Racing against Mark Cavendish is an unforgiving business, as his peers have discovered on 99 occasions in his professional career to date, but Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) is one of a host of sprinters hoping to deny the Manxman the 100th victory of his career on stage 12 of the Giro d'Italia to Treviso on Thursday.
After finishing 3rd behind Cavendish on day one in Naples, Bouhanni was nudged off his lead-out train in the finale at Margherita di Savoia on stage 6, and in spite of unleashing a vicious sprint in the closing 200 metres, he had to settle for 4th place while Cavendish claimed another win. Bouhanni is all too aware that on this form there is precious little margin for error against the Omega Pharma-QuickStep man.
"No, you can't afford to get anything wrong," Bouhanni told Cyclingnews. "In my sprints up to now, I've made a few small errors or got myself a bit boxed in during the final sprint. But voilà, that's the key. You can't make any mistakes if you want to beat him in the sprint."
How, then, does one go about beating Cavendish in Treviso on Thursday afternoon? The happy few who do manage to reach the Promised Land and beat the Manxman in a straight sprint tend to stress the importance of anticipating Cavendish in the finishing straight. Bouhanni, however, is sceptical about focusing exclusively on one rival in the finale.
"Yes, people talk about anticipating him but really I just want to do the best sprint I can," he said. "I don't look at what the others are doing. Above all, I just focus on doing my own sprint and see where that takes me."
Remaining aloof and concentrating purely on one's own effort is quite a challenge amid the tumult and furore of the closing kilometres of a Giro sprint finish, however, and that chaos has been exacerbated this year given that sprint finishes are at a premium.
Stages 1 and 6 are the only to date that have been contested by a full complement of sprinters and that has jarred nerves still further among the sprinting community, with Mattia Gavazzi (Androni-Venezuela) and Robert Hunter (Garmin-Sharp) clashing after the finish in Margherita di Savoia.
"Yeah, it's a battle in every sprint but it's a grand tour and that's just how things are," said Bouhanni, who made his bow at this level in last year's Vuelta a España. "Everybody wants to be up front but that's just what you expect and you get on with it. And on top of that, there are very few opportunities for the sprinters this year, which plays a part in it too.
"The two days since the rest day have been hard, but Thursday is a stage that should finish in a sprint so that's a motivation to get through the hard days. I just want to get through the days in the mountains as best I can and by saving as much energy as I can."
One of the few clear-cut chances beyond Treviso comes on the final stage in Brescia, but Bouhanni was coy about his chances of still being in the Giro come May 26, particularly given that he also has designs on a Tour de France debut in 2013. For now, his focus is purely a short-term one.
"I don't know, we'll see day by day," Bouhanni said. "For now, I'm just thinking about Thursday."
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