Let’s compare two sprinters from the same team: One has taken stages at every race he’s ridden this season, three of which were at WorldTour level; the other has had what could be generously described as a so-so start, generally up there but some way off the pace. One of these two is guaranteed a Grand Tour start; the other will be earning his crust at the Hammer Stavanger and Ride London Classic.
Much has been made of Bora-Hansgrohe’s decision to leave last year’s triple Giro stage winner Sam Bennett out of the squad for this year’s race, in favour of Pascal Ackermann. The call raised eyebrows back in December; since the season has started it’s seemed borderline bonkers.
This is not, however, an entreaty for Bora to reverse that decision. Although Bennett is indeed the first sprinter described in the opening paragraph, Ackermann is not the second.
Both riders have been working to different programmes and it would be a massive disruption to both to switch it round now. Besides, just as people ought to keep their promises, teams should too.
Based on his form this season it does still look like a major gamble to throw the German champion into the Corsa Rosa – he’s not beaten even one of Eli Viviani, Arnaud Démare, Caleb Ewan, or Fernando Gaviria this season, so it’s nigh impossible to imagine him overcoming all four in a shoot-out – but at the moment it’s looking like a bigger risk to take Peter Sagan to the Tour de France instead.
Which is not to say they shouldn’t. They have to. He’s Peter Sagan. Top five finishes in De Ronde and Roubaix is hardly a Kittel-esque collapse in form. If he doesn’t win a stage, he’ll probably bring home the points jersey. Even if he can’t manage that, he’s still guaranteed to get more attention and provide more value to sponsors than the rest of the team put together.
But Sam Bennett is, undeniably, one of the best sprinters in the world, having the season of his life. At the UAE Tour he beat three of the four riders above, plus Alexander Kristoff; Paris-Nice saw him take two stages, outclassing all of those plus another former Champs (Élysées) champ, Dylan Groenewegen.
Last week’s Tour of Turkey was an enthralling battle between Bennett and Ewan, with each taking home two stages a-piece. Lotto Soudal promised the latter the sprint slot at the Tour when they signed him last year, so how can Bora-Hansgrohe not think Bennett worthy of at least joint top billing with Sagan? They work well together, clearly get on, and are different enough riders to multiply, not reduce the team’s options.
Although his displeasure at his employer’s decision was widely known, Sam Bennett is a professional, not a pram toy-thrower. He’s also been at Bora for most of his career, has good relationships with the management, and appreciates the opportunities he’s been given.
When I spoke with him after Milan-Sanremo he didn’t seem downhearted. Instead he sounded relaxed, reflective and resigned to getting on with his season:
“We just have to stay professional, look at our own individual targets and goals and get the best out of ourselves. For me personally, I’m not even thinking about anything that’s off my plan. I’m just looking at my next race, trying to win whenever I can and take every opportunity that comes my way. Yeah I was disappointed but the world isn’t… I’m an adult and a professional and I have to approach it professionally.”
It bears pointing out, however, that he’s also given Bora-Hansgrohe more wins than any other rider in their history – including Sagan. Although he does deserve a Tour spot, that’s not what it’s about. He’s earned it.