France has a fine young generation of sprinters coming up, as became clear last Sunday at the national championship road race in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux. FDJ-Big Mat dominated the race, first by working hard to take it to a bunch sprint finish and then by delivering its two best sprinters, Arnaud Démare and Nacer Bouhanni, to a one-two placing.
While U23 world champion Démare (20) has already gained some notoriety, Bouhanni (21) is still less known by the general public - this, however, will change now that he has surprisingly crowned himself French champion just a few centimetres in front of his teammate. FDJ manager Marc Madiot gave both sprinters the chance to prove themselves in the national road race, and Bouhanni just happened to be a tad better on the day than Démare, who may have launched his sprint too early.
Needless to say, the second place felt bittersweet for Démare, and the rivalry between the two sprinters is evident. "It's a personal disappointment and a collective joy at the same time," Démare told L'Equipe. "Nacer was the strongest today."
The podium was rounded out by Cofidis' Adrien Petit (21), who last year came second at the U23 Worlds behind Démare. The three of them represent the youngest podium at the French national championships in history, and Bouhanni is the youngest French champion since World War II.
"I can't believe it. I win the French championship and I'm not even 22 years old," he said. "It's great that we have such a young podium. We are three upcoming sprinters and I hope we'll continue in this way."
Bouhanni has respect for elder and more experienced sprinters, but he's not afraid to make himself known. After the first stage of the 2011 Tour of Turkey, when Alessandro Petacchi punched Bouhanni in the back during the sprint, the Frenchman made it clear to the Italian that he'd better not mess with him: Bouhanni is a boxer during the off-season.
"He knows how to make himself respected," said Madiot about his rider. "Petacchi came to him and apologised." Neither Bouhanni nor Démare will ride the Tour de France this year, but while Démare made his first experiences of a Grand Tour in the Giro d'Italia this spring - and is pre-selected for the Olympic Games - Bouhanni is scheduled to ride the Vuelta a Espana later this season.
"There is space for both of them at our team," assured Madiot. "For this season and for a long time if they want." Indeed, although in their first year at FDJ, both riders have extended their contracts with the squad until the end of 2014.