French national champion Nacer Bouhanni is aiming for what would be his first ever Grand Tour win in the Giro d'Italia's opening stage on Saturday, an urban circuit through Naples which looks all but certain to finish in a bunch sprint. Victory would of course net the 22-year-old the pink leader's jersey as well as his fifth win of the season.
In an uneven season so far, Bouhanni was consistently defeated by an all-conquering Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in the Tour of Qatar before clinching a chaotic final stage of the Tour of Oman - where Cavendish did not race.
Things got even better when he returned to Europe. Bouhanni likes to box in the off-season and he was certainly punching above his weight in the opening stage of this year's Paris-Nice, which he won against riders as experienced as Alessandro Petacchi and as quick as Elia Viviani (Cannondale) - the latter also racing the Giro and another contender for Saturday's stage.
"Of course Cavendish is quick and the big favourite for tomorrow (Saturday) but I hope I can win a stage on this year's Giro," Bouhanni told Cyclingnews.
"I had a break after Amstel Gold and then I started building up for here, getting ready for this year's Giro."
He agrees that as a short, urban, flat stage with everybody fresh and keen to grab the pink jersey the bunch sprint - should it materialise - will likely be chaotic. "I can't say there's a particular type of sprint that I like, but it's going to be very nervous, 130 kilometres is very short so everybody's going to be up there. It's a shame that we can't check out the stage beforehand but as we'll be doing the circuit several times there'll be time to have a good look at the finishing kilometres."
Rather than acting as a lone sprinter and having to use other teams' lead-out trains. Bouhanni will have a strong degree of support, in any case, from his FDJ squad. "Laurent Pichon and Murilo Fischer will be my lead-out men and Anthony Roux and Johan Le Bon will be working in the last few kilometres."
Asked what his strongest point was as a sprinter, Bouhanni says it is - like Cavendish - his ‘jump‘ - an ability to produce an ultra-fast acceleration and change of pace. "But I don't really care if it is uphill or flat, either one suits me. So long as there's a sprint, I'll try to be there."
So far his only top three finish in a Grand Tour was second in stage 10 of the Vuelta last year behind John Degenkolb - who took five stages in total there - before abandoning. But on Saturday he will do his best to go one better.
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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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