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Tour de France

Lost Boys: Nacer Bouhanni – Fighting a roughhouse image

Bouhanni abandoned the Tour in the stage through Andorra after crashing hard two days previously.

Throughout the Tour de France, former VeloNews editor John Wilcockson is profiling the unlucky riders who are forced to abandon, either due to injury, exhaustion, or bad luck.

Imagine for a moment that you are Nacer Bouhanni.

You’re a pure sprinter who has started the Tour de France four times in search of a stage win. You’ve won 69 races in your career, but still nothing at the Tour. You were the French national champion in 2012 at age 21, out-sprinting no less a rider than Arnaud Démare. But you get no respect. In fact, you frequently get insults thrown at you. You’ve been DQ’d for dangerous maneuvers in mass-sprint finishes. And you’ve been racially abused on social media because your parents are Algerian and you’re a practicing Muslim.

That’s a lot of tough stuff to face in life without also having to overcome the severe challenges you face in the Tour de France.

But Bouhanni is a fighter. His sport of preference before cycling was boxing. And he can still slug it out in the gym. He was accused of roughhouse tactics at the Cholet-Pays de la Loire race this spring that forced British sprinter Jake Stewart into the barriers. Bouhanni admitted his misdemeanor but said the move was not intentional. The viral video of that sprint triggered racist insults.

A few days later, talking to L’Équipe, Bouhanni said he’d been abused throughout his career, but did not mention it before because racism remains a “taboo” subject and he didn’t want to appear to be a victim. Asked whether he experienced racist attitudes in the peloton, Bouhanni said “never directly,” and he’s not had to deal with such issues in the teams he’s raced with.

Riding his first Tour in four years, he knew that with his new team, second-tier Arkéa-Samsic, he would have to be at his very best to beat sprinters from the WorldTour squads. And he started very well. In the first four field sprints, Bouhanni was third at Pontivy (after Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan crashed), second at Fougères (behind Mark Cavendish), third at Châteauroux (behind Cavendish and Jasper Philipsen) and fourth at Valence (behind Cavendish, Wout Van Aert and Philipsen).

With performances such as these, Bouhanni could feel confident that he had a chance of winning a Tour stage – maybe even in Paris. That would go with the three stages he has won at both the Giro and Vuelta. But he first had to focus on stage 13, the one that finished in Carcassonne last Friday; that plan ended when he was involved in the mass pileup on a gravel-strewn descent some 60 kilometers from the finish. Bouhanni badly bruised some vertebrae and suffered burns to his knees, hands and buttocks. Three riders couldn’t continue, and others involved in the crash finished the stage up to 16 minutes back. Not Bouhanni. He bravely fought his way back to the peloton and even managed to get involved in the sprint – finishing 11th.

Two other victims did not start the next day, including Bouhanni’s teammate Warren Barguil. But the banged-up sprinter didn’t want to stop. Although he was facing four mountain stages before the chance of another sprint, he was ready to face stage 14, with its five categorized climbs. “I was dropped from the start,” he said, “with two other riders [Amund Grøndahl Jansen and Cees Bol].” They rode together for 183.7 kilometers, arriving in Quillan 36:46 after stage winner Bauke Mollema.

On Sunday’s stage 15 to Andorra, even though a rest day beckoned, Bouhanni was left behind as soon as the early attacks began. “I didn’t want to get dropped,” he said.” I went as deep as I could.” He chased alone for almost two hours until it became clear there was no chance of survival. Still only 30, Bouhanni’s dream of winning the sprint on the Champs-Élysées will have to wait another year.

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The Tour’s Lost Boys: In the first week 19 riders dropped out; another 20 left the race by the second rest day, making a total of 39 abandons (see “Into the Third Week: Another 20 Lost Boys”). On stage 17, Steven Kruijswijk of Jumbo-Visma, who started feeling ill on the second rest day, was dropped early in the stage and climbed off. And two riders did not start stage 19: Michael Woods of Israel Start-Up Nation (now on his way to Tokyo to lead the three-man Canadian team in the Olympic road race) and Miguel Ángel López of Movistar (an alternate for the Colombian Olympic team hoping to ride the road race). So, the Tour’s 184-strong starting field has been reduced to 142.