Since stepping into the role of team manager at Cofidis, Cedric Vasseur has wasted little time in trying to improve his star rider Nacer Bouhanni. The former Tour de France yellow jersey has remodelled the sprinter’s early-season race programme, brought in the experienced directeur sportif Roberto Damiani and helped build up Bouhanni’s often brittle confidence.
Bouhanni, a five-time Grand Tour stage winner in 2014, has only shown glimpses of his ability since a big money move to Cofidis at the start of the 2015 campaign. Vasseur, who rode with a number of high-profile riders in his days at Gan, Cofidis, US Postal, and Quick-Step, has made no secret of developing Cofidis into more than a one-man team, and at the Dubai Tour, the French team has been present in several early breaks. A stage at the Etoile de Bessèges - courtesy of Christophe Laporte - last week saw Cofidis open their account for the season. Vasseur hopes that if the rest of the team can chip in with victories Bouhanni will not feel a burden of expectation, as he has in the past.
“What was important was to start with a good attitude, rather than the idea of chasing the first win of the season. However, it’s always very pleasing for everyone on the team for us to say that after just a few days of racing we have already won a race. That’s gives confidence and it also takes away some of the pressure,” Vasseur told Cyclingnews.
The former Tour de France stage winner admits that Bouhanni was sceptical of his appointment and approach at the start back in October. But, the two worked on their relationship during two winter training camps, with Vasseur eventually building enough trust for Bouhanni to buy into his philosophy.
“The relationship is good. When Nacer learned that I was coming to the team, he didn’t really know me other than my television work,” explained Vasseur. “At the beginning, of course, he wasn’t that open to talking but we had a good camp in December and another good one in January, where I explained what I was expecting from him during the season. I told him how I would try and help him reach his best level because that’s the most important thing.
“At the beginning, we didn’t really have the same view on his 2018 season, but once we talked more about why he had to do Dubai, Oman, and Paris-Nice in order to be in top shape for Milan-San Remo he started to really open up. He needs confidence and it was lost over the last few years, so I think he’s starting the season in a good mental way. I’ve helped him to see that having other possibilities for winning in the team, like Laporte going to Paris-Nice is also good for Nacer.”
Thinking outside the box
The appointment of Damiani could be crucial in any form of success Bouhanni and the rest of the team has during the season. The Italian is a break from the typical home-grown approach Cofidis have taken with their directeurs in the past. He has worked for Lotto, Lampre, and UnitedHealthcare, and is seen as one of the most respected, if not underrated, individuals in his specific role. His relaxed approach is somewhat different to Bouhanni’s but Vasseur is convinced that the two men can complement each other's skill sets. The two are working together for the first time at the Dubai Tour but will head to the Tour of Oman later in the month. The goal for them is to arrive at Milan-San Remo with Bouhanni in top form, and his lead-out training firing on all cylinders.
“Roberto is the one who can give Nacer what was missing when it comes to winning a race like Milan-San Remo. In the past, he’s been there to win but also missed something,” said Vasseur. “Roberto has helped guys like Alessandro Petacchi win so he knows how to deal with victory. He’s also someone who is quiet and relaxed. That can help Nacer is who has a different personality. That different mental approach, I think, will make a big difference.”
When Vasseur arrived at Cofidis the team’s rider roster for 2018 was virtually complete with no room for additional riders. That said, when the new team boss spotted that Daniel Teklehaimanot was without a contract for 2018, after being dropped by Dimension Data, he couldn’t resist a venture into the market. Teklehaimanot is a rider who Vasseur hopes will inspire the rest of the team to be more aggressive when it comes to making their own opportunities – just as he was during his racing days.
“Daniel is a fighter. He’s someone I really like in terms of how he rides. He’s always going in the breaks and that’s something I appreciate and respect. When I heard he wasn’t with a team, I was one of the first who said we needed to find a way of bringing him to the team," Vasseur told Cyclingnews. "The roster was already complete but we made the effort and we’ve taken him straight to Dubai. He’s going to be a key rider in our team because we want to be more active. We need fighters, we need killers, and Daniel is perfect for that. I think he’s going to inspire the rest of the riders to get in breaks and be more aggressive.”
Vasseur is just a few months into his new role as the team’s manager, and while one stage win doesn’t signal the end to Cofidis’ problems, it at least represents a promising start for the Pro Continental squad. Vasseur is still finding his feet and getting to know his athletes but his hands-on approach is paying off.
“When you’re working with TV the only interaction with the riders is congratulating them when they win. Now you’re in their lives and you know them personally. You get to know their strengths and their weaknesses,” Vasseur said. “That helps me focus on what we need to do with each rider. Each rider has their own personality and some need a more quiet approach, some need more of a push.
“For me, I’m learning little by little but the start we’ve had so far has been pretty good. I’m happy with their behaviour, and their attitudes in Bessèges and in Valencia was really impressive. It’s too early to say that I know everyone perfectly. I still have to learn more about them, and they have to learn more about me. It’s the start but we’re going to grow together.”