A couple of years ago you wouldn't have predicted a stage win at the 4 Jours de Dunkerque would hold such significance for Nacer Bouhanni's (Cofidis) career, but the Frenchman put his torrid season back on the rails with victory on stage 3 on Thursday.
It was Bouhanni's first win of 2018, a statistic that doesn't quite tell the story of just how miserable these last few months have been. Under new management, with Cedric Vasseur replacing Yvon Sanquer at the helm, Bouhanni has seen his leadership status diminish, with a stripped-back lead-out train and opportunities offered to teammates.
The management had seemingly lost faith in Bouhanni's abilities after he abandoned Paris-Nice, the Volta a Catalunya, Circuit Sarthe, and Eschborn-Frankfurt. It was in Frankfurt that tensions flared, with a heated altercation reported between Bouhanni and new DS Roberto Damiani, who made the call not to send riders back for Bouhanni when he was dropped.
Vasseur then told Cyclingnews that Bouhanni's Tour de France spot was at risk and that he needed to see "mental and physical improvements" and, most importantly, a victory.
That was delivered on Thursday where Bouhanni, after two stages of mistimed efforts, won convincingly in Dunkerque after a strong lead-out from Geoffrey Soupe.
"It's a big relief, on a personal level," said Bouhanni. "I've had a really difficult time since the start of the season. Above all mentally, it's been very hard for me since the start of the year. So to win here, it means a lot.
"In races I've never needed anyone to put pressure on me," he added, according to L'Equipe. "I'm not interested in spreading propaganda, either. I let people say what they had to say about me, without responding. I just had it in a corner of my mind that I'd respond with my legs. I know the game and I don't expect gifts from anyone. For months I've taken it on the chin, but it's the most difficult period I've experienced since I turned pro. I wouldn't wish anyone to go through that."
Writing on Twitter, Bouhanni later added: "I want to thank my family and friends who supported me during these past weeks, my teammates who did a great job to set me up for this victory, the people who support me all-year round, from near or far, who never stopped showing me affection and encouragement during those long weeks. From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU."
Bouhanni can now look ahead with optimism. There are three stages left in Dunkerque, of which one is almost certain to end in a bunch sprint. After that he has the Critérium du Dauphiné and national championships in June to seal that Tour de France spot.
"The important thing was always seeing Nacer win again," said Cofidis DS Alain Deloeuil, according to L'Equipe. "For sure he'd had a rough time since the start of the season because success wasn't there.
"This victory is going to give him that confidence back, and that's what we wanted him to rediscover. I hope this victory will liberate a lot of things in him."
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