French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) bounced back from his troubled season with a vengeance in the Vuelta a España on Thursday, taking his first WorldTour victory since the Volta a Catalunya last year.
At odds with his team management earlier this year in a situation which reached a crisis point following his non-selection for the Tour de France, Bouhanni's victory in stage 6 of the Vuelta was, symbolically enough, taken in difficult racing circumstances as the bunch shattered into echelons in a windswept finale following a crash with 25km to go.
Only 24 hours earlier, Bouhanni was feeling the heat when he finished dead last on the hot and hilly stage 5 amidst strong denials from Cofidis that he had fallen out with his team manager during the stage. He later received a 30-second time penalty, allegedly for a pair of 'sticky bottle' incidents as he struggled in the heat of southern Spain.
The Frenchman's return to victory in a Grand Tour, his first since the Vuelta four years ago, was a timely demonstration that Bouhanni's innate class as a sprinter remains intact.
Bouhanni said he was very motivated to win, particularly following the latest controversy which he claimed had been entirely created by the media. He also pointed out that just as had happened four years ago when he won in Spain, his 2014 victory had come after a very difficult previous stage. Then, as now, he managed to triumph in a day with multiple splits in the peloton.
"They said that I had argued with my director and that's completely false," he said. "But I definitely wanted the win, and I got one four years ago, and I did it again in the echelons, on a tough stage as well. It's amazing that I did it all over again."
Winning in the Vuelta in what was his first Grand Tour of the season was very important, he argued and even more so after a brutal accident in the Tour de Yorkshire in 2017 in which he almost lost his sight, and which had made it very tough for him to continue racing in the short and mid-term.
"I couldn't see properly. I did not have 100 per cent vision. And sometimes, when I was tired, I saw double." Bouhanni told French website Cyclism'Actu at the time.
His sight was finally back to normal after seven months, but in early 2018 Bouhanni's relationships with his team management at Cofidis had deteriorated seriously, and a decision was taken that he should not race the Tour. Although that developed into a well-publicized row, another disagreement about team support prior to the Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn-Frankfurt also somehow found its way into the media, he alleged "and that was something that happens all the time in teams. It wasn't so exceptional as all that, and got blown out of proportion."
Bouhanni said that despite the media furore about his situation in Cofidis, and although he sometimes felt humiliated by the situation, "I have fought a lot since Yorkshire to get back at a top level with my trainer, the same guy I've worked with since I raced with FDJ and right now I'm thinking of him and my friends, my family and the people who've always supported me, too."
Bouhanni said he had moments when he wondered if the team really continued to count on him, and not going to the Tour had been a serious disappointment. But despite talking with other teams, presumably about possibly moving on, at this point in time he was adamant that his contract with Cofidis remains in place until the end of 2019.
"I'm a professional and I'm always very serious about my racing," he insisted, "and I'm going to go on giving the maximum." After Thursday's win, there could be little doubt about that.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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