Nacer Bouhanni’s two most significant results at the Vuelta a España were not his brace of sprint victories but his surprisingly strong showings on the hilltop finales at Arcos de la Frontera and Obregon.
His 8th place finish in the uphill sprint on stage 3 suggested that he might yet force his way into French coach Bernard Bourreau’s plans. Fifth place on a second category climb at Obregon a week later – ahead of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, no less – confirmed Bouhanni’s seat on the plane to Ponferrada.
“The Ponferrada circuit is demanding, but a sprinter in good condition who gets over the climbs can go all the way. That’s why it was important to put Nacer Bouhanni in our team,” Bourreau said last week. “Having that option frees the others tactically and they can try their luck. But if he’s still there in the finale, we’ll do everything for Nacer.”
In theory, then, Romain Bardet, Sylvain Chavanel and Tony Gallopin will all have the freedom to go on the offensive for les bleus. In practice, however, French hopes of a first medallist since Anthony Geslin in Madrid nine years ago would appear to rest squarely on the shoulders of Bouhanni.
When the Ponferrada course was first unveiled, the word was that it would suit a fast man with the ability to survive on the climbs. Peter Sagan’s name was the one on everybody’s lips, and as 2014 drew on, so too did John Degenkolb and Michael Matthews’ prospects gain currency.
At first glance, Bouhanni does not appear to have the same pedigree as that trio when it comes to winning from select groups at the end of tough races, but a closer analysis of his back catalogue demonstrates that the 24-year-old’s climbing ability is by no means a recent development.
As an amateur, for instance, Bouhanni built a reputation as a finisseur in uphill finishes, and since turning professional, his training regimen has always featured far more climbing than one might normally expect of a blossoming sprinter – his coach Jacques Decrion has long been convinced that the Frenchman is a prospective Milan-San Remo winner and perhaps even a contender at Amstel Gold Race.
The FDJ fallout
Bouhanni has shown flashes of that climbing ability as his professional career has progressed – not least on the opening stage of this year’s the Route du Sud, which finished on the lower slopes of the Col d’Aspin – but his opportunities to show his mettle over 250 kilometres have been limited at FDJ.fr due to his internal rivalry with Arnaud Démare.
When FDJ opted to select Démare ahead of Bouhanni for Milan-San Remo – and, indeed, the entire classics campaign – in 2014, as well as the Tour de France, it precipitated Bouhanni’s decision to switch to Cofidis for next season. Ironically, Démare was also the man who got the nod ahead of Bouhanni for the sprinter’s berth on the French under-23 team at the world championships in 2010, when Matthews beat Degenkolb on the uphill finish in Geelong.
The decision came about in part because Bouhanni had spectacularly failed to dovetail his efforts with Démare in the finale of the European championships in Ankara earlier in the summer. They finished 4th and 3rd, respectively, and an annoyed Bourreau – then at the head of the French espoirs set-up – eventually decreed that Bouhanni was surplus to requirements for the trip to Australia.
That Bourreau is now willing to build the French elite team around Bouhanni speaks to his willingness to forgive and forget, which is more than can be said for FDJ.fr manager Marc Madiot. When Bouhanni vented some of the frustrations that had built up over his four years at FDJ in a recent interview with L’Équipe, Madiot responded by pulling him for the roster for the remainder of the season, meaning that he could not ride the Tour du Doubs and GP d’Isbergues in preparation for the Worlds, in spite of the entreaties of the national team coach on his behalf.
“He [Madiot] called me straight after his discussion with Bouhanni. He was quite furious,” Bourreau told RMC. “I let some time go by and I called him back with a clear head, but that didn’t change things. It’s annoying but we’ll have to manage. Nacer is an important part of the French team.”
That L’Équipe interview aside, Bouhanni has been carefully diplomatic in his public utterances on Madiot’s management this season, but one senses that, if anything, his absence from FDJ’s roster this week has only deepened his motivation to perform in Ponferrada next Sunday.
In the longer term, these championships are also an important audition for Bouhanni’s future with the French national team. Démare, too, will have designs on leadership at the Worlds in Richmond and Qatar, and given their previous history, it seems extremely unlikely that the pair will line up side by side in Doha in 2016, for instance. And while Bouhanni has his lead-out man Geoffrey Soupe for company in Ponferrada – he also moves to Cofidis next year – he will also have to find common ground with hitherto rivals within the often complex group dynamic of the French national team.
The stakes are perhaps higher than they seem, then, for Bouhanni as he sets out for north-western Spain this week. But considering the obstacles he has overcome just to make it this far, the climbs of the Alto de Montearenas and the Alto de Compostilla might not hold so much fear for the Épinal native.