Nacer Bouhanni might be at the Critérium du Dauphiné this week, but his mind is on July.
The combative Cofidis sprinter has yet to win a stage at the Tour de France. For sprinters, the Tour is everything. Until you win at a stage there, you’re not considered a big-time sprinter — at least among the egos and fast-twitch legs that inhabit the bunch.
Despite a few high-profile relegations, 26-year-old continues to pick up a steady stream of victories — 56 and counting — including wins at both the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia. But for a French sprinter on a French team, the Tour is the benchmark.
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On Monday at the Dauphiné, he took solace with a third place behind former teammate and rival Arnaud Démare (FDJ). Recovering from a heavy crash in stage 3 at the Tour of Yorkshire in May that momentarily knocked him out, Bouhanni was happy to be back in the mix.
“I was well-positioned with 300m to go, but got caught behind some other riders and had to pass three or four. I was too far out to play for the win,” Bouhanni said. “Third, it’s not the win, but I was in the fight and that’s a good sign.”
A year ago at the Dauphiné, Bouhanni was flying high and things were looking good for the Tour. Cofidis was building its entire Tour team around Bouhanni and a quest to win a stage. He won the opening stage and dedicated the victory to his boyhood idol Muhammad Ali, who had died just days before.
A former boxer, Bouhanni would later get caught up in a controversial altercation at a hotel the night before the 2016 French national championships in late June. A subsequent hand injury would later require surgery and kept him out of the 2016 Tour.
During this Dauphiné, Cofidis is hoping to get its man back to top fitness in time to challenge for the sprints at the Tour. It’s almost like a trainer trying to whip his prizefighter into shape for the big bout. You’d never know that a third place would mean so much.
“After a long period of inactivity, third is a promising result against such a quality field,” said Cofidis manager Yvon Sanquer. “We knew coming into this Dauphiné we would have to take it step by step. The results of the first two days are really positive.”
It’s been a long wait for France to win a Tour de France in a bunch sprint with a French rider. In fact, the last one was Jimmy Casper, all the way back in 2006 in Strasbourg.
These days, France boasts a bounty of promising sprint talent as part of a larger French renaissance playing out across the peloton. Along with Bouhanni and Milano-Sanremo winner Démare, there is Bryan Couquard (Direct Energie), who registered two top-three placings in last year’s Tour, and, on certain finales, Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors).
The pressure is on Bouhanni, who’s been the most successful in grand tours among this latest generation, to deliver in the Tour. So far, he’s had a rough time in cycling’s top race, where the top sprinters line up in top form. In fact, he’s never really had a chance to show his stuff in the bunch sprints in July.
In his 2013 debut, he fell ill and didn’t make it past stage 6. In 2014, his then-FDJ team sent him to the Giro and Vuelta, where he won a combined five stages and the Giro’s points jersey, to announce his arrival as a force in the mass gallops. His highly anticipated Tour return in 2015 fell short. His best was sixth in stage 4 before he crashed out early in the next stage.
Cofidis is sticking by its man. In March, the team confirmed that Bouhanni would be staying with the French outfit through 2019. And the team is once again planning on bringing a squad to deliver Bouhanni a stage victory in July. Now it’s hoping to get him into fighting shape.
“I am not promising anything,” Bouhanni said of upcoming sprint stages at the Dauphiné. “The most important is to start feeling good again and regain good sensations. I am in decent shape, but not yet in top condition.”