothing at the moment about the next race plan,” he answers. “We have to wait. We will figure out this, and then go out with a new race program for Sam.”
One last question for Lorang.
In announcing the Tour de France lineup, Bora-Hansgrohe said that it is increasingly a team for the general classification. So what does that mean for Bennett’s chances for the future, given that he is a sprinter? Does this new approach make it more complicated for him to have a place in the Tour lineup?
“I think a fully-fit Sam is always a big factor for every team, so that’s why for sure that will be an option,” Lorang answers. “For sure it will be hard to have four riders in a grand tour to help for the lead-out but I am certain that we will find good solutions at the moment Sam is back to winning again.”