With cars barred, officially at least, from driving on the circuit in Ponferrada on Thursday morning, French national coach Bernard Bourreau opted to take a final look at the World Championships by bike in the company of his riders.
It was less a fact-finding mission than a confirmation of the impressions Bourreau had formed from his reconnaissance of the course earlier in the year. The circuit is one that seems to defy read definition: the climbs of Confederacion and Mirador seem neither too difficult for the fast man nor hard enough for the climbers, a selective race is anticipated all the same.
"That long descent between the two climbs is going to stretch out the peloton and that's going to make the race hard. It's not so much the climbs or the difficulty of the climbs that will make the selection as the speed of the race itself," Bourreau told Cyclingnews.
The nature of the Ponferrada course suggests a race that will be exceedingly difficult to control, and Bourreau reckons that establishing a tactical approach in minute detail beforehand might prove to be redundant. His line-up is replete with aggressive riders, including Romain Bardet, Sylvain Chavanel and Tony Gallopin, and the hope is that a Frenchman will be present in every major move.
"We've put together a complete team and one that's on form. That's the first criterion for selection," Bourreau said. "We'll see what the circumstances of the race are. I think it's going to be difficult to create a strategy beforehand, because so much will depend on the how the race unfolds and on simply following the attacks. You need to have a lot of options in your team but there are no certainties on this circuit."
France's most discussed option, of course, is Nacer Bouhanni, who was so impressive at the Vuelta a España, not only in landing two sprint victories, but also in performing so strongly on two summit finishes, at Arcos de la Frontera and Obregon.
Bouhanni's ability to withstand the heat when the road tilts upwards should come as no surprise to Bourreau. He was, after all, the Bouhanni's coach in the French underage set-up, but he admitted that the fast man was not part of his initial plans for Ponferrada. Considering the quality of his showing at the Vuelta, however, Bourreau simply could not overlook him.
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"It was the Vuelta that convinced me to bring a sprinter because before that I wasn't too sure about it. Initially I wasn't certain that I had a sprinter who could get over such difficult climbs but it was the Vuelta that persuaded me," he said. "Nacer's proved that he's on form, so he's an option here, for sure. If it finishes in a sprint and he's up there, we'll have a card to play."
Bouhanni made headlines in the build-up to these Worlds not just for his fine form, but for his very public falling out with FDJ.fr management. Already bound for Cofidis in 2015, Bouhanni stoked Marc Madiot's ire when he bemoaned his omission from FDJ's Tour de France team in a recent interview with L'Équipe. Madiot's response was to withhold Bouhanni from racing for the remainder of his time at FDJ.
After abandoning the Vuelta, Bouhanni was forced to miss the Tour du Doubs and GP d'Isbergues, and although he augmented his training last weekend with an appearance in a cyclo-cross race in Remiremont, near his home in the Vosges, Bourreau conceded that his build-up has been far from ideal.
"It's a problem, of course it's a problem, but what can I do?" Bourreau said, not without a hint of frustration. "I'm not going to accuse one or the other. It's unfortunate for Nacer's preparation but he's compensated with his training. He's someone who's very courageous, he's a self-reliant guy and he has done everything to be on top form here. And we'll see on Sunday how that's worked out."
Bridging the gap
Under Bourreau's stewardship, France has been a dominant force in World Championships at junior and under-23 level in recent years, but that success has not translated to professional level. It remains to be seen whether that changes with Bourreau's elevation to the elite ranks, although it should also be noted that, historically, France has tended to underachieve at the Worlds.
France has won has won "only" eight professional world titles, good enough for third on the all-time table, but far behind Italy (19) and Belgium (26), and hardly commensurate with the talent the country has produced over the years. When the Worlds was in its late August date, one theory was that French riders arrived exhausted from a month of post-Tour de France criteriums, but the record has been even less encouraging since the race shifted dates in 1995.
This year's Spanish Worlds seems something of an augury, however. France's last medal came in Madrid in 2005, when Anthony Geslin claimed bronze, while the last French world champion was Laurent Brochard in San Sebastian in 1997. Each man surprisingly emerged on courses where, like Ponferrada, the list of potential winners was a lengthy one.
"We all know who the main contenders on Sunday are – guys like Valverde, Cancellara and Sagan – but the winner could be another," Bourreau said. "There are maybe 50 or 60 very good riders here who could be world champion. It's not always reserved for the super favourites of the moment."