Cofidis’ patience is wearing thin with Nacer Bouhanni, with team manager Cedric Vasseur telling Cyclingnews that bringing an out of form leader to the Tour de France would be ‘the worst situation for us’.
Bouhanni has endured a dreadful start to the 2018 season and has not scored a victory since last summer. At the Eschborn-Frankfurt last weekend matters came to a head with the sprinter rowing with senior sports directeur, Roberto Damiani. L’Equipe reported that the quarrel became physical, with both men disagreeing over Cofidis’ tactics and the decision to not wait for Bouhanni after he was dropped. According to Vasseur, the matter has now been resolved but the former rider-turned team manager has stated that unless Bouhanni finds his form in the next two months then his Tour de France spot could be under serious threat.
Of greater concern for Bouhanni could be Vasseur’s stance over the rider’s long-term future at the team. While Vasseur believes that Bouhanni is showing signs of progress, he admits that if Bouhanni’s winless run continues beyond July then the rider could be faced with talks over his contract. The Frenchman has a deal with Cofidis for the 2019 season, and earns a reported salary of €1.3 million a year.
“We want to take him to the Tour, of course we do. But we took him out of Milan-San Remo because if you want to race 300km then you need to be at the top level. If you’re not at the top level then you have nothing to really offer. We want to take Nacer to the Tour, but I’m expecting an improvement in his form,” Vasseur told Cyclingnews on Tuesday evening, after Bouhanni had finished ninth in the first stage of the 4 Jours de Dunkerque.
“I want him to show us mental and physical improvements. He needs to show he’s going in the right way because the Tour de France is a three-week race. It’s the most difficult race of the year, the tension is high, it’s always fast, and it takes all your energy. If you start the Tour without a full tank of energy then you can’t succeed. It’s important to have a leader at the Tour de France, but what’s more important is that he’s riding well. If you have a losing leader then it doesn’t help the team. We need to help him find his way back. We won’t make a decision until after the French championships but I think that it would be the worst situation for us if we took a leader to the Tour who had gone through six months of a bad season. He has to win before the Tour de France, that we agree on and what would be perfect would be a win in Dunkerque.”
Vasseur took over from Yvon Sanquer at the end of 2017 with Cofidis in disarray. The team had stagnated and Bouhanni had gone another season without winning a Tour de France stage. Restoring order and discipline, while fostering a mentality of aggressive racing were all desperately needed, and Vasseur looked to experienced directeur Damiani to rescue the French squad. At the start of the year Vasseur talked about Bouhanni needing guidance as much off the bike as on it, but the sprinter appears to have clashed with Damiani’s style of management. The issues at Cofidis lie much deeper than with just one rider, but the former Vuelta and Giro stage winner shoulders the majority of the responsibility, given that he is the team’s main focal point.
“I think that in the past Nacer used to take the decisions for other people. But he has to behave according to his own role in the team,” Vasseur told Cyclingnews.
“If you’re a rider you need to focus on the race and do your job. You don’t need to take the decisions for a sports directeur. If a rider is taking decisions on races they choose to go to, or whether they pull on the front, then it’s no longer a team. For me, wearing the same jersey is not enough. You have to sweat, think and enjoy the race together. It’s not just a jersey that makes a team.”
During last week’s race in Frankurt, the situation between Damiani and Bouhanni flared up after the Frenchman was dropped. According to Vasseur, the rider expected full team support, and for the three Cofidis riders in the lead group to sit up and pace him back to the main field. However, with the gap between the field and Bouhanni at two minutes Damiani refused to sacrifice further riders for the sprinter’s cause, leading to an argument - first on the road, and then on the team bus after the race.
“Roberto is a leader and he’s expecting a lot from the riders, and he’s not on the road to be the riders’ friend. When I brought him to the team it was so he could be really strict with the strategy in the team. Of course, when you tell riders that they have to pull and there’s still 150 km to go, then they’re not going to be happy but you have to take that decision as a directeur. It’s the role of the directeur to take decisions. I’ve asked Roberto not to be flexible because we’re not in a position to be flexible. We expect a lot from the riders and some of them are used to having bad habits. If you want to be able to compete at the highest level you need the maximum from everyone, riders and staff. That’s what Roberto is asking for and expecting.
“At Frankfurt Nacer was dropped and lost two minutes to the front riders. He asked Roberto for help from other riders but you can’t close a gap of two minutes to a group that has riders like Kristoff and Gaviria. At that point, he was a little bit pissed but Roberto drove him back after and it was fine. Sometimes in races, when things are not going for you, you can lose your head a little bit. But that’s the past now. With Roberto and Nacer they had a good discussion after the race and Nacer understood that it wasn’t right to wait for him. Two minutes was too much to make up.”
Bouhanni’s best result this year was second on a stage of the Dubai Tour, back in February. Illness and a disrupted training schedule have played their parts, and Vasseur, despite the criticism, is determined to help his star rider return to his best form. A successful and winning Bouhanni is still a huge asset for any team. However, for Vasseur, the improvements needed are not just physical and stem from the rider’s attitude.
“My advice, and I already spoke to him back in December, is that if you want riders to work 100 per cent for you then you need to earn their respect. That’s part of being a leader. Being a leader isn’t just about having the biggest salary on the team. It’s a lot more than that. I honestly think that Nacer is trying his best but the new methods need time to work. Once they do, I really think he’ll find long-term stability.
“The beginning of the season wasn’t what we were expecting. The first part of the year was bad for him because he couldn’t reach a very high level. Of course, there were some special circumstances because he was sick at Paris-Nice and then we had really bad weather which disrupted his preparation. I think he’s coming back to the right level but as I said, we expected more from him and some victories in the first part of the year.”
Vasseur remains positive, and believes that a slow start to this campaign could help Bouhanni peak later in the season.
“When a rider isn’t in top shape at the start of the year then he should be fresh for the Tour de France. All that energy saved, it might save his year during July. He still has to work and he still needs to find a way to win again. For me, that’s the most important thing.”
While Vasseur remains supportive, the reality is that Bouhanni needs to rediscover his best form in the next few months. Missing the Tour would be a huge blow for both him and the team’s sponsors. The long-term ramifications are clear, too.
“If Nacer wants to leave the team then we can discuss that. We don’t expect that. We expect him to win races. Cofidis bet on Nacer and gave him an important role. I hope that the point doesn’t come, and that after the Tour he’s not still looking for a win. Then for sure, we’ll have to ask if we’re going the wrong way both for him and the team.”