Sprint finishes at the Giro d'Italia have a reputation for being technical affairs and even on the race's excursion to Ireland, there was a finale worthy of the bel paese, with a sharp corner placed just 300 metres from the end of stage 2 in Belfast.
Mercifully, in spite of the rain that bathed the road, there were no fallers in the finale, but that corner still proved fatal to Nacer Bouhanni's chances. The FDJ.fr man appeared well-positioned entering the last turn, but when the Orica-GreenEdge train slowed to ensure that Michael Matthews negotiated the corner safely to claim the pink jersey, he suddenly found himself exposed in second position.
Bouhanni was left with little choice but to open his sprint from distance, a tactic wholly at odds with his punchy style, and although he put up fierce resistance, his strength abandoned him in the final 100 metres, and he had to settle for a distant second place behind Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano).
"I launched my sprint from too far out but I had no choice because I was in second position," Bouhanni said. "GreenEdge slowed a bit, so I had to go with 300 metres left and I faded completely in the end. In the last 50 metres I had no more force left," Bouhanni said at the finish after his soigneur had helped him into a long-sleeve jersey ahead of his ride to the team bus.
"Kittel was stronger than me and when I went from 300 metres to go, he was able to come up from behind and go past me. He was stronger today, so we'll see tomorrow."
Saturday's opening road stage brought the Giro peloton northwards to the Giant's Causeway and along the country Antrim coast under dark clouds like falling masonry as local poet Louis MacNeice would have put it. Bouhanni said that racing for five hours wrapped against the cold and buffeted by the wind and rain had taking its toll. "It was tough out there. 200 kilometres long with rain for almost all of the stage, so we were all tired when it came down to the sprint."
That fatigue perhaps explained the confusion that reigned in the closing kilometres, with even the ever reliable Giant-Shimano team of Kittel struggling to keep a tight rein on affairs and Bouhanni, too, was left with limited support. "It was very fast in the finale and a bit disorganised too. We lost track of one another a bit but we managed to keep three guys with me all the same," he said.
Turning the page
Bouhanni opened last year's Giro with a third place finish on the opening road stage but never managed to get the better of Mark Cavendish in the bunch finishes before he abandoned to prepare for the Tour de France. Like the rest of the sprinting fraternity, he will hope that Kittel does not match Cavendish's dominance of twelve months ago.
"Cavendish is more explosive than Kittel but then Kittel is a guy who can make very long sprints. They're two great sprinters, but in the finale, I'm concentrated on my own sprint rather than basing it around them," Bouhanni told Cyclingnews on the eve of the Giro.
The former French champion arrives at this Giro with five wins to his name already this season but also, perhaps, with something of a point to prove after he was left out of FDJ.fr's line-up for Milan-San Remo in favour of Arnaud Démare. Bouhanni's contract expires at the end of this season and the 23-year-old would not be lacking in suitors if he opted to take his services elsewhere.
"It's true, I would have liked to have done Milan-San Remo earlier in the season, but I've turned the page since then and I'm just looking forward to the races coming up, and this Giro especially," Bouhanni said, adding that he hoped to earn selection for the Tour de France in July. "Of course, I want to be there, especially because it passes near my home in the Vosges but for now I'm just thinking about the Giro."