Nacer Bouhanni's eighth place on stage 5 of the Tour of California on Thursday may not seem like a stellar result, but Cofidis sports director Roberto Damiani was pleasantly surprised by the signs that his sprinter has improved since struggling with magnesium deficiency along with physical and mental fatigue in March.
"Nacer was eighth, and that's a great result, because today was a long race with a lot of climbing," Damiani told Cyclingnews. "We're very happy – and a little bit surprised – but happy about Nacer's condition."
The peloton raced a 218.5km stage from Pismo Beach to Ventura, which included five classified climbs. A decisive breakaway crested the final two classified climbs – twice over Casitas Pass Road – and the peloton closed in on them, finally catching them with eight kilometres to the Ventura finish line.
Fresh attacks started with five kilometres to go, over one final unclassified climb, and although the field had splintered apart, it came back together closer to the finish line and a disorganised sprint ensued.
Ivan Garcia (Bahrain-Merida) took the win ahead of Max Richeze (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Sergio Higuita (EF Education First), while Bouhanni finished inside the top 10.
"We were a little bit unlucky today because of a crash with our rider Mathis [Le Turnier], who normally works for Nacer in the final," Damiani said.
Bouhanni might still be lacking some of the power needed to stand on the podium in California, but Damiani said the result was important to show that his form is improving, mainly because he hasn't raced since dropping out of the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe, and then took time off at the request of his team.
"After Tirreno-Adriatico, he had some health problems," Damiani said. "Now he's OK, and his condition is good, and his form in California is starting to get better. We're all happy to see Nacer in this condition.
"It helped for him to take some time off after his health problems. The Tour of California was a very important objective, and also good racing for the future. We have much bigger races coming up in July."
Bouhanni told the press in February that he won't know whether he's racing the Tour de France until five days before the race, after the French National Championships. Damiani confirmed that Bouhanni was on the long list of riders that are being considered for Cofidis' Tour de France team.
"Nacer is one of our key players for the Tour team," Damiani said. "Right now we have 13 or 14 riders to choose from, and we need more training and racing in June before we can select the team."
Bouhanni ended last season with a stage win at the Vuelta a España, and Damiani said that kind of performance won't go unnoticed by Cofidis when considering which riders will be selected to race the Tour de France.
"If Nacer is in good condition, then yes, he is one of the most important riders on our team," Damiani said. "The qualities that Nacer has as a rider make him a possible contender for sprints at the Tour de France. We saw that last year at the Vuelta a España. He has the experience, and with good condition, yes, he is a good rider."
Bouhanni's contract with the French team runs out at the end of the 2019 season, and he has suggested that he's already been in contact with other teams. At the same time, Cofidis is taking steps to move up to the WorldTour in 2020.
"It's official that we already given the UCI our records, and we're on the list of the 23 teams that want to be WorldTour," Damiani said.
Damiani said that the team's previous experience on the WorldTour, from 2005-2009, will help the potential move up the ranks, but that there still needs to be work done to improve some of the infrastructures and to raise the quality of the riders on the team. Overall, however, he said the team's prospects for moving up to the WorldTour next year look good.
"Financially, our points are OK, and for sure we can come back because we were already in the WorldTour nine years ago," he said. "We still have some areas to improve in our riders, but right now, it's good."