In the end, there was only rage for Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) at Milan-San Remo, murderous, doomed rage. 200 metres out, the Frenchman had appeared poised for victory before a a slipped chain ruined his sprint and he came home an incredulous fourth.
On wheeling to a halt a couple of hundred yards past the finish line, the Frenchman unclipped from his bike and flung it against the ground with as much force as he could muster after 300 kilometres of racing. Quite a lot, as it turned out. His Orbea bounced a couple of times before landing in the middle of the road.
The guttural cry of ‘Merde!’ that followed could be heard above all the commotion in the finish area. They could probably hear it all along the Riviera, over the other side of the Turchino and all the way back at the start in Milan.
Bouhanni staggered in a confused semi-circle before seeking out the desolate shade of a crash barrier on the Via Roma. Sitting on the curb, he held his head in his hands, trembling with anger and disappointment.
One thoughtful fan scooped the bike out of harm’s way, away from the oncoming race cars, and propped it against the barrier alongside Bouhanni. Another, braver, tifoso ventured to offer him a consolatory tap on the top of the helmet.
Still attempting to make sense of his dismay, Bouhanni didn’t seem to notice. His disgust could only have been amplified by the fact that the race winner was his former teammate and eternal rival Arnaud Démare (FDJ), who became the first French winner of Milan-San Remo since Laurent Jalabert in 1995.
As if to unable to believe it for himself, Bouhanni remounted his bike and soft-pedalled back towards the finish area, though only after slamming his machine off the ground one more time for good measure.
On arriving back at the Cofidis team bus, parked with the others near the train station, a little later, Bouhanni clambered wordlessly aboard, and by the time reporters arrived on the scene, they found only his shocked team manager, Yvon Sanquer lingering outside, puffing on a cigarette.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Nacer, he’s just arrived at the bus,” Sanquer said. “It seems that he had a mechanical problem when he launched his sprint but we don’t know any more than that.”
After placing sixth on his debut at La Classicissima a year ago – FDJ had pointedly preferred to take Démare to the big Classics during Bouhanni’s spell at the team – Bouhanni arrived in Italy buoyed by a stage win at Paris-Nice last week and tipped by many as a favourite. Certainly, he was more highly-fancied than his one-time stable-mate Démare.
“The whole team worked very well. We took on our responsibility by putting a rider on the front to ride behind the break. We were well-placed for the win,” Sanquer said wistfully.
Indeed, inside the final 200 metres, Bouhanni found himself almost shoulder to shoulder with Démare, a near repeat of their exchanges at the French Championships in 2013 and 2014. On recent form, Bouhanni would doubtless have backed himself, but instead he seemed to slip his chain as he opened his sprint.
Although he managed to reship it once again and re-launch his effort, it was too little, too late. Long before he crossed the line, Bouhanni was already slamming his fist against his handlebars in despair.
“To finish fourth after a mishap like that, it brings a great many regrets,” Sanquer said dolefully, shaking his head when asked if there were any positives to be drawn from the afternoon.
“It’s too soon for that. To miss out on a victory like that, it’s very hard to get over. We’ll have to do that in due time, of course, but right now, the disappointment is winning out over everything else. Afterwards, we can look at the positive things from the day, but right now it’s just very hard to accept.”