The Tour of Oman boasts a line-up of sprinters worthy of a Grand Tour, but second-year professional Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ-BigMat) has shown few inhibitions in the bunch finishes on the Arabian Peninsula to date.
The 21-year-old Frenchman placed third in the grandstand finish behind Marcel Kittel and André Greipel on stage 3, and the following day he was one of the few fast men to survive the tough finishing circuit en route to fourth place.
After beginning his season with victory on stage one of the Étoile de Bessèges, Bouhanni was already on a high before his arrival in Oman. Yet while earning his right to go toe to toe with Cavendish, Greipel et al is surely a further boon to his confidence, he admitted that a sprinter is never truly happy unless he is winning.
"Yes, there's certainly a strong field of sprinters here and I've beaten a few of them, but as a sprinter, you think about crossing the line first," Bouhanni told Cyclingnews in front of Muscat's Royal Opera House on Saturday.
Early-season bunch gallops are often disorganised affairs, as newly-formed lead-out trains slowly learn to coordinate their movements. The Tour of Oman has been no exception in that regard, but Bouhanni has thus far had the guile to sidestep his way through the carnage.
"Greipel's team has been controlling things a little for him, and he's been led out well, but behind that, it's hard, you have to fight for your place," he said. "I don't have a lead-out train either, but I try and stay sheltered during the stage and then in the finale I either try alone or with William Bonnet as my lead-out man."
The sweet science of sprinting
Of course, Bouhanni's continued dalliance with his other sporting passion during the off-season may also be of benefit to him amid the cut and thrust of bunch sprinting. A keen boxer in his youth, he continues to practice the sweet science over the winter months, and had some particularly high quality sparring partners for company last November.
"I did some boxing in winter training, about six to eight hours per week," he said. "I've always boxed, and I did a training camp with the French boxing team this winter. They had pros and all that with them, including Hassan N'Dam, who is world champion [WBA middleweight champion - Ed.] I did a week in Bazeilles with them, and then from the start of December, I was back on the bike seriously."
It seems facile to suggest that boxing and sprinting complement each other, with each discipline requiring quick wits and a combative spirit, but Bouhanni pointed out that there are less abstract reasons for his chosen form of cross-training.
"It's great for your explosiveness, and it's a great cardiovascular work-out," he said. "You also work on your whole body. As cyclists, we don't really ever do a lot of upper-body work, but I find it does me a lot of good. It allows me to work muscle groups that I couldn't do on the bike."
Once the cycling season gets underway, however, Bouhanni's pugilistic endeavours come to an abrupt halt, even if some of the principles of a boxer's training remain part of his regimen.
"I only box in the winter, in case I get injured," he said, doubtless assuaging the concerns of manager Marc Madiot. "You could only do contact stuff during the winter," he said. "During the season, I concentrate on the bike. While I still try and do some upper body work, I don't do any more boxing during the season."
Already off the mark with that win at Étoile de Bessèges, and after some impressive jousts in Oman, Bouhanni's season is off to a fine start. Rather than target particular races, however, the youngster's simple aim is to win early and win often on the French and Belgian calendar over the coming months.
"Above all, for me it's about winning races," Bouhanni said. "I don't have specific objectives. Whatever comes my way, if I have a chance, then I'll try to win."
The title fight will come in its own time.
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